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Happy Birthday, Eve Arden!

At the height of her fame as the tart-tongued schoolmarm of radio and TV’s Our Miss Brooks, Eve Arden—born in Mill Valley, CA on this date in 1908—got more than a few offers from school boards across the nation to teach in real-life.  Despite their sincerity, these organizations were in for a big letdown.  First, by the time Our Miss Brooks made the transition to the small screen in 1952, Eve was pulling down a salary of $200,000 a year…and if you’ve been keeping up with the news of late, no high school teacher is making that kind of money regardless of how many of them stage walkouts.  Arden also politely declined all offers because she herself had only reached as far as high school in her academic career.  “I wasn’t as smart as Connie Brooks,” she admitted one time in an interview.  “I played Connie as I remembered my third-grade teacher, Miss Waterman.”

For young Eunice Mary Quedens, third grade was a Dominican convent school near Modesto. (She later attended Tamalpais High.)  Eunice’s childhood was a troubled one; her parents had divorced (her mother Lucille split from husband Charles due to his gambling) and Eunice herself was self-conscious about her looks.  At age 16, Quedens quit school to join a San Francisco touring company known as the Henry Duffy Players.  She went on to do a stint with a repertoire group, followed by work performing in a revue at the Pasadena Playhouse.  Her Pasadena gig soon opened a few doors in Hollywood, and in 1929 she made her movie debut in the Columbia Pictures musical The Song of Love.

Eunice Quedens appeared uncredited in a second motion picture, Dancing Lady (1933)—which starred Joan Crawford, whom Eve would work with again in later years.  It was at this time that the young starlet decided to leave Hollywood and pursue a stage career, and she relocated to New York City where she got her big Broadway break in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934.  In this production, she went by her now famous moniker; the story goes that Arden was told to change her name for the show and she concocted it by glancing at two cosmetic bottles on her dressing room table—“Evening in Paris” and “Elizabeth Arden.”  Later, Arden would grace such stage successes as ParadeZiegfeld Follies of 1936 (she was an understudy for Fanny “Baby Snooks” Brice), Very Warm for MayTwo for the Show, and Let’s Face It!

Returning to Hollywood in 1937 after signing a contract with RKO Pictures, Eve Arden began appearing in many B-pictures like Oh Doctor! (1937) and Cocoanut Grove (1938; Paramount).  One of Eve’s early movie triumphs was a role in RKO’s Stage Door (1937), a now-classic movie about young actresses looking for their big break. It features an impressive female cast, including Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Gail Patrick, Lucille Ball, and Ann Miller.  It was in Stage Door that Arden honed what would be identified as her acting trademark. Radio Spirits’ own Elizabeth McLeod described her as “rarely the leading lady, but she was always a welcome second lead—usually as the sensible best-friend figure who heard out the leading lady’s problems, grabbed her by the shoulders, and told her to snap out of it.”

“Or, just as often,” McLeod continued, “Arden would appear as smart-mouthed comedy relief, cracking off sarcastic commentary from the sidelines as the hero and heroine writhed through their paces.”  Eve worked this wisenheimer magic in 1938’s Letter of Introduction, which also featured radio stars Edgar Bergen and dummy Charlie McCarthy (along with Mortimer Snerd) in its cast.  Arden was a perfect foil for Groucho in the 1939 Marx Brothers feature At the Circus (as the acrobatic “Peerless Pauline”), provided marvelous support for Red Skelton in Whistling in the Dark (1941), and reprised her stage role as “Maggie Watson” in the 1943 Bob Hope romp Let’s Face It.

Eve Arden worked with many a radio personality on the big screen…but she was more than capable of holding her own when it came to performing in front of a radio microphone, too.  She began making appearances in the 1930s on shows headlined by Rudy Vallee and Ken Murray, and reprised her Stage Door role (along with co-stars Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou) on a February 20, 1939 broadcast of The Lux Radio Theatre.  In January of 1945, she began appearing weekly as a regular on CBS’ The Danny Kaye Show, portraying Danny’s gal Friday.  Danny and Eve had displayed a unique chemistry while appearing in the stage version of Let’s Face It!, and the couple continued to work on both his short-lived comedy-variety show and a 1946 film comedy, The Kid from Brooklyn (a reboot of Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way [1936]).

Danny Kaye wasn’t the only co-star Eve Arden had on radio, however.  In the fall of 1945, she replaced Joan Davis (who graduated to her own series, Joanie’s Tea Room) as the co-hostess of NBC’s Sealtest Village Store, where Jack Haley had been working with Joan since its premiere in 1943.  Haley left at the end of the 1945-46 season, and Eve finished out the show’s run the following season alongside Jack Carson.  The summer of 1948 would see the debut of Arden’s best-remembered radio showcase: Our Miss Brooks.  Initially, Eve had to be talked into taking the role (which was originally going to be played by Shirley Booth) because Arden wanted to take a well-deserved vacation.  CBS’ William S. Paley pressured the actress into taking the job, and Eve finally relented after arrangements were made to transcribe (pre-record) the show before she headed off for her R&R.  While on vacation, Arden received a phone call from CBS executive Frank Stanton that Our Miss Brooks was the runaway hit of the summer season.

With an exemplary cast that included Jeff Chandler (later to be replaced by Robert Rockwell), Gale Gordon, Jane Morgan, Richard Crenna, and Gloria McMillan, Our Miss Brooks became one of the Tiffany’s enduring hits. It lasted on radio until 1957, enjoyed a healthy four-year-run on CBS-TV (where Eve Arden would win an Emmy Award as Best Female Star of a Regular Series), and there was even a silver screen version of the show in 1956.  While busy as a radio actress, Arden continued to make waves in such movie hits as Comrade X (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Manpower (1941), Obliging Young Lady (1942), Cover Girl (1944), and The Doughgirls (1944).  Eve received her only Academy Award acting nomination for her unforgettable performance (“When men get around me, they get allergic to wedding rings.”) as Joan Crawford’s supportive chum in Mildred Pierce (1945). The two actresses later appeared together in 1951’s Goodbye, My Fancy and Eve did excellent solo work in such features as My Reputation (1946), The Unfaithful (1957), Three Husbands (1950), and We’re Not Married (1952).

Doing Our Miss Brooks as a weekly TV series kept Eve Arden busy throughout the 1950s. It was only after the failure of The Eve Arden Show (which only lasted a single season in 1957) that the actress continued in the flickers with two of her very best cinematic showcases. She played Jimmy Stewart’s sarcastic (but loyal) secretary in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and turned in a solid performance in 1960’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.  In the 1960s, Eve made the rounds as a guest star on such hits as CheckmateMy Three SonsBewitched, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  The fall of 1967 saw Arden return to weekly television as one-half of The Mothers-in-Law (her co-star was Kaye Ballard), an underrated sitcom that had a two-year-run on NBC.

The 1970s saw Eve Arden doing more television guest appearances (Love, American StyleMaude) and Movies-of-the-Week (A Very Missing PersonAll My Darling Daughters)…but 1978 provided her with a wonderful showcase (and to Our Miss Brooks fans—a promotion!) in the smash movie musical Grease.  Portraying the character of “Principal McGee” as a female Osgood Conklin, Arden would reprise the role in the 1982 sequel, Grease 2, and make appearances in motion pictures such as Under the Rainbow (1981) and Pandemonium (1982).  She cut back on her TV guest appearances, but did make time for The Love Boat and Hart to Hart. She tried a brief return to the stage in 1983’s Moose Murders…but wisely chose to back out on what later became a tremendous flop. Meanwhile, Arden published a well-received autobiography (The Three Phases of Eve), and had her show business swan song with an episode of Falcon Crest, the nighttime soap opera starring her good friend Jane Wyman.  Arden left this world for a better one in 1990 at the age of 82.

One of the worst-kept secrets on the Internet is that I am a devoted fan of Eve Arden’s signature series, Our Miss Brooks.  It was a real treat writing the liner notes for the Radio Spirits collection Boynton Blues, and I’m sure that you’re not only going to enjoy that set but our other Our Miss Brooks compendiums, Good English and Faculty Feuds.  For dessert, you can check out our birthday girl on Here is Broadway, a collection of classic broadcasts from radio’s The Damon Runyon Theatre.  Happiest of birthdays, Eve—you’re the one “schoolteacher” whose class I’d never dream of skipping!

One Comment

  1. Kate M. says:

    Thank you for the years of laughs, I still enjoy your shows….Happy Birthday Eve.

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