Tuesday, October 18, 2011

TONIGHT'S EPISODE: "Great Scott!"

Joseph Kearns. (All images courtesy Hank Ketcham Enterprises, Inc.
and Shout! Factory LLC, unless noted otherwise.)

THERE is absolutely no way the sitcom Dennis the Menace (CBS, 1959-1963) affected the course of TV history whatsoever. The adaptation of Hank Ketcham's comic strip was so faithful to the original source (except for the dog, Fremont), it inevitably had more comedy than depth. It was one among many, many series produced by Screen Gems (the TV division of Columbia Pictures) in a way similar to manufacturing automobiles in Detroit. It wasn't a monster hit, it never got nominated for an Emmy, and what success it had eventually came to complicate the life of star Jay North. (Don't think for a moment I wrote all of this to intentionally annoy anybody who really enjoys the series. It just needs to be discussed in the proper perspective. Be thankful I'm not diving into the "hornet's nest" of how Mr. Wilson's nerve tonic probably had alcohol content in it, like cough medicine used to. With Dennis around, you know he had a lot of nerve tonic, and you can guess what resulted from that.)

With those facts established, I'll go on to say I'm partial to the show. At its best, a typical episode is guaranteed to have a steady run of belly laughs and a calvacade of talented character actors (including one of my favorites, Mary Wickes) who participated in each story. If DtM is like a car from off an assembly line, it was a well made product people are still interested in long after the last one came out in '63. Best of all, the show didn't overstay its welcome, though it had to stop at four years due to the aging of the juvenile cast members and a dip in the TV ratings. While North has had a rough go of adulthood, a pall doesn't hang over my enjoyment of DtM because back then, his troubles had yet to manifest, and he was a professional (albeit young) actor who always gave those who tuned in what they wanted: the hell-raising (by TV standards) Dennis Mitchell, who also loved his family and friends. No more, no less. (You want a more complex, emotional kid? Try "Beaver" Cleaver.)

P.S. - The slingshot
wouldn't be around long. 
Almost seventeen years after I last saw reruns of DtM on Nickelodeon, they began airing on Antenna TV this past January. Even better, Shout! Factory caught me off guard (and more than a few steady viewers of Cobweb TV) with the release of season one of DtM back in March. Since then, season two came out in late July, and the remaining seasons are on their way like clockwork. (Season three has a street date of October 25, with season four arriving on January 10, 2012.) So far, the quality of the digital mastering for the episodes is very good, but it's not stunning. (To my eyes and ears, the picture and sound are only slightly improved from the Nickelodeon broadcasts.) The main selling point is all episodes are uncut. Bonus features have been limited on the two available collections, and like a lot of TV shows that have been reissued on DVD, the season one set has the most.

left to right: Stu Shostak,
Jeannie Russell and Gloria Henry
Indeed, season one is a must-have for DtM fans because of two "extras" featuring TV historian Stu Shostak talking with Gloria Henry (Alice Mitchell, Dennis's mom) and Jeannie Russell (Margaret, the arch nemesis of Dennis). Of these, I'll spotlight the shorter one recorded in 2010 on HD video (the other was done in 2007 for radio), which I watched first. For any avid follower of DtM, if they haven't heard much behind-the-scenes stories about the show in a while, one of the specific tidbits mentioned during this interview will surely stun them.

When the topic turned to talking about Joesph Kearns, forever to be remembered as the first Mr. Wilson, Russell and Henry did speak fondly of him. Along the way, there was this exchange (minor edits inserted for the sake of clarity)....

SHOSTAK: Now, did [Kearns] go on a diet, because--

HENRY: Yes, yes--

SHOSTAK: --because of the fame of the show?

HENRY: Yes, he decided he [was]... the star, so he should slim down and look more like a star, and so, he went on the diet of that-- What was that drink [powder] you [mixed] with [water]?

SHOSTAK: Metrecal.

HENRY: Metrecal, and he had that for breakfast, lunch and dinner. That's all he had for about six weeks in a row, and you can't lose that much weight, that fast, healthily. So, he had a stroke.

(Find A Grave)
All biographical profiles of Joseph Kearns I've read mention his death at 55 from a cerebral hemorrhage and don't elaborate on it. (He always looked much older than that to me.) These remarks from Gloria Henry (also brought up in the radio interview) not only explains what contributed, in part, to his early demise, it also raises questions about what Kearns was thinking when he decided to take such a risk with his body.

It was midway through the production of the third season, and all of a sudden, Kearns felt the need to drop some pounds to "look more like a star." He must have picked up on how other people did so successfully through a liquid diet, so he favored doing it the reckless way, without consulting a doctor. To observe his body on any DtM episode, it's evident he didn't measure up to Jack Lalanne, and he likely hadn't done any real physical exertion in years. So it goes that by having only Metrecal for sustenance and continuing with the same limited activity, the results took a toll on his person as he lost (according to Henry in the radio interview) 40 pounds within six weeks. Also, Henry's statements suggest more than a few of the cast and crew knew what he was up to. Why didn't somebody intervene? Was it because of his known shyness that they decided to respect his privacy?

(Google images)
As for the protein-loaded Metrecal, long after its popularity peaked in the mid-'60s, it was discovered the food substitute wasn't necessarily the best thing for people to be digesting. According to a September 7, 1986 New York Times article, by the late '70s, a health scare kicked up when "The Government forced all liquid protein products off the market after they were implicated in 59 deaths." This happened some time after the Food and Drug Administration issued warnings about Metrecal and other dietary items like it. As a result, Metrecal was soon gone from store shelves forever. Of course, for every reported fatality, there are the unreported ones; back on February 17, 1962, it's possible Metrecal helped to do in Kearns (five days after his birthday), in addition to an unidentified number of other consumers prior to the later documented fatalities. (Bear in mind there's always been controversy over protein diets in general. The debate about them is ongoing, as is the scientific research.)

We occasionally read about (or hear of) women who go to extreme measures to lose weight (real or imagined), ranging from supermodels to little girls of elementary school age. We rarely encounter the same kind of tales being told of (or by) men, but as the tragedy of Joseph Kearns serves to remind us, men can also have problems with their body image. It's sad and astonishing to consider a reliable, likeable actor like Kearns wasn't content with himself in a similar manner. (If Kearns died today, a tabloid headline might read, "Mr. Wilson: He Died to be Thin!") Most importantly, Kearns's fate was preventable, which makes his death all the more pointless. By comparison, it's as heart-wrenching stuff as any suffering Jay North has gone through. (Heck, Jay recently turned 60; so far, he's outlived Kearns by five years, and I suspect he'll live on for many more.)

(Google images)
At any rate, everyone knows the rest of the story. As the producers of DtM mourned over the loss of Kearns, they scrambled to find his replacement. A handful of episodes later, they obtained the talents of Gale Gordon, who was cast as George's brother, John, as well as Sara Seegar, who played John's wife, Eloise. For obvious reasons, the writers wrote George and Martha Wilson out of the show, having them move and John buying his brother's house. Awkwardly, Sylvia Field (Martha) was eased out of the scenario in a rush, much to the disappointment of her co-stars, who initially gave Seegar the "cold shoulder" for taking her place. (Later, they apologized to her, and Seegar understood their behavior was attributed to the passing of Kearns.) Gordon gave his all with typically fine performances from the end of the third season into the fourth, but it was all for naught; he was no Joesph Kearns. (He did resemble the comic strip Mr. Wilson more than his predecessor, however.) Combined with the maturing of the lead kid actors and declining ratings, CBS cancelled DtM, the last new episode airing July 7, 1963.

Considering people haven't stopped watching DtM fifty-plus years after its network debut, it can't be easily dismissed as a black and white antiquity from the golden age of television. There's more to it than nostalgia, but I won't deny that's the driving factor. Arguably, it's as close as television ever got to a "squeaky clean" comedy; even then, the world Dennis and company lived in wasn't perfect, but a lot of it must look good to modern audiences in these economically, politically and socially questionable times. It's best described as a weekly, watered-down version of Tom Sawyer in a modern (late '50s-early '60s) setting, as fabricated by Screen Gems. While each show was "fabricated", it was done so by writers, directors, actors and other personnel who knew their respective crafts well. Some episodes wound up working better than others, but even the worst ones have a few chuckles.


Unfortunately, the two people who contributed most to the popularity of DtM were also overwhelmed by it. The untimely death of Joseph Kearns affected Jay North deeply years after the fact. It would only be until the 1990's when North came to grips with all the pent-up emotion over the bad events that occurred in his childhood, thanks to the efforts of Jeannie Russell and Paul Petersen ("Jeff Stone" on The Donna Reed Show). As of today, it's safe to say both North and Kearns (God rest his soul) are no longer menaced by Dennis.

NEXT TIME ON... COBWEB TV!

(NBCUniversal)

Keeping it trivial....

R.A.M.'67

5 comments:

  1. Great article. To me Joseph Kearns looked to be in his 60s - even through these 50 something eyes.

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  2. R.A.M., I'm almost afraid to say it, but my pal gets the SICKEST blog traffic by way of horrible "Did Dennis the Menace___" questions. He has a Classic TV History blog.

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  3. @42N: Thank you for reading! More posts are upcoming, so keep a look out for them!

    @Donna Lethal: Sick inquiries are inevitable, especially since DtM was (more or less) a squeaky-clean sitcom featuring flawed human beings in front of the camera and behind it. I think the majority of those who pose such "horrible" questions are in need of a cheap laugh more than answers. If (perish the thought) I were to get equally mean-spirited remarks, I'd just delete them in a heartbeat.

    Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! Be sure to drop in again! :o)

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  4. Great Article.
    It is sad how little information that can be found (on the internet) about Kearns. He had such a great historic part of the entertainment worlds beginnings from radio to television. Perhaps with time more information will pop up, and hopefully be accurate.
    Does anyone know if Kearns was Homosexual? Not that it matters. I am just curious.
    Thanks again for the article.

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  5. I think about Mr. Kearns often, he was certainly a star, if not the star of DtM. I just turned 60, and find the show just as fascinating now as I did when I was a kid. I watched it mostly in reruns. I'd like to find more information about Joseph, I just found out that quite a few pictures of his theater organ house are on Flickr. Now, on to a few episodes courtesy of Shout Factory.

    ReplyDelete