The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet
Situation Comedy 1952-1966
Oswald Nelson was a highly successful saxophonist and band leader in the 1930's touring the East Coast with his band Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra. In 1932 Oswald recruited singer Harriet Hilliard. Within three years they were married. In 1935 they had a best selling hit with And then Some.
As the band grew in popularity, Oswald was invited to perform spots for The Baker's Broadcast on radio and then on the popular Red Skelton Show. In between the band's tunes, the marriage of Ozzie and Harriet was the subject of mini-skits performed between numbers. They would swap banter and have occasional make-believe tiffs. These comedy quickies may have started as pure ad-lib, but Oswald began to lightly script them and made them an increasingly important feature in the club and radio shows.
When Red Skelton was drafted in 1944, the Nelsons were asked to fill the gap with their own offering. Oswald came up with the idea of further expanding the comedy skits into a situation comedy in between numbers. As a result, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet radio show was born. The show not only starred Ozzie and Harriet, but their two real-life sons, David and Ricky. At first the boys were played by actors, but after Bing Crosby guested on the show with his own two sons - and after pressure from David and Ricky themselves - Ozzie decided to put the real boys on the air. As the radio show progressed, the musical numbers were reduced until they were dropped completely, switching the couple from musicians to actors and making actors out of David and Ricky.
The show's scripts were written by Oswald, with help from brother Don and were largely based on the Nelson's family life, often using real situations that occurred as the basis of many scripts. In 1949 Oswald negotiated an unprecedented 10 year contract with ABC. There was a clause that the deal could not be cancelled which satisfied both parties: ABC were hungry for family shows with mass appeal - and didn't want this prize to be snatched from them by their bigger rivals - while the Nelsons were rewarded with financial security.
By 1950, ABC suggested moving the show to television. As a pilot for the show, a movie was released co-starring Rock Hudson, called Here Comes the Nelsons. Although the movie was only a moderate success, it was sufficient to convince Oswald and ABC to go for the tv show.
Oswald decided that the format established on the radio show would be used for the tv show. He was very much in control of the project, writing and supervising scripts. The show first aired in 1952. The radio show continued in parallel until 1954.
Oswald insisted on using the best available production techniques and was co-producer along with his brother Don, Ben Gershman and Bill Davenport. The show's theme was based on the trials and tribulations of the Nelson family. The only difference between this show and the radio show was that many references were made to Ozzie's band leader activities on the radio show whereas he simply didn't have any job on the tv show nor any reference to a source of income. As the show was based on the real life family and Oswald's main activity was producing the tv show, it probably made things simpler to drop any reference to his job.
Just as in the radio show, many script ideas were triggered by events in the real Nelson family. As David and Ricky grew into adulthood some of their activities were featured such as David's interest in motorcycles and Ricky's love of rock 'n' roll music. This was a time when this new musical fad, as it seemed at the time, represented quite a challenge to parents up and down the country. It was often claimed that rock 'n' roll was a bad influence on the young. Rather than ignore this aspect of Ricky's life, Oswald featured it in the show's scripts, encouraged by the ever supportive Harriet.
When Ricky's girlfriend told him she was crazy about Elvis Presley, Ricky rashly informed her that he was about to cut his first single. To make good on his brag, he enlisted his father's help to record a demonstration disc, Fat's Domino's I'm Walkin'. The demo was taken up by Verve Records and Ricky's recording career began in 1957. Ricky went on to sing I'm Walkin' and many other of his subsequent hits on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet either as part of the show's script or with performances tacked on the end. Ricky's new singing career added new impetus to the show and brought in a younger audience.
As the tv show evolved the storylines increasingly featured David and Ricky's dating activities along with David's career in a law firm and, of course, Ricky's singing career. In 1961 David Nelson married actress June Blair and in 1964 Ricky Nelson married teenager Kristin Harmon ("wedding of the year" according to Life Magazine). Both wives were drafted into the show to play themselves. This was surely the very first reality television show.
The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet had its last airing in 1966. Although it had never been a top rated show, it had always maintained a loyal following and was a tribute to the multi-talented Oswald Nelson and the stalwart support and abilities of Harriet along with their loyal sons, David and Ricky, their wives and other family and friends.