(1953)4Bruce EderOn its face, Make Room for Daddy (aka The Danny Thomas Show) doesn't sound like much of a series, especially for one that ran for 12 years, mostly because so much of what it introduced became standard to the sitcom genre. But it was actually more than a sitcom -- it was a creative and business flashpoint in television history. I Love Lucy was the granddaddy of all sitcoms, and it was built around the comedic personae of its star/creator couple, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but it was basically a series built on goofy situations that didn't have a lot to do with reality. Make Room for Daddy, by contrast, was a sincere effort at depicting family life -- albeit from an upper-middle-class white urban perspective -- on television, with rivalries between siblings, strains between husbands and wives, school woes, budget worries, and other little tribulations, even such dramatic elements as newly married husbands and wives trying to understand each other. Oh, Danny Thomas' Danny Williams might break into song a little too easily, and when he or anyone did, there was often an orchestral accompaniment playing seemingly from nowhere, but it was otherwise more realistic than most of the family life that viewers had seen before the show went on the air. This was also the series that pretty much established the notion of wiseacre, manipulative kids and well-meaning but partly clueless, exasperated parents, which became sitcom staples. One other element that was new to television was the depiction of the relationship between Danny and Kathy; although they still slept in twin beds in keeping with the sensibilities of the time, the little hugs and caresses, as well as moments of horseplay between them, made them the first television couple to hint at the idea that they enjoyed a sex life.
Additionally and much more importantly, Make Room for Daddy was the first sitcom to succeed at displaying a social conscience. There was no shortage of humor on the show, but at some point, either woven subtly into the portrayals and writing or sometimes explicitly in a scene (usually near the end), Danny Williams would say something serious about parental love and responsibility, or the good in people. It might seem hokey today, but in the 1950s, this was a refreshing bit of seriousness in television programming for many viewers, and also for critics who usually bemoaned the vacuousness of the medium. At times, the messages weren't much more profound than Bill Cosby's observations on fatherhood in the 1970s and beyond, and sometimes the messages were very serious, dealing with prejudice or poverty, or very real problems that were seldom addressed to mass audiences on TV. In one of the better shows, "Rusty Becomes a Man" from the end of season five, Rusty looks for an after-school job to supplement his allowance so he can buy more toys, and isn't too successful. He is bemoaning his fate to another boy until he learns that this other boy, along with his brother, has to shine shoes to help pay for groceries for their four siblings and help their mother with the rent. Thomas himself was television's first great performer/philanthropist, always available to do telethons for good causes and spending much of his spare time in those years struggling to build a hospital, which culminated with the opening of St. Jude's Hospital for Children in Memphis.
Make Room for Daddy was also the first television series to become a spawning ground for other hit series. Produced at Desilu Studios -- the company founded by Ball and Arnaz with the profits from I Love Lucy -- Make Room for Daddy put Desilu on the map as the leading maker of situation comedies in Hollywood, where the television industry began relocating to in the early '50s. Thomas and his partner, Sheldon Leonard, also took on producing a series built around a young standup comic and actor from North Carolina named Andy Griffith, folding the pilot for what became The Andy Griffith Show into a 1959 episode of what, by then, was The Danny Thomas Show. Next came a proposed series called "Head of the Family" created by and starring Carl Reiner, a comedy writer and performer best known for his work with Sid Caesar on television. The pilot, starring Reiner, didn't sell, but it was retooled a couple of years later for a young, rubber-limbed comic actor from the Midwest and sold as The Dick Van Dyke Show, all about a comedy writer and his efforts to juggle his work and family life, and ran five seasons, winning every award there was to win. The Joey Bishop Show debuted the same year, after a pilot aired as part of Make Room for Daddy. All of these shows were running simultaneously, and each represented an evolutionary advance over its predecessor, with Make Room for Daddy effectively serving as the "mother ship" in the same way that Dick Wolf's Law & Order in the 2000s has spawned offshoot series. By the mid-'60s, those other series were starting to spawn hit shows, The Gomer Pyle Show begat by The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D. spun off from the Griffith show after Griffith wearied of the series.
Make Room for Daddy went off the air in 1965, but a year later, Thomas' daughter, Marlo, debuted in a series of her own, That Girl, and the production company also moved into drama in 1965 with I Spy, which made Bill Cosby into a television star at a time when black actors were seldom welcomed in leading roles, or even in guest-starring spots. And as an adjunct to Thomas' and Leonard's activities, Desilu -- which made all of these shows -- became a major center of power in television, rivaling film companies such as MGM, United Artists, and Universal; it was Desilu Playhouse that provided a vehicle for the Twilight Zone pilot ("The Time Element"), and also made such series as The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek, which remain central to American popular culture even in the 21st century. Ironically, for all of its influence, an attempt to revive the show at the start of the 1970s as Make Room for Granddaddy failed to catch on, in part because the creative "bar" had been raised so high by the original series and its offshoots. But Make Room for Daddy's influence would live on, one or more times removed, in the form of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and other shows derived thereof.
Make Room for Daddy was the first modern family sitcom, although, to see it at any time since the 1960s, one would think that it was hopelessly dated. In fact, it was the most important 1950s sitcom after I Love Lucy -- and has a production history closely connected to that show -- and it spawned more than a decade's worth of hit sitcoms in its wake. Danny Thomas was the star and co-owner of the production company behind it, along with actor-turned-producer/director Sheldon Leonard. The series itself was based on Thomas' experiences as a standup comedian and father, trying to juggle a career and his responsibilities as a husband and parent. The series' original title, Make Room for Daddy, came from a phrase that Mrs. Thomas used to use on their oldest daughter, Marlo, who often slept in the master bedroom when Danny Thomas was out of town performing, reminding her to move back her own room, telling her "We must make room for daddy." As it went on the air in the fall of 1953 on ABC, Thomas portrayed Danny Williams, a New York-based standup comic and nightclub singer married to Margaret (Jean Hagen), with two children, daughter Terry (Sherry Jackson) and son Rusty (Rusty Hamer). Louise Beavers played their housekeeper, Louise; Horace McMahon played Danny's agent, Phil Arnold; Mary Wickes played Liz O'Neal, Danny's publicist; and Hans Conried played Danny's uncle Tonoose, the patriarch of Danny's Lebanese family back in Toledo, OH. Jean Hagen wanted to leave the series after three seasons and was written out of the show by having her character die of an illness.
During the 1956-1957 season (by which time the series had been renamed The Danny Thomas Show, which was what most people called it anyway), the series introduced Marjorie Lord as Kathy O'Hara, a nurse who takes care of a seriously ill Rusty; a romance was written in, and Danny Williams proposed marriage at the end of the season. The couple were married, and Kathy's daughter by a previous marriage, Linda (Angela Cartwright), joined the Williams clan as the youngest member. The following season, the series moved to CBS and opened with the Las Vegas honeymoon of Danny and Kathy, with their three children in tow. Other characters came and went, including Sid Melton as Charlie Halper, an excitable family friend and the owner of the Copa Club, where Danny was often booked, Pat Carroll and Charlie's wife Bunny, and Penny Parker, who took over the role of Terry after 1960. The series ran until 1964, and there were more than a few notable guest stars and cameo appearances, including Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, Bill Dana, and comedy legend Joey Faye, among numerous others. Annette Funicello was also a regular on the series during the 1959 season. The theme song for the run of the show was a big band version of "Londonderry Air," also known as "Danny Boy."