It was 1940 when a young comedian named, Amos Jacobs – originally Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yakhoob – arrived in town looking for work, but there was no work to be had. Jacob was ready to quit looking when he passed by a church, sat through a mass and was so moved he put his last $7 in the collection box. Realizing what he’d done, the struggling comedian, who had a baby on the way, quickly knelt to say a prayer. Within an hour of leaving the church Jacobs landed two acting roles, which would pay him more than ten times what he’d placed in the collection box. And before the month was up he was headlining in Chicago’s most popular nightclub, The 5100 Club. By that time Jacobs had chosen a new stage name – Amos Jacobs became Danny Thomas, the first actor to change his name twice.
Instead of the traditional telling of jokes or one-liners that were so popular with the public, Danny Thomas’ style was that of a storyteller, often taking 12 to 15 minutes to tell humorous stories of every day life. Audiences related to him and his star rose with success on radio. He’d also signed contracts as a bit player for both MGM and Warner Bros. But none of those paid off as long-term career opportunities. By the early 1950s, Thomas was interested in television and the sitcom genre, although he never liked the term, “situation comedy,” “Why should all shows be lumped into the category of ‘situation comedy?’ They should be called ‘life shows,’ because they reflect life. Do you know why they have the tragic and the comic masks in the theater?” In any case, Danny Thomas thought that was the format that best suited his comedy, but had a difficult time finding a premise that worked until his own children gave him a plausible idea. Make Room for Daddy.
Since Danny Thomas’ own line of work forced him to travel for long periods of time, his wife often asked one of the children to sleep with her, taking turns as the nights passed. When Danny came home she’d simply say, “Ok, make room for daddy.” And the idea for his sitcom was born – a father in show business who travels, comes home and deals with “every day” family situations, which incorporated Thomas’ singing and story-telling talents. As a result, Make Room for Daddy was a combination of domestic comedy and variety program (during Danny’s fictionalized nightclub engagements). If you’re a fan of classic television you can see how many other shows this one influenced like The Dick Van Dyke Show for instance.
On Make Room for Daddy Danny Thomas played Danny Williams and much of the comedy materialized because he was often ill-prepared for the every day troubles and decisions related to raising a family. Danny Williams spent a lot of time yelling, trying to relate to the children, while his wife was the voice of reason. The yelling was part of his charm, in case you’re wondering. The character of Danny Williams was ranked #5 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time” (20 June 2004 issue).
Following the success of CBS’ I Love Lucy, which began its run in 1951, there was a large number of family driven situation comedies. During its first season (1953-1954) Make Room for Daddy stood above the rest and would remain popular and acclaimed for its entire run, winning numerous awards, including Best New Show for the 1952-53 season. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Make Room for Daddy survived a number of transformations and character changes.
Make Room for Daddy’s original cast included Jean Hagen who played Margaret Williams, Danny’s wife, and Rusty Hamer who played the Williams’ son, Rusty, a child with impeccable comedic timing. The story goes that Thomas was forced to hire Hagen to play his wife but that he never warmed to her, to put it mildly, often complaining about her attitude and what he considered was her slovenly appearance. Jean Hagen left Make Room for Daddy after the show’s third season stating that it was to pursue her career in movies, but many speculated it was due to near-constant conflicts with Thomas. At the start of the show’s fourth season, it was explained that Margaret had died suddenly.
Another series regular for the first five seasons was Sherry Jackson who was eleven years old in 1953 and grew into her teenage years depicting Danny’s daughter, Terry, on the show. Penney Parker took over as Terry Williams for the 1959-1960 season.
After Hagen’s departure (the fourth season) Danny Williams was a widower, and a succession of guest-stars appeared as potential replacement wives. In the 1956 season finale, Danny proposed to guest-star Marjorie Lord who played Kathy. Lord joined the cast for the show’s remaining seven seasons, along with the fabulous Angela Cartwright (as Linda). Cartwright, who joined Make Room for Daddy at the age of five was one of the most successful and prolific child stars during television’s golden age. She remained on the show for seven seasons and is a joy to watch in every single episode. The character of Linda is Kathy’s young daughter from her first marriage and is adopted by Danny. With the addition of multi talented new cast members Make Room for Daddy‘s ratings dramatically increased in 1957, quelling Thomas’ worries that the audience would never buy into Williams being married to anyone other than Margaret.
To start the show’s 1957 season the Williams clan also moved to a new network – to CBS from ABC, taking over the spot left open by mega-hit, I Love Lucy. Make Room for Daddy remained a top-ten show for the rest of its run, which is impressive.
The Williams family was also featured in comic book adventures.
It’s worth noting that the success of Make Room for Daddy depended greatly on the talent and popularity of the children in the show, who had central roles. At the time American families were in the throes of the post-war baby boom, which meant that children had influence on what shows were watched in many households across the country. Because of this, shows that featured or starred children were all the rave. For instance, another popular show at the time was Leave it to Beaver, where (obviously) a child was front and center in all story lines. But Make Room for Daddy was highly influential in how children were used as part of the show’s theme each week. While the children always remained children, as far as their viewpoints and concerns, as opposed to acting like adults, I mean, they (especially Rusty) were often given hefty parts of the show to carry and most of those times they were complicated situations. I must say that while Danny Thomas, Jean Hagen and Marjorie Lord are all great to watch on Make Room for Daddy, it’s all the situations involving the kids that makes the show memorable. No disrespect to other child stars and characters of the time, but Rusty Hamer in particular could and did spar (verbally) with one of the country’s most popular comedians and matched him line for line. Rusty is one of my all-time favorite child stars.
Here’s an episode from the show’s third season titled, “Little League” in which Danny agrees to provide a lot for a little league baseball team as long as he can be a coach and Rusty gets one of the players. Danny resorts to blackmail of sorts because poor Rusty is not good at the game. You’ll note Jean Hagen plays Margaret in that episode. From a later season, Here’s a wonderful scene that takes place between the two children, Rusty and Linda, during which Rusty is looking for a job. And, finally, here’s an episode of the show from 1958, then titled The Danny Thomas Show, “Jack Benny Takes Danny’s Job,” which features Marjorie Lord as Kathy, Danny’s wife. Also, as Mr. Benny makes an appearance in this episode, it’s worth noting that just as I Love Lucy and other popular shows did, Danny Thomas’ show frequently featured other popular stars of the time in guest spots. Since Danny Williams was an entertainer, it wasn’t far-fetched he’d know other celebrities.
I’d be remiss not to mention the fabulous lot of character actors that appeared on Make Room for Daddy and later The Danny Thomas Show. For instance, the great Louise Beavers was a show regular from 1953 to 1955. TV heavyweight, Sheldon Leonard was also a regular as were Sid Melton, Pat Carroll, Mary Wickes and Jesse White to name just a few. Aside from enjoying the talent of the show’s stars it adds loads of enjoyment to see so many familiar faces either from other classic TV shows or from classic movies.
I know I’m preaching to the choir, but they just don’t make shows like Make Room for Daddy anymore. I’ve already mentioned many reasons why Danny Thomas and his show are important in the annals of television. Among many things Make Room for Daddy remains one of the best shows ever produced in a TV genre that is still popular today setting a standard that most must stand up against. But I think this show’s legacy is doubly impressive when you consider that beyond its own merits, which include a supremely talented cast and superb writing, The Danny Thomas Show also has the distinction of being the first show to spawn a successful sitcom spin-off. And what a spin-off it was – a show created for an up-and-coming comic from North Carolina named Andy Griffith.
I was going to describe how Danny Williams met Sheriff Andy Taylor in a town called Mayberry, but why don’t you see for yourself – on an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, aptly titled “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” which aired on February 15, 1960 one of television’s most beloved shows and characters was born.
After The Danny Thomas Show voluntarily went off the air in 1964, Thomas continued to work on television – both in front and behind the camera – until his death in 1991 at the age of 79. Among many projects he worked on and shows he appeared in during all those years, he’d attempted a variety show, but it was short-lived and a reprise of the Make Room for Daddy premise, Make Room for Granddaddy in 1970. That show lasted only one season, but it’s telling that the cast of the original show was on board to reprise their roles. Telling, in that there must have been genuine affection between them, something not always commonplace in the annals of show business.
Danny Thomas would go on to make many more contributions to television as a producer. While starring on his own show, Thomas established Thomas-Leonard Productions, a partnership with television pioneer producer and director, Sheldon Leonard. Leonard is recognizable to many classic television fans for often playing tough guy characters on many classic shows. Thomas-Leonard Productions was based on the Desilu lot and was responsible for many highlights in classic television aside from The Andy Griffith Show. You may have heard of another comedy hit the company produced, The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The Dick Van Dyke Show also owes a lot to Thomas for suggesting a young actress named Mary Tyler Moore to that show’s creator, Carl Reiner. It turns out that while Reiner was expressing concern over not finding a suitable Laura Petrie for his show, Thomas remembered a young actress who’d auditioned for his own show but that he hadn’t hired. Reiner found the girl and…the rest is television history. That girl would not only hit it big on the Van Dyke show, but she’d go on to become a television pioneer in her own right with The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
A Danny Thomas discovery…
As you can see, I’m easily side-tracked. To continue – in 1965 Sheldon Leonard left the partnership with Danny Thomas to develop other prospects, but Thomas continued to influence television on his own, producing several hit shows, under the banner of Danny Thomas Productions. It was perhaps his personal accomplishments for which Thomas would be most remembered, however. By that I mean his style and talent as an entertainer, which included off-camera stand-up routines he performed for his in-studio audience just prior to filming each episode of Make Room for Daddy, which would be imitated on other programs and institutionalized as the now commonplace “warm-up.” Then there’s the important work he did in establishing St. Luke’s Children’s Research Hospital, which continues to help children with cancer and their families.
Sheldon Leonard referred to Danny Thomas as “brilliant.” As a fan, I just know he was a kind man…
“All of us are born for a reason, but all of us don’t discover why. Success in life has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.”
…and always funny. This is a man and a show you want to make room for.