The Donna Reed Show is an American sitcom which was created by Oscar-winning Hollywood actress Donna Reed and her former husband and producer, Tony Owen. It originally aired on September 24, 1958 and lasted until March 19, 1966. When it first aired, it didn’t do very well in terms of TV ratings. The show was eventually moved from Wednesday to Thursday nights. This did help attract more viewers, but it just not as many as they aimed to achieve. This show is about a housewife named Donna Stone and her family- her husband Alex, a pediatrician, and their two children: 14 year old Mary, and 11 year old Jeff. They were said to live in the Midwestern town of Hilldale.
Donna’s character symbolized the perfect American housewife and mother, and in a way, she changed the way women were portrayed in Hollywood. She was strong, assertive and independent, but was also loving, good-natured, and thoughtful. The story in the show usually revolved around common family problems and how the family was able to overcome them. Donna, being the main character, was usually the one who saved the day and came up with solutions to all of their problems.
Music Attracts A New Audience To The Show
The show continued to air with average TV ratings until the fourth season (episode 20) when they premiered a song called “Johnny Angel” by Shelley Fabares- a hit single that was number one on the Billboard 100 Chart, and sold more than 1 million copies.
Fortunately, that hit song brought in a whole new audience to the show, and renewed the hopes of the actors and producers of the show. Following up that fortune, they featured another song called “My Dad” by Paul Petersen. The song reached no. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Reed Disapproved Of The Industry's Depiction Of Women
After playing her role of Donna Stone, the middle-class American mother and housewife, Donna Reed rejected several offers to star in new TV series and Hollywood films, even as a guest-star.
According to Reed, she was making a stand against Hollywood. Hating the fact that women in Hollywood were always depicted as inadequate, and unable to offer anything stimulating or challenging. Her character on the Donna Reed show was undoubtedly the most assertive of all other television mothers at that time. This made her a pioneer for female lead characters at the time. She wanted to depict women as being strong and independent, and she wanted her roles on TV and film to be cast accordingly.
The Munsters and Donna Reed
Another TV show debuted in 1964 entitled “The Munsters”. This show was created as a parody of “The Donna Reed Show”. It depicted the home life of a family of monsters. Herman Munster, a Frankenstein-like monster, was the head of the family, while Lily Munster, a vampire, was his wife. The show also mocked of all the popular monster movies at that time.
One very obvious similarity between the two show was is their opening credits sequence where Lily Munster passes out lunches to her children. Donna Reed’s character, Donna Stone, did the same at the beginning of her show.
Johnson & Johnson Everything!
The Donna Reed Show was primarily sponsored by the famous American company, Johnson & Johnson. As an agreement, the show’s producers made it a priority to advertise their products throughout the series. All supermarket scenes in the show featured Johnson & Johnson products only, like Campbell’s Soup, Franco-American Spaghetti and various other products that became popular.
Even outside of the supermarket scenes, Johnson & Johnson products could be seen literally whenever they had a chance to be featured. If you revisit the show, you will quickly notice the heavy advertising, as everything used in the house was Johnson & Johnson.
Greatest TV Dads Of All Time
One of the best features of the Donna Reed Show was not only Donna Reed’s portrayal of a strong and independent woman, but also her husband, Dr. Alex Stone, the handsome pediatrician that was played by actor Carl Lawrence Betz.
Carl Lawrence Betz earned national recognition for his role that jump-started his career as an actor. He was also ranked #16 in TV Guide’s list of the “50 Greatest TV Dads of All Time.” The family dynamic and the chemistry between him and his on-screen wife was really evident all throughout the show and is probably the reason why the show became as popular as it was at that time.
1 Actor, 3 Different Characters
Jimmy Hawkins was an actor who had has played alongside Donna Reed in the holiday classic movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.” They had developed a special bond and friendship at that time, so they were not strangers to one another when he started appearing on “The Donna Reed Show”.
Throughout the show he actually appeared as 3 different characters, but if most remembered as Reed's TV daughter, Mary Stone's, steady boyfriend.
Shelley Fabares- Form Child Star To An Acclaimed Female Lead
Shelley Fabares was a well-known actress who started her career in Hollywood at a very young age. She was a child model by the age of 3 and at 8-years-old, she snagged a role as a regular on the series, “Annie Oakley”. However, throughout her career, she was best known for her roles as Donna Reed's daughter, Mary Stone.
Another big break for Shelly Fabares came in 1953, when she became Frank Sinatra’s dance partner on a TV show. After that, she was so sought after, that she bagged the role as Elvis Presley’s co-star in 3(! ) movies. In 1989, her wining streak continued when she was cast as one of the stars on the hit TV series “Coach”.
The Reunion That Never Took Place
Many years after the show ended its run, Donna Reed had an idea for another show that would be a reunion for all her former cast members of “The Donna Reed Show”. Unfortunately, Carl Betz had passed away in 1978 before the reunion show materialized. Reed, and the rest of the cast members agreed to not go forward with the plan, knowing they would not be able to complete it without Betz.
Carl Betz was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1977. Unfortunately for him, by the time he was diagnosed, he was already terminal and inoperable. He kept the tragic news to himself and those closest to him, and continued working without sharing his medical condition to anyone else. Months later he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where he would spend seven weeks before dying in January 18, 1978.
Most popular TV shows at that time had a tradition of starring numerous famous celebrities to make surprise appearances. “The Donna Reed Show” was not an exception. They had a long list of guest stars, the most popular being: Willie Mays, Dony Drysdale, musician Harry James, and singers Tony Martin and Lesley Gore.
Other guest stars had several reappearances on the show were Jimmy Hawkins (9 episodes), Candy Moore (7 episodes), Lindsay Workman (7 episodes), Charles Herbert (4 episodes), James Stacy (4 episodes), Kathleen Freeman (4 episodes), Don Drysdale (4 episodes) and Jan Stine (4 episodes), among many others.
Show Ownership Through The Years
“The Donna Reed Show” continued to be aired on TV for decades after the show initially ended in 1966 after being bought by different a TV networks. The show was last owned by Sony in 2008 before losing it back to the estates of Donna Reed and Tony Owen.
Two of its most successful re-airings of the show are from 1985 to 1999 on Nick at Nite and from 2002 to 2004 on TV Land. It was also released by Virgil Films and Entertainment (under the license from the estates of Donna Reed and Tony Owen) on DVD. Its Season 3 was most currently re-released on June 30, 2015 on DVD by MPI Home Video. It is not seen on TV anymore because of the high cost to air it.
Eye On The Prize
“The Donne Reed Show” became part of one of the most unique cereal box giveaways ever in history, when General Mills offered a DVD of two episodes inside boxes of Total cereal and Oatmeal Crisp in 2004. It was a pretty successful campaign that was successful in reviving the public’s interest in the show.
Fans were especially happy about giveaway being that ‘The Donna Reed Show” has stopped airing in any major TV networks at that time. It also became a must-have collectible for die-hard fans of the show. Although it was much more costly than other cereal box giveaways, the people behind the idea was certainly satisfied with the public’s positive reception.
All Good Things Come To An End
The original airing of “The Donna Reed Show” lasted until 1966 for a total of 8 years and 275 episodes. The show’s star, Donna Reed eventually grew tired of the show and the fact that she had to work every day. She has also reported to complain about how the show has taken up most of her time, leaving very little for her personal life.
Unfortunately, the TV series was still very popular at that time when Donna Reed decided to step away from it and not renew her contract. Many of its fans were disappointed and sad with her decision.
Donna Stone, was beautifully portrayed as a loving mother, an amazing wife and a solid role model for women of all ages. Reeds TV character, effectively changed how mothers and women, in general, were being portrayed on screen.
Many of Donna Reed’s close friends have said that this character is very similar to Donna Reed’s real life persona. This is probably the reason why the character felt very natural and not forced. She was assertive and funny which made her very engaging to watch. She is definitely the main reason why the show achieved its success.
Not Exactly Critically Acclaimed
The show was a very big success, being able to win the hearts of millions of fans and viewers. However, the show did not get that same success critically, as it only broke into the top 25 shows once during 1963-1964. Not matter what the critics felt, in the hearts of Americans, it was already one of the 25 most popular shows in the country.
Donna Reed herself has expressed her happiness with the shows accomplishments. Being the only one at the time, Reed proved that a show could be successful with a strong, non-neurotic, non-sexualised female lead. Today she is recognized as one of the trendsetters and inspiration for such female leads that arose in over the years.
Re-Runs and Re-Releases
Decades after its original TV run, MPI Home Video has acquired the rights to release all episodes of The Donna Reed Show on DVD in the hopes of banking on its huge success to make a profit. Fortunately, its DVD release still had a very warm reception from its die-hard fans. It has also opened up the show to more viewers which also contributed to its success.
The first season of the show was re-released on September 30, 2014 on DVD. Following this success and the huge demand of the fans for more, the second season was re-released on March 24, 2015. Then, the third season was re-released on June 30, 2015. The seasons 4 and 5 was never re-released but is still available from its first DVD release. The show was a true classic, as even a new TV audience who hadn't been familiar with the show before enjoyed it . It had also been re-run on TV in September 2011 by Me-TV, a smaller TV network.
The Gilmore Girls Watch The Donna Read Show
Another testament to The Donna Reed Show’s popularity is the fact that its still referenced in pop-culture. For instance, it was featured in the title of an episode of The Gilmore Girls, an American comedy-drama TV series. The 14th episode of its first Season was entitled “That Damn Donna Reed”, and featured a story in which the main characters Rory and Dean disagreed about their views on a woman’s role in the household while watching an episode of the Donna Reed Show. Iconic!
Similar to The Donna Reed Show, The Gilmore Girls had non-stereotypical female leads, and has generated praise for its witty dialogue, cross-generational appeal and effective mix of humor and drama.
Hollywood Pays Homage
The Donna Reed Show’s influence; however, was most prominently seen in the 1998 American fantasy-comedy-drama “Pleasantville”. The critically acclaimed film starred Tobey Maguire, who came to be more famously known for his role as Peter Parker and Spiderman in the first Spiderman movie trilogy.
This show borrowed heavily from The Donna Reed Show’s core idea of a nuclear family. The Donna Reed Show became inspiration for many more TV shows and movies years after it went off-air.
Re-Casting Guest Actors
Back in the time when The Donna Reed show was televised, it was common practice for TV show casting agents to bring back actors to play other roles. That way they had a handful of actors to their disposal to play, usually insignificant roles, that the audience would probably not even notice.
The Donna Reed Show has its fair share of actors who appeared more than once, playing different roles throughout the show, these include: Jimmy Hawkins, Richard Deacon, Gale Gordon, Miyoshi Umeki, Harvey Korman, Doodles Weaver, and Dick Wilson.
Esther Williams And Donna Reed
The Donna Reed Show has not only opened the doors for the success of Donna Reed’s career. Another actress whose career took off because of this show is none other than Donna Reed’s friend, Esther Williams. She and Donna Reed had been friends since the 1940s and they both started their Hollywood careers at around the same time. They were also both signed to MGM and were considered two of the best rising stars of that time.
Esther Williams was an American competitive swimmer before she became an actress. She was doing very well on her sport, as she had set multiple national and regional swimming records in her late teens as part of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swimming team.
The Donna Reed Show was always praised for its fresh new take on the family-themed sitcom genre, constantly pushing the envelope and introducing unpopular opinions in its plots and characters, and this contributed greatly to its success. This can be attributed to Donna Reed herself, her husband and their team of writers.
However, in 1962, the whole team of writers for the show admitted to run out of new ideas and plot devices for new episodes. They even considered ending the show at that time because they did not want to ruin the show's reputation by airing too many poor quality episodes. They knew that even their die-hard fans would get tired of the show if it continued that way.
An Attractive New Deal
Since The Donna Reed Show has become so popular, and was still in high demand, its TV network, ABC, did not want to see the show end just yet. They have offered Donna Reed a new deal- a new contract for 3 more seasons with a higher pay, and less number of episodes per season. Sweet deal!
They also added a lot of other minor incentives to convince Donna to continue on with the show. Eventually, Donna accepted the offer and the show continued to air for 4 more years until its final episode on March 19, 1966.
Time For Family
What Donna really liked about the new contract was the fact that she needed to provide less episodes per year, as the her first contract demanded most of her time, leaving her with very little time for her family.
In 1963, Fabares’ left the show, as her character went off to college . But instead of ending the show then, they continued on by introducing Paul Petersen’s younger sister, Patty Petersen, as an adopted daughter Trisha. The Donna Reed Show went on and remained as successful as it was before.
Exploring New Ground
In the 1950s and a 1960s the topic of adoption is something that has rarely been explored on television shows. With The Donna Reed Show being a trendsetter even during its first airing, they were the first television series that has touched on this theme.
Fabares had ended her run as a series regular when her character, Mary, went off to college. The family then adopted an orphan whose name was Trisha. She was played by actress Patty Petersen. With Trisha, they were able to bring in new storylines that involved her adoption. Trisha stayed on the show for the remainder of its run.
Discussing The Sensitive Topics
The plot of The Donna Reed Show usually revolved around the dynamics of the middle class American family. This was not extraordinary at that time, but the show did have a rather revolutionizing approach to introducing new takes on varied subjects and specific characteristics of the family members. The included controversial and sensitive topics as well, subjetc sno other mainstream media outlet dared to touch.
Some of these issues included freedom of the press, women’s rights, and even drug addiction. Because of this, the show is seen as one that help bring these important issues into the living rooms of Americans and people around the world.
The Stateless Hilldale, USA
In The Donna Reed Show, Donna’s family is set to live in Hilldale. The producers and writers of the show deemed the location stateless, probably to avoid leaving the impression on the audience that the family on the show was real.
In all the episodes of the show, at no point was it revealed which state, or even which area of the country, Hilldale is located. The producers and the writers were also very careful to not include clues in the show’s plot in the shooting location that would reveal a specific place or location for the family.
Donna Reed Was No Ones Pushover
It wasn't the writers’ decision to depict Donna Stone as a tough and independent character, Donna Reed herself possessed these characteristics.
One example of her strong character was when she joined the cast of the show Dallas, playing the role of Miss Ellie Ewing which was formerly played by Barbara Bel Gedes. In a very unprofessional manner, producers returned Bel Geddes to her original role on the next season which caused Donna Reed to be fired with no good reason, which was a breach of her contract. Understandably, Donna Reed became furious with the studio and sued them, and eventually won a seven figure settlement. Bravo!
Her Softer Side
Donna Reed has also used her popularity for good things. One of these was during World War II. Donna Reed occasionally wrote letters to soldiers during her free time to give them moral support and keep their spirits up while they were fighting. Donna Reed praised for this very good and thoughtful deeds and has earned more love from her fans.
Surprisingly, some soldiers were able to write back to her. Donna Reed treasured these letters from the soldiers and kept them. In 2009, to the surprise of many, a box was found in Donna Reed’s garage which contained a total of 341 letters from the soldiers that she wrote to back in the day.
A "Jill" Of All Trades
As we have mentioned, Donna Reed was very much like her character on the show. She was also a loving wife and mother to her family, and lets not forget, she was also a consummate homemaker! This just proves how important her family is to her and how she has managed to balance her life as a mother and as an actress.
While Donna Reed was best known for her acting talents, she also became known to make a recipe for a mean bundt cake, whose recipe can be found online. It was a very simple recipe that was designed to be made by mothers like her. The ingredients required were just four eggs, lemon cake mix, lemon pudding mix, a cup of water, and half a cup of oil.
TV family Turned Real Life Family
The Donna Reed Show’s television lasted for about 8 years, so it was only natural that the whole cast became very close, proving that the show has not only impacted Donna Reed’s acting career, but also her personal life.
Two of the cast members that became particularly close with Donna Reed were Paul Petersen and Shelly Fabares. They have been reported to have frequently visited her at her home, even decades after the show had ended. Some friendships really do last forever!
Conservative Turned Liberal
Donna Reed never shied away from expressing her political views and ideologies. She was a conservative and was a registered Republican for most of her life. Being the trendsetter that she was, her fans constantly watched as her political views shifted and have consequently reevaluated their own beliefs.
During the late 1960s, the war in Vietnam took place and she was a strong opposer of the war. Because of this, she had gradually become more liberal. She campaigned against the war while serving as the co-chair of an anti-war organization called Another Mother for Peace.
Mad Men Featuring The Donna Reed Show
The Donna Reed’s influence to other TV shows did not stop on the Gilmore Girl. It has also been prominently featured on the AMC hit series “Mad Men”, an American period-drama hit television series.
This television series, Mad Men was set in the 1960s and one of the ways that the writers and producers gave the show that 1960s feel, was by having their characters constantly be shown watching The Donna Reed Show. What an authentic addition, as their was likely not a home in America that didn't tune in to the show at that time.
It’s A Wonderful Life
Naturally, The Donna Reed Show opened up other big doors for Reed. And because of her amazing talent, she has also played other characters that have been widely praised and regarded as iconic.
She starred as Mary, in It’s a Wonderful Life, a film that has cemented its legacy as one of the most classic Christmas movies of all time. She has played the character that was Jimmy Stewart’s love interest. Those two major roles played by Donna Reed made her one of the most beloved Hollywood stars of all time.
Not Too Cool For School
During her childhood, Donna Reed had never dreamed of being an actress. Actually, her childhood dream was to become a teacher. She gave utmost importance to education and was known as being an 'A' student herself.
While attending Los Angeles City College, she began to receive many offers from various studios for auditions and screen tests because of her natural beauty. But because her education was so important to her, she made it a point to finish school first, before signing with MGM and starting her acting career.
Reed’s real name sir name was Mullenger, which is German. However, her manager advised her to change her screen name because at the start of her acting career, World War II was being fought and there was a very widespread anti-German sentiment.
Donna Reed obliged and performed for the first time under the name of Donna Adams. This name did not last, however, as it was later changed to Donna Reed. This name stayed as her professional stage name ever since and became the name that she was most popularly remembered by.
Keeping It In The Family
Paul Petersen first became famous for his role as Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show which eventually made his transition to singing, his real passion, easier. On the later seasons of the show, his sister, Patty Petersen was then chosen to play the role of Trisha who was Jeff Stone’s adopted sister.
By already having a genuine brother-sister relationship, it made it so much easier for the two actors translate it on-screen. Both stars had also expressed their joy of working together as they were really close in real life.
Carl Betz was an American stage, film and television actor, who was most famously known for his role of Donna Reed’s television husband, Dr. Alex Stone. Alex’s role on the show was often to rescue his wife Donna Stone from awkward situations and to discipline and help take care of their children.
Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with a terminal lung cancer in 1977. Because of his very strong work ethic, he did not want to leave his work. He kept his medical condition a secret to be able to continue working as an actor. He passed away less than one year later.
Billboard Hot 100
The Donna Reed show did not only open doors to the acting careers of its casts. The show also had some notable unexpected hit songs which led to successful the singing careers of its cast. Probably the most famous of these songs was “Johnny Angel” which was sang by Shelley Fabares.
The song was originally sung and recorded by both Laurie Loman and Georgia Lee, but the two previous versions were not successful. When Shelley Fabares sang it in The Donna Reed Show, however, it became a huge hit and even made it to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Paul Petersen The Singer
Paul Petersen was also one of the breakout singers that were on the cast of The Donna Reed Show. He performed a song called “My Dad” on the show, and it immediately became a sensation. It was then released as a single and it reached an honorable 6th place on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
The song “My Dad” was found to be very heart-warming and true in spirit by many of the show’s fans. It is a song about how a dad was viewed by an adoring daughter. Because of this, Petersen had received many recording offers which produced many other hit songs which include “She Can’t Find Her Keys”. A song that was also featured on the show.
The Donna Reed Festival
Every year, a festival in honor of Donna Reed is held in Denison, Iowa, named: “The Annual Donna Reed Performing Arts Festival and Workshops". This festival is organized by the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. In this festival, they offer different workshops related to performing arts. The foundation also offers scholarships and merit awards to individuals who qualify for post-secondary education and desire to pursue an education or a career in the performing arts.
The festival is held every third week of June. One of the organizers of the festival is Paul Petersen, who played Donna’s son on The Donna Reed Show. He's also became a member of the Donna Reed Foundation.
Forever A Supporter Of The Arts
After Donna Reed passed away, her legacy continues up to this day. Her widower, Grover Asmus, with the help of many of Donna’s family and friends, established the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts. They offer grants and scholarships for students that are taking up courses in performing arts.
Since its creation, the Donna Reed Foundation has already established a long tradition of programs that recognizes excellence in the performing arts. The contributions of Donna Reed herself as an actress and the foundation that was created in honor of her ensures that her legacy will never be forgotten.
She Helped Jump-Start Bob Crane’s Career
After Reed witnessed Bob Cranes killer performance on the The Dick Van Dyke Show, she decided that she had to have him on hers, and offered him a guest role on her show. Not surprisingly, the episode he appeared on was a hit, and his character, Dr. David Kelsey, was incorporated in the Donna Reed Show's story line, thus Crane became a regular cast member.
After Cranes run in the show ended in 1964, he was offered a starring role on the hit show Hogan’s Heroes, and the rest is history.