Lord a mercy! What a rabbit hole the topic of Ozzie and Harriet has proven to be! Though today (March 20) is actually the birthday of Ozzie Nelson (1906-75), it makes more sense chronologically to begin with Harriet (Peggy Lou Snyder, 1909-1994).
Harriet’s parents were Ray Hilliard Snyder and Hazel Dell, a pair of traveling vaudevillians. Harriet was born in Des Moines, though the family later moved to New York City. She first went onstage at age three, performing in vaudeville with her parents. She quit school as a teenager, danced at the Capitol Theatre and with the Harry Carroll Revue, and performed in comedy sketches with Bert Lahr and Ken Murray. In contrast with the wholesome image projected on her TV show, Harriet was kind of a brassy dame who smoked from her teenage years, frequented Harlem’s Cotton Club, liked her cocktails, and enjoyed ribald humor. At the age of 21 (1930) she married comedian Roy Sedley, to whom she remained attached for only a few months, divorcing him in 1933. By that time she had acted in three movie shorts, and begun to sing in Ozzie Nelson’s band.
Ozzie’s background was very different from Harriet’s, Originally from Jersey City, he had a law degree from Rutgers, but was much fonder of singing and playing saxophone in bands. He formed the Ozzie Nelson Band in 1930, and made lots of records over the next two decades with major labels like Brunswick, Vocalion, Bluebird, and Victor. Hits included “Over Somebody Else’s Shoulder” (1934) and “And Then Some” (1935). Duets with Harriet led to a romantic relationship, and then in 1935, to marriage.
From 1936 through 1944, Harriet was the bigger star, mostly because of her film appearances. You can see her in Follow the Fleet (1936) with Fred and Ginger; as well as New Faces of 1937, The Life of the Party (1937), Cocoanut Grove (1938), Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941), Canal Zone (1942), Juke Box Jenny (1942), Hi Buddy (1943), The Falcon Strikes Back (1943), Gals Incorporated (1943), and Swingtime Johnny (1943). Ozzie appeared in a few films on his own, including the shorts Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra (1940), Doin’ the Town (1941), and Wave a Stick Blues (1944) and the features The Big Street (1942), Strictly in the Groove (1943), and People Are Funny (1946). The pair appeared together in Sweetheart of the Campus (1941), Ozzie Nelson and His Orchestra (1943, a different film from the 1940 one), Honeymoon Lodge (1943), Hi Good Lookin’ (1944) and Take it Big (1944).
The pair had also appeared together on radio, as early as 1933 on The Bakers Program, hosted first by Joe Penner, then by Robert Ripley. In 1941 they joined the cast of The Red Skelton Show. This led to the natural idea to have a radio program of their own The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, launched in 1944. The radio edition of the show lasted a decade.
Until 1949 the parts of their two sons were played by actors. In 1949, their real life sons David (1936-2011) and Ricky (1940-85) joined them, and they were a true family act. Other regulars on the show included Bea Benaderet, Lurene Tuttle, and Dink Trout.
In 1952 the family starred in the feature film Here Come the Nelsons, and this led naturally to their television sitcom The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66). Many consider this show the archetypical ’50s sitcom presenting (rightly or wrongly) the “typical American family” middle-class, white, suburbanites, ranking with Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best for the title. Its reputation for that is so great that people tend to overlook the fact that it was genuinely funny. Ozzie himself produced the show, and directed and co-wrote many of the episodes. Its humor is gentle and quirky, though the show is somewhat visually static. Regulars on the tv version of the show included Don DeFore, Lyle Talbot, Frank Cady, Joe Flynn, and Adam-12’s Kent McCord.
Interestingly, the show makes virtually no reference to the Nelsons’ show biz backgrounds. When you learn the backstory, Ricky’s subsequent emergence as a teen pop idol makes a great deal more sense. As a kid he played clarinet, drums, and guitar. He worshipped rockabilly guys like Elvis and Carl Perkins. Between 1957 and the mid ’60s, Ricky had close to three dozen top 40 hits, the best remembered of which are his two #1s, “Poor Little Fool” (1958), and “Travelin’ Man” (1959), followed I should think by “It’s Late” (1959), and “Hello, Mary Lou” (1961), both of which reached #9. This led to major film roles in the Howard Hawks western Rio Bravo (1959) and the comedy The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960).
David’s career was not quite as distinguished, although he did appear in some films at the time as well, including Peyton Place (1957), The Big Circus (1959), Day of the Outlaw (1959), and The Big Show (1961).
In 1963, Ricky married actress and artist Kris Harmon (1945-2018) and this opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms. Kris was the daughter of two friends of Ozzie’s and Harriet’s, Heisman Trophy winning football player Tom Harmon, and actress Elyse Knox (1917-2012), who appeared in dozens of films including Lillian Russell (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Follow the Boys (1944), and several of the Joe Palooka films. Kris’s siblings were the actor Mark Harmon (b. 1951), and model Kelly Harmon (b. 1948) who married auto maker John Delorean. In 1965, Ricky and Kris co-starred in the film Love and Kisses.
In 1966, the curtain rang down on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but all four Nelsons remained in show business. Ozzie and Harriet together appeared in The Red Skelton Show, Night Gallery, Bridget Loves Bernie, and Love American Style. By himself Ozzie appeared on The Mothers-in-Law and Adam-12. Ricky was in the movie The Over the Hill Gang (1969) and episodes of McCloud, The Streets of San Francisco, Petrocelli and other shows, and had a couple of additional hit records, “She Belongs to Me” (1970), and “Garden Party” (1972). In 1973 Ozzie and Harriet launched a new sitcom, Ozzie’s Girls, but it only lasted one year in syndication. Ozzie passed away in 1975.
Harriet and David appeared in the TV movie Smash-up On Interstate 5 (1976). Harriet appeared on such shows as The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and Happy Days, as well as several more tv movies. David was in Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978). He also directed a number of low budget movies, including the 1982 slasher movie Death Scream.
Sadly, much like fellow ’50s rockers Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, in 1985 Ricky died in a plane crash. By this time however the torch had been passed to a new generation. When I was in high school I was a HUGE fan of his daughter Tracy Nelson (b. 1963) who played a Valley Girl on the 1982 sitcom Square Pegs. Tracey’s first role had been in the 1968 Lucille Ball comedy Yours, Mine and Ours. She was also in the 1986 film Down and Out in Beverly Hills, and was a regular on The Father Dowling Mysteries. Her grandmother Harriet joined her on the show as a guest star in 1989, her final screen credit. David’s last credit was the 1990 John Waters film Cry Baby.
In 1990, two of Ricky’s sons, Matthew and Gunnar, had a #1 hit song with their rock band Nelson, called “(Can’t Live Without Your) Love and Affection”, off their #17 hit LP “After the Rain”. I just played the song on Youtube and I swear I’ve never it before. This and their resemblance to Siegfried and Roy have me chalking this particular instance of Nelson success up to Hollywood nepotism, but I remain a HUGE of Tracy’s. Even so, I really have to stop writing about the Nelsons now.
To find out more about vaudeville and show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, for more on classic comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.