For a series that enjoyed a successful five-year run, followed “I Love Lucy” for the majority of its lifespan and was seldom out of the top ten during its time on the air, it’s surprising how little name-recognition the sitcom “December Bride” seems to have today.
But the show’s failure to retain its currency, does not diminish the charm of many of the program’s episodes, nor does it lessen the various aspects of series which, even today, hallmarks it as a highly positive and progressive.
The title of the show, “December Bride,” referenced the single and available status of the show’s lead character, 60-something year-old Lily Ruskin. “Elderly” by societal standards then (and now), Lily refused to “act her age,” and in a very “Golden Girl”/Gray Panther way was as adventuresome, open-minded and independent as anyone even half her age.
This character, and the ones around her, had been dreamed up by Edward Levy who was inspired by his own very popular and much sought after mother-in-law.
Like much TV product at that time, “Bride” had begun on radio where it aired over the CBS network beginning in June of 1952. Its final aural broadcast would be in September of 1953. The TV version began in the fall of 1954.
As she had on radio, Spring Byington, one of Hollywood’s most enduring and beloved character actresses, played the show’s title role. Byington was 68 years old at the time the TV series began. And where her vivaciousness ended and Lily’s began was easily blurred.
On either radio or TV, the set-up of the series was the same. So-called “senior citizen” Lily lived happily with her adult daughter Ruth and Ruth’s husband, Matt Henshaw. But rather than trafficking in a lot of Vaudeville-era mother-in-law jokes, son-in-law Matt was portrayed as respectful and even a little enamored of his mother-in-law. The kids’s constant concern that Lily was going to snatched up and swept away from their home by an eager, eligible bachelor was, as mentioned, where the show got its title.
Dean Miller and Frances Rafferty played Matt and Ruth.
Rounding out the cast was future “MASH” star Harry Morgan who played the Henshaw’s next-door neighbor Pete Porter. Unlike his friend, Matt, though Pete didn’t like his mother-in-law and couldn’t really stand his wife either, she was named Gladys and though spoken of often, was never, ever seen.
Morgan’s Pete become such a breakout character, he eventually got his own series, “Pete & Gladys.” It began in 1960 and Gladys was finally seen and portrayed by Cara Williams.
Back on “Bride,” Lily had a best friend. Lily’s friend was the equally un-traditional “little old lady,” Hilda Crocker, played by another great veteran actress Verna Felton. Hilda was often the “Ethel” to Lily’s “Lucy” and together they engaged in many only-on-TV type hijinks.
Sadly, very few of the radio episodes seems to have survived to present day. But it seems the entire run TV’s “December Bride” is still around—but, almost as sadly, not that it's easily assessed. While a handful of installments have migrated to Youtube and one (pricey) DVD package is available for purchase, “Bride” is not that easy to find and binge.
And that’s a shame.
Because, though it may not be of “Honeymooners” or “I Love Lucy” quality, “Bride” has its charms, inventiveness and two absolutely winning characters (and actresses) in the Byington and Fenton.
Everything Spring Byringon’s Lily is in effervescent-ness and sprightliness she is equaled in spunk and gumption by the wonderful Verna Felton. Together, they are the Laverne and Shirley of the senior set.
In stark contrast to how “oldsters” are often portrayed on TV (even now), Lily and Hilda are not ones to sit home and knit; they are up for any adventure. Over the course of their show’s five seasons, the “girls” managed a pro boxer, took mambo lessons, went hunting for uranium, worked to save a hobo camp, saved a pizzeria from closing, and, in terms of Lily, even authored a regular newspaper column.
Lily was also a great “fixer,” who, over the course of the series, resolved quite a few feuds between spouses, neighbors and others. Once she helped Matt in court when he was falsely accused of robbery and once she even worked to double-cross and take down a swindler preying on “helpless” little old ladies like her.
Sometimes the ladies’s adventures required the assistance of some big name guest stars. Performers, often appearing as themselves, during the show’s run included Rudy Vallee, Mickey Rooney, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Fred MacMurray, and Rory Calhoun.
In many ways, “December Bride” followed the lead of its lead-in “I Love Lucy.” (Well, after all, “Bride” was a Desilu production as well.) Along with the utilization of some big name guest stars, later, the show introduced a baby when Lily’s daughter and son-in-law began “expecting.” TV granddaughter, Linda, was born during “Bride’s” final season.
Besides being a comedic hit for the network, and another success for its powerhouse production company/owner, Desilu, during it original run, “December Bride” was even credited with emboldening seniors. Once the show’s producers and performers got a letter from the Halsted Hospital in Halstead, Kansas. The head of the psychiatric department there said they regularly show episodes of the show to their older women’s patients to show them that—like those ladies on the screen--they still have a lot of living to do!
According to that same letter, the residents also drew inspiration from the two actresses playing these great roles. As mentioned, both Byington and Fenton were in their 60s when their show began in 1954 and both had already had very long careers on stage, in film and on TV.
Byington made her screen debut in 1930 and went on to meaningful roles in films like “Little Women,” “Theodora Goes Wild,” “You Can’t Take It With You” and “Heaven Can Wait.” Once TV arrived, she kept busy on it too with guest roles on “Make Room for Daddy” and on various anthology programs. Even after “December Bride” was shuttered, Byington went onto a reoccurring role on the TV western “Laramie” and continued to appear in various TV guest roles, perhaps most memorably as wealthy insomniac J. Pauline Spaghetti on an episode of “Batman” in 1966. Her last TV appearance was on an episode of “The Flying Nun” in 1968. She passed away in 1971.
Her co-host, and the show’s secret weapon, was Verna Fenton. Fenton made her movie debut in 1917 (!) but her film career picked up steam only from 1940 on. She achieved immortality rather early when she was tapped by Walt Disney to be a voice in “Dumbo” in 1941 and to be the voice of the Fairy Godmother in “Cinderella” in 1950. Later, she was the voice of the Queen of Hearts in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” in 1951.
Fenton kept busy on the small screen too—both before and after “December Bride.” She made several appearances on “The Dennis Day Show,” “Burns and Allen,” and “I Love Lucy.” She continued working (including playing Hilda on “Pete & Gladys”) until the year before her death in 1966.
Younger co-stars Rafferty and Miller didn’t do too much after the end of “Bride.” Harry Morgan had the biggest, post-“Bride” career thanks to “Pete & Gladys,” “Dragnet” and of course the 4077th.
After being canceled, “Bride” aired in reruns on CBS daytime for a couple of years and then got farmed out to local stations as syndication fodder. But the lack of a name like Lucy’s and the lack of any children in the program that could bring in a kid audience, gradually caused “Bride” to fall out of out of favor in the world of reruns. A kid audience was never part of the show’s success; during “December Bride’s” run, Fenton explained in an interview the show’s appeal. She said, “We’re successful because all the rest have forgotten about the middle-aged audience.”
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