Thanksgiving with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson

Thanksgiving is one of the quintessentially American holidays, so it is fitting that the all-American radio and television show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet would include scenes related to the holiday. The Ozzie and Harriet Nelson papers at the American Heritage Center includes several photos and scripts from episodes with a Thanksgiving theme.

Ozzie Nelson carving a Thanksgiving turkey while wife Harriet and sons David and Ricky look on, 1956. Box 61, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In the 1940s and 50s, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson were one of radio and television’s favorite all-American couples. They starred in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet which was first broadcast on CBS radio on October 8, 1944. The Nelsons had risen to fame as regulars on Red Skelton’s radio show. Ozzie was Skelton’s band leader and Harriet was the band’s lead singer. When Red Skelton was drafted into the Army early in 1944, his radio program was discontinued. Ozzie and Harriet, finding themselves out of work, decided to launch their own radio show, a family situation comedy, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie produced, directed, and wrote many of the scripts which revolved around the family life of Ozzie and Harriet and their two boys.

The real-life Nelsons had two sons, David, born in 1936, and Ricky, born in 1940. Initially too young to perform on radio, the boys’ roles were first voiced by professional actors. Then in February 1949, the Nelson’s real sons joined the radio cast. David was 12, Ricky was 8.

A partial “Thanksgiving Dinner” script from the radio show that aired November 24, 1946, featured the Nelson’s neighbor, Emmy Lou, enticing Ozzie to eat a piece of her mincemeat pie. At the time, mincemeat would have been a Thanksgiving favorite. But instead of soaking the mincemeat in brandy as the recipe called for, Emmy Lou had substituted vodka, giving the pie an extra kick. Ozzie was headed to his mother-in-law’s house to eat a second Thanksgiving dinner. He had just finished his own family’s Thanksgiving meal when he got the phone call from Harriet’s mother saying she was expecting them to come over for turkey dinner. Ozzie reasoned, “we can’t hurt her feelings and tell her we’ve already eaten.” Furthermore, Ozzie remarked, “I eat like a horse … and this afternoon I’m afraid I’m gonna have to!”

Page of the script “Thanksgiving Dinner” from the radio show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, November 24, 1946. Box 82, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Just a year later, the November 23, 1947, script titled “The Spirit of Thanksgiving” offered up a humorous take on the concept of Thanksgiving sharing. That episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet saw Ozzie reminding his sons that Thanksgiving is a “priceless heritage handed down to us by the Pilgrim Fathers.” Ozzie, carried away by the spirit of Thanksgiving, invites his neighbor Mr. Dunkel as a weekend guest. Ozzie says to Harriet, “It’s the least we can do for a deserving neighbor – to share the comforts of our home with a lonely man as the time for Thanksgiving approaches.” Mr. Dunkel proves to be a peculiar visitor. To Ozzie’s chagrin, Dunkel is a health food nut and a regular shopper at the Sunny Jim Health Food Store, where he purchases things like yogurt, watercress, and figs – foods that would have been exotic in 1947. In an effort to make Dunkel feel at home, Ozzie stocks up on groceries from Sunny Jim’s. Then Harriet serves up a meal of shredded seaweed, spinach juice and peanut loaf for the whole family. Ozzie isn’t too impressed with the food, but David and Ricky eat heartily. Ricky even says, “I like it better than stuff that’s good for you!” Before long Dunkel has ingratiated himself with Harriet and the boys, to Ozzie’s irritation. Ozzie conspires to get Dunkel to leave the Nelson house but is ultimately unsuccessful and the episode ends with Ozzie hosting both Dunkel and yet another neighbor for the weekend. In 1947, the show was sponsored by the International Silver Company, which used the commercial breaks to advertise “1847 Rogers Brothers Silverplate – fine silverware for the discerning homemaker.”

Page of the script “The Spirit of Thanksgiving” from the radio show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, November 23, 1947. Box 67, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In 1949, a Thanksgiving theme appears once again in the Nelsons’ radio show, this time in an episode titled “The Day After Thanksgiving.” Sponsored by Heinz, makers of “fifty-seven varieties of fine food,” it kicks off with Harriet remarking “It’s time … time to remind all the ladies listening in to be sure and ask their grocers about Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup – at the new lower prices.”

After spending Thanksgiving at Harriet’s mother’s, Ozzie and his two boys are so full of turkey and trimmings that they refuse their breakfast the next morning. Harriet worries about what they might have for dinner, with no Thanksgiving leftovers to serve. Ozzie bemoans the idea of more turkey saying, “We had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner – but after every Thanksgiving we have nothing but turkey … turkey … turkey!” Ozzie’s neighbor, Thorny, claims that Thanksgiving kicks off his favorite week of the year, with “turkey salad, turkey hash and turkey fricassee.” Facetiously, Ozzie helpfully suggests “turkey upside down cake, turkey pudding, turkey surprise, and turkey with whipped cream on it.” But as the day continues, Ozzie and the boys develop a hankering for a turkey sandwich. And Ozzie’s neighbor Emmy Lou’s recitation of her favorite turkey leftovers “cold turkey, turkey a la king, creamed turkey, turkey croquettes, turkey hash and turkey soup” only makes them hungrier and hungrier. Eventually Harriet sends David over to his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving leftovers. The episode ends with Ozzie raiding the refrigerator for some leftover turkey.

Page of the script “The Day After Thanksgiving” from the radio show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, November 25, 1949. Box 72, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

With the success of the radio program in the 1940s, Ozzie Nelson was persuaded to have his family give on-screen acting a try, with the film Here Come the Nelsons which was released in February of 1952. Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky played themselves on the silver screen. The film served as a pilot for what was to become one of the longest running family-oriented live action television sitcoms in American history – the televised version of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

In 1956, the Nelsons posed for some Thanksgiving promotional photos. The photo below shows them attired as pilgrims. Harriet is patting younger son Ricky on the back for bagging a Thanksgiving turkey with his bow and arrow, while David, armed with a blunderbuss, looks on chagrined. The sponsor of that year’s show was Eastman Kodak.

Harriet, Ricky and David Nelson posing with a Thanksgiving turkey, 1956. Box 61, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

A total of 435 televised episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet were broadcast from October 1952 to April 1966. Add to that the 402 radio episodes that aired, it’s no surprise that the American public was fascinated by the Nelsons. Over their careers in Hollywood, the perpetually cheerful family endeared themselves to listeners and viewers. David and Ricky had literally grown up in front of radio and television audiences. Radio Life magazine had even dubbed the boys “the crown princes of radio.” Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson each were honored with their own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

If you are curious about how the Nelson family spent their Thanksgivings, you can see photos and scripts from some of the television shows and radio broadcasts of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet in the Ozzie and Harriet Nelson papers. Happy Thanksgiving from the American Heritage Center!

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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