“The Donna Reed Show” is an American sitcom that 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 for eight years, until March 19, 1966. This show is about a housewife named Donna Stone and her family — her husband and their two children.
Donna’s character was revolutionary in a way, as she was the first to change the way women were portrayed on the screen. Not only was she strong, assertive, and independent, but she was also loving, good-natured, and thoughtful. Being the main character, Donna was usually the one who saved the day and came up with solutions.
Music Attracts a New Audience to the Show
Initially, the show didn't attract a large audience, but it 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.
It seemed the 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/housewife, Donna Reed rejected several offers to star in new TV series and Hollywood films, even as a guest star, if the role seemed disrespectful to her. 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
“The Munsters” is Another TV show that debuted in 1964. 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 all the popular shows and movies at that time. One very obvious similarity between the two shows is their opening credits sequence where Lily Munster passes out lunches to the children before they head to school. 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 and Franco-American Spaghetti.
Even outside of the supermarket, Johnson & Johnson products could be seen literally in every scene whenever they had a chance to be featured. If you revisit the show, you will quickly notice the blatant and unmistakable advertising, as everything that could be 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 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 were really evident all throughout the show and are 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 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. Soon enough he also appeared on “The Donna Reed Show” as two separate characters.
In season three, he can be seen playing Donna's daughter, Mary's steady boyfriend called 'Scotty'. Later on, in seasons 6 and seven, he played 'Jerry'. Years later, he would go on to serve on the board of directors of the Donna Reed Foundation for the Performing Arts, for 20 years!
Shelley Fabares; From 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 Shelley 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 winning streak continued when she was cast as one of the stars of the hit TV series “Coach”.
The Reunion That Never Took Place
Many years after the show ended, 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 passed away in 1978 before the reunion could materialize. Reed and the rest of the cast members agreed to not go forward with the plan.
Carl Betz was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1977. Unfortunately, by the time he was diagnosed, it was too far gone. He kept the tragic news to himself and continued working without sharing his medical condition with anyone else. Months later he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where he would spend seven weeks before dying on 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 no 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.
Many of these guests often appeared as themselves while other stars had several reappearances on the show. Among them 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).
Show Ownership Over the Years
“The Donna Reed Show” continued to air for decades after the show initially ended in 1966 after being bought by different 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 are from 1985 to 1999 on Nick at Nite and from 2002 to 2004 on TV Land.
The show was also released on DVD by Virgil Films and Entertainment (under the license from the estates of Donna Reed and Tony Owen). Its Season 3 was most currently re-released on June 30, 2015, on DVD by MPI Home Video. Nowadays, it isn't seen on TV 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 the giveaway since “The Donna Reed Show” has stopped airing on any major TV networks. 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 were certainly satisfied with the 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. Someone anyone could learn from. Reed's TV character effectively changed how mothers, and women in general, were 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 the success that it did.
Not Exactly Critically Acclaimed
The show was a very big success, winning 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. No 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 show's accomplishments. Being the only one at the time, Reed proved that a show could be successful with a strong, non-neurotic, non-sexualized female lead. Today she is recognized as one of the trendsetters and inspiration for such female leads that arose 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 DVD on September 30, 2014. 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. Seasons 4 and 5 were never re-released but are 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 popularity of "The Donna Reed Show’" is the fact that it's still referenced in pop culture. For instance, it was featured in the title of an episode of "Gilmore Girls," an American comedy-drama TV series. The 14th episode of its first Season was entitled “That Damn Donna Reed.”
It featured a story in which 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," "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" became an inspiration for many more TV shows and movies years after it went off-air. While the series went off the air in the mid-sixties, the influence of "The Donna Reed Show" was prominently seen three decades later 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 movie borrowed heavily from black and white sitcoms, mainly the core idea of a nuclear family famously seen on "The Donna Reed Show".
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 at their disposal to play usually insignificant roles that the audience would probably not even notice. (Well, except for a few die-hard fans with a keen eye.)
"The Donna Reed Show" had 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 in 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, which greatly contributed 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 that they had run out of new ideas 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 and 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 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 with the show. As a producer, this was definitely a step in the right direction and Donna accepted the offer, meaning the show continued to air for 4 more years until its final episode on March 19, 1966.
Time for Family
Donna was looking for a way out, as she had very little time for her family and personal life, but what Donna really liked about the new contract was the fact that she needed to provide fewer episodes per year. Her first contract demanded most of her time and frankly, she was left exhausted.
So in 1963, Fabares left the show, as her character went off to college. But instead of ending the show then, they continued 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 1960s, the topic of adoption was something that had rarely been explored on television shows, especially not on sitcoms. But "The Donna Reed Show" was a trendsetter and even during its first airing, it became one of the first television series that touched on this theme.
Fabares' regular character, Mary, had to go off to college, as was logical for someone her age, but that didn't been Donna wouldn't do something about that emptying nest. The family then adopted Trisha the orphan, 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 — it was the '60s after all, and the show had a rather revolutionizing approach to introducing new takes on varied subjects and specific characteristics of the family members.
The episodes included controversial and sensitive topics as well, subjects no other mainstream media outlet dared to touch. Some of these issues included freedom of the press and women’s rights. Because of this, the show is seen as one that helps 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 lives in a town called 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. So while there exists a Hilldale in a few states, we don't know which one exactly was the family's hometown.
At no point during the show 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 shooting location that would reveal a specific place or location for the family.
Donna Reed Was No 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 who was formerly played by Barbara Bel Geddes.
In a very unprofessional manner, producers reinstated Bel Geddes to her original role in the next season. This meant that Donna Reed was fired for no good reason, which was a breach of her contract. Understandably, 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. She was praised for these 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 let's not forget, she was also an exemplary 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 was also known to make wonderful recipes, some of which can be found online. For example, the recipe for her bundt cake is very simple as it was designed for 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 Into a Real-Life Family
With the shows we grow up to love and cherish, we can't help but wonder if the characters portrayed on-screen become friends off-screen. With "The Donna Reed Show" lasting for 8 years, it was only natural that the whole cast became very close, proving that the show has not only impacted Donna Reed’s career but also her personal life.
The two cast members that became particularly close with Donna Reed were Paul Petersen and Shelley Fabares. They both played her children in the show, but outside of the show, they have been reported to frequently visit 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 watched as her political views shifted and she consequently reevaluated their own political views and beliefs.
During the late 1960s, the war in Vietnam took place and Donna was a strong opponent of conflict. Because her personal views on war deviated from her original political party, 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 Donna Reed
"The Donna Reed Show" was not only one of the most popular family television programs of that era, it's still referenced in many other shows today! You can see the cast watch the show in "Gilmore Girls", and it has also been prominently featured on the AMC hit series “Mad Men”, an American period-drama hit television series.
"Mad Men" is also 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 there 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 the actress. 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 played the character that was Jimmy Stewart’s love interest. Those two major roles played by her made Donna Reed one of the most beloved Hollywood stars of all time. As if that wasn't enough, Donna Reed also won an Academy Award for her role in "From Here to Eternity."
Not Too Cool for School
What's more interesting about this incredible woman is that during her childhood she never dreamed of becoming an actress. Actually, her childhood dream was to become a teacher but she was unable to pay for college. Donna had always stressed the importance of education and she was known as being a straight-A student herself.
So she moved to California and attended Los Angeles City College and to support herself she performed in various stage productions. Soon enough, she began to receive many offers from various studios for auditions and screen tests thanks to her talent and 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.
Donna Reed’s real last name was actually Mullenger, which sounds very German. Her family had already been living in America for a few generations but, her manager advised her to change her screen name because at the start of her acting career, World War II was ongoing and as a result, 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, and 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 his real passion, singing, much easier. In 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.
Already being genuine brother and sister, the job proved to be so much easier for the two actors to translate their relationship on-screen. The actors were close in real life and they both expressed how much they enjoyed working together as they were also able to spend more time together on set.
Carl Betz was an American stage, film, and television actor, who was most famously known for his role as 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 cancer in 1977. This was only more difficult for him because of his very strong work ethic. He did not want to leave his work so 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 sung 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 and it was featured in "The Donna Reed Show", it became a huge hit and even made it to number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Paul Petersen the Singer
Paul Petersen was 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 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. At this festival, they offer different workshops and seminars 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 year in the third week of June. One of the organizers of the festival is Paul Petersen, who played Donna’s son on the Show. He's also become a member of the Donna Reed Foundation.
Forever a Supporter of the Arts
Donna Reed passed away in 1986, but 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 recognize excellence in the performing arts. The contributions of Donna Reed herself as an actress and the foundation that was created in her honor ensure that her legacy will never be forgotten.
She Helped Jump-Start Bob Crane’s Career
After Reed witnessed Bob Crane's killer performance on "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 in was a hit, and his character, Dr. David Kelsey, was incorporated into the show's storyline, thus Crane became a regular cast member.
He played a good friend of the family and he was also a colleague of Donna's husband. Dave continued on the series until 1965. After Crane's run in the show ended in 1965, he was offered a starring role on the hit show "Hogan’s Heroes", and the rest is history.