Mark Voger interview with Gloria Henry and Jeannie Russell
One actress played the prototypical TV mom. Another played a proto-feminist little girl.
Says Gloria Henry of her role as Alice Mitchell on the sitcom classic "Dennis the Menace": "Many of the fans say, 'Oh, I always wished you were my mom' and 'My mom was jealous of you, because I wanted you for a mom.' Which is pretty funny, because I don't think my own children felt that way. I have a daughter and two sons. All they knew was, I was off to work, and I wasn't with them as much as they would have liked me to be."
Says Jeannie Russell of her role as Dennis' demonstrative friend Margaret: "(Fans) usually say, 'Oh, you really gave Dennis the Menace a hard time.' Or some will say, 'I really, really liked you.' They feel very strongly one way or the other about the character. You know, it was a strong character."
The actresses spoke in separate interviews to herald the release of the five-disc box set "Dennis the Menace: Season One, in which the first 32 episodes of the 1959-63 sitcom make their DVD debut. The series, based on Hank Ketcham’s long-running comic strip, starred Jay North as the annoying, though endearing, titular youngster.
As a child, Russell wasn't aware of Margaret's girl-power vibe."I had fun with it," Russell says. "It was like a big game. Jay and I were playing opposites of what we were in person. I was very shy, and Jay really liked me. But it was fun to have that different kind of character to play."Do you ever watch 'M*A*S*H'? Hot Lips reminded me of my character," Russell adds, chuckling."She was named Margaret Houlihan — I thought it was funny that she had the same name. And she was not afraid to push the guys around."The severe way Russell was styled as Margaret — glasses, curls, crinoline petticoat skirt — helped drive the point home."It was a complete transformation," Russell says."You wouldn't recognize me on the street unless I was in what I call my 'Margaret drag.' It took them an hour to make my hair look like that. The night before and the next morning, I sat for an hour in the chair while they brushed my curls out and wrapped them around a stick. Then they put the glasses on my face, and you wouldn't recognize me from my street persona.
"As an actress, it was sort of an aid. Because Margaret was so not my personality. But the minute I got into costume with the little flouncy skirts and the curls and glasses, the character was just sort of there. My mother was my coach. She was a fan of (child star) Jane Withers, so she helped me with my timing and line reading. But basically, after a few episodes, they just put me in the curls and I was there."
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The breakneck pace of television didn't throw Henry. "I did a lot of "B" pictures, and those went pretty fast," Henry says with a laugh. "So it was not a hard adjustment to make, because I was used to shooting fast anyway. In those days, television was a one-camera thing. You had one day of reading over the script in the morning, and then the afternoon was sort of spotting where you would be standing, where the camera would be, for most of it. Then you shot for three days straight. If there was anything left over to do, they would combine that on Friday with any commercials. We were doing commercials for Kellogg's at that time."
Still, Russell and her fellow child actors managed to have a little fun now and then."We palled around," Russell recalls."We'd go to birthday parties. Jay would have a big birthday party every year, and we were all invited. Of course, we were in the little school on the set together. Billy (Booth, who played Tommy) and I often ate together. Ron Howard did our show the first season; Ron and I would always have lunch together. Jay didn't eat lunch with us; he had to eat lunch in his dressing room by himself."
North has been a patient of Russell, who has a chiropractic practice in California. "We talk every week or so," she says. Henry says she had maternal feelings toward North while filming the series."I felt toward Jay as I felt toward my own children," Henry recalls."I mean, he may have been his mom's child at night, but he was my child during the day on the set when we were working."That's what usually happens if you've got a nice cast to begin with. They bond like family. We went on for four years. Other shows go on nine and 10 years — I can't imagine that. But you get to know every guy on the set. You know their children, who is sick, what's going on. It's a remarkable study, how a TV show's writers and crew and production managers manage to become a family, because they do. “Most shows, I think, end up with everybody loving everybody else. The last day of the show, you cry buckets and you swear you'll get together at least once a month from then on. And then 20 years go by and you wonder, 'What's happened to so-and-so? "
photos: screen captures from the series
Mark Voger can be reached HERE.
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