Teen Age Idol

Every week in the fifties Ricky Nelson along with big brother Dave grew up right on television on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," a real-life family in electronic black and white. After Elvis got drafted in 1958 rock 'n' roller Ricky replaced him as America's number one teen idol. He and the King were the only two performers that could tour as stand-alone acts.

On May 8, 1940 Ozzie's band was playing Milwaukee's Riverside Theater while Harriet, his singer and wife, birthed Eric Hilliard Nelson in Teaneck, New Jersey. When Ricky was one Ozzie and Harriet played the Palace in San Francisco and Harriet's mom watched Rick at home in San Rafael across the Golden Gate Bridge. Red Skelton's scouts offered the Nelsons a spot on the Red Skelton Show and in no time they were living in the Hollywood Hills and a radio career was launched. Ricky developed asthma at age two and slept with an oxygen inhaler till he was ten.

By the time Skelton was drafted in 1944 (Ozzie had connections that kept him out of the service) they were tapped for their own radio show, "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Ricky and David were played by actors on the radio show from the start, Ricky by a 13-year-old named Henry Blair. Ozzie didn't want his boys to be caught up in a showbiz life. On a Christmas broadcast featuring Bing Crosby and his sons, the boys, eight and twelve, demanded to be included. "People just ate it up," Ricky said. Harriet said, "They got such a tremendous reaction that we dismissed the actors and the boys took over. When an actor gets his first laugh, he's hooked. It's as if he's tasted blood."

Ricky and David started earning $500 a week. On the show Ozzie was director first, father second. He gave them $5 a week, not wanting them to become spoiled Hollywood rich kids. He and Harriet took home $4000 a week. Harriet never cooked much when the couple was on the road with the band and now, contrary to her housewife image on the show, they had servants and cooks.

On the show Ricky was the cute wise-ass little kid:

Ricky: Can I borrow some money, Pop? I want to buy some comic books."

Ozzie: OK, here's your allowance, but I wish you'd raise your literary standards.

Ricky: I wish you'd raise my allowance.

When TV came along the show made the transition without a hitch. Ozzie Nelson was laid back and slightly befuddled on the show, but he was in reality a shrewd, hard-driving, technically adventurous TV producer/director. Dissatisfied with the flat look of TV of the day, Ozzie hired an accomplished cinematographer and soon had a crew that delivered production values as fine as a major Hollywood movie. Expecting any day the advent of wide-screen TV (it never came), he shot all the episodes in wide-screen format.

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