Celebrating Mary Jane

Lucy's longtime co-star, Mary Jane Croft, celebrated her birthday on February 15 -- and even though the lovely lady died in August, 1999, we still like to take time out -- especially this time of year -- to applaud her talent and thank her for the many hours of entertainment she gave us.

Mary Jane was our guest of honor at our Loving Lucy '98 Convention. The article that appears below is reprinted from our We Love Lucy club's newsletter that was published a few months later...

Mary Jane Croft Honored

at "Loving Lucy ‘98"



Mary Jane Croft, Lucille Ball’s longtime friend and co-star, was center of attention at the Opening Night ceremonies of Loving Lucy ‘98, the third annual Convention of Lucy Fans. Croft, the only performer to appear on a regular-basis on I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy, received the convention’s first "Lifetime of Excellence" Award.

The ceremonies were held at the Leonard H. Goldenson Theatre at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood. On hand to honor and applaud Mary Jane were such Desilu buddies as actors Robert Rockwell (who co-starred with Croft in Our Miss Brooks); Elliot Reid; Roz and Marilyn Borden; writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Davis; producer Tommy Thompson; film editor Dann Cahn; director Maury Thompson; studio executives Bernie Weitzman and Ed Perlstein; I Love Lucy’s original stage manager, Herb Browar; and such friends as Wanda Clark (Lucy’s longtime personal secretary); actress Betsy Palmer; and 500+ Lucy and Mary Jane fans from around the globe.

Lucie Arnaz, unable to attend, sent a special recorded message, paying tribute to her friend and former co-star.

Croft’s long and illustrious career in radio and television was recalled in a special 45-minute retrospective that included audio, film and video-tape clips of various performances. We Love Lucy president, Tom Watson, presented Mary Jane with the "Lifetime of Excellence" Award -- and a special pink director’s chair with her name embroidered on the chair-back.

Croft (known as "MJ" by her friends) was born in Muncie, Indiana, on February 15, 1916, and started her career as a teenager on the stage of the Muncie Civic Theatre. She quickly joined the Guild Theatre company in nearby Cincinnati, which led to a full-time position on the staff of WLW, then one of the most prolific producers of radio programs in the mid-west. While at the station, she met and married a young actor named Jack Zoller, and in 1939 the couple relocated to Los Angeles.

Hollywood, in those days, was not only the movie capital of the world, but also the hub of network radio. With stations located up and down Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, a cadre of young actors and actresses made up an informal "stock company" that appeared in radio show after radio show. Many -- like Mary Jane -- were considered "voice artists" (capable of doing different voices, different accents, etc.) and were called upon to do a wide variety of programs in a given week. The Zollers fit into this "stock company" beautifully -- where they soon became friends with such actors as Bea Benederet (who became MJ’s best girl-friend), Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire, Lurene Tuttle ("I was so envious of Lurene’s voice!" admits Mary Jane today), Howard Duff, Joe Kearns, and the husband-and-wife team of Cathy and Elliot Lewis.

During this period Croft appeared in such radio favorites as Jane Endicott, Girl Reporter; The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; Those We Love; Open House and Blondie. In 1944, she took time out from this active schedule to give birth to a son, Eric Ward Zoller, born August 4 of that year.

For the next few seasons, Mary Jane juggled the responsibilities of motherhood and career, returning to the microphone to appear in Twelve Players, The Mel Blanc Show, The Adventures of Sam Spade, The Beulah Show, Ozzie & Harriet, Joan Davis Time, and the radio incarnation of Our Miss Brooks, starring Eve Arden and Gale Gordon.

By the early 1950s, Mary Jane’s marriage to Jack Zoller had ended, and network radio’s future also was in doubt. MJ need not have worried. CBS wanted Our Miss Brooks to make the transition to television, and Croft continued with the show as Daisy Enright, Miss Brooks’ outspoken rival. (Daisy was something of a precursor to Betty White’s later Sue Ann Nivens character on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) The television program was produced by a fledgling company called Desilu -- whose first project, I Love Lucy, had already become the nation’s most popular show.

"This was a whole new ball game," remembers Mary Jane today. "In radio we could do many programs in any given week. We did not memorize the scripts -- we read them in front of the microphone. For television, we had to really work! We now devoted a whole week to a single show. Miss Brooks was done like Lucy in front of a studio audience, so we really had to be sharp."

MJ stayed with the Eve Arden comedy for two seasons, then started to free-lance. She appeared in I Love Lucy for the first time in March, 1954, in "Lucy is Envious," in which she played Lucy’s old school chum, Cynthia Harcourt. The role was that of a high-society dame, a character Croft had perfected on many shows over the years.

In 1955, she joined the cast of Jackie Cooper’s new comedy The People’s Choice -- Cooper played a young city-councilman, and MJ was ... his basset hound, Cleo. That is, Mary Jane provided the voice of the dog -- who was often given the best lines in the show!

The following year, she started a ten year association with the TV version of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, playing the Nelson’s friend Clara Randolph. But Ozzie & Harriet was a one-camera film show, shot without an audience, and an actor could often complete his weekly role in one day, leaving him time to do other things. Mary Jane used her time doing guest appearances on other shows -- including a return visit to I Love Lucy as airline passenger Evelyn Bigsby in "Return Home from Europe." (That’s the show in which Lucy disguises a 25-pound cheese as a baby!)

Lucy enjoyed working with Mary Jane very much, and a few months later, when writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Pugh suggested the Ricardos and Mertzes move to Connecticut, Mary Jane was added to the cast as new neighbor Betty Ramsey.

By the late 1950s, Mary Jane’s old radio buddies, Cathy and Elliot Lewis had divorced, and Mary Jane and Elliot found themselves to be kindred spirits. They knew the same people, went to the same parties, and laughed at the same jokes. They began dating and quickly realized they were very much in love. They were married in 1960, and until Elliot’s death 31 years later, were one of the happiest couples in show business.

In 1962, Lucy (by then herself divorced and remarried) agreed to do a new television series, The Lucy Show. Desi Arnaz, still Lucy’s business partner and the head of Desilu Studios, reassembled much of the old I Love Lucy company for the new project. Elliot was brought in as the new producer, and MJ joined the cast as Audrey Simmons, Lucy and Viv’s acerbic girl friend. When Viv left the show in 1965, a new format was adopted, with Lucy moving to the west coast. Mary Jane now appeared as "Mary Jane Lewis," Lucy’s somewhat daffy next-door neighbor.

In 1968, The Lucy Show became Here’s Lucy, with Lucy Carmichael becoming Lucy Carter, and Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. joining the cast as her offspring, Kim and Craig. Mary Jane, however, was still Mary Jane, a role she continued until the program ceased production in 1974.

Lucy, Viv, Mary Jane, Gale Gordon, writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Davis were reunited one last time in 1977 for a one-hour special, "Lucy Phones the President," in which Mary Jane portrayed the wife of the local mayor.

"It's been over 40 years since my first Lucy show and 21 years since the last," says Mary Jane today, "and still we get viewer mail. It's gratifying to know that people are still enjoying the shows. We had no idea when we were doing them they would turn out to be ‘classics.’ We were just having fun every week."

Original material © 2005 Lucyfan Enterprises.
I Love Lucy is copyrighted by and a registered trademark of CBS Worldwide, Inc.
Images of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz used by permission of Desilu, too, LLC.
Licensing by Unforgettable Licensing, Northbrook, Illinois.