Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fonzie, Morgan, Keaton and Jumping the Shark

I really need to thank Harry Morgan for that half day off. It's now 30 years overdue.

I can't say I had a real simple way to do it previously. I didn't know his agent, and had no faith in that Map of the Hollywood Stars booklet that Mom and Dad brought home back when I was a kid. In all honesty, I can't even say Harry's address was in the thing.

I guess I could have written to CBS. They were, after all, called the Tiffany Network. Seems like the kind of place that should have someone around that would forward an important document like a "Thank You" card to an actor on the set of the network's most popular show.

For whatever reason, I didn't do it. Probably too busy chasing skirts. Or playing baseball. Or figuring out what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

Well, some thirty years later, I've taken on the task.

Now, the Harry Morgan I'm talking about is indeed the Harry Morgan you're thinking about.
  • Joe Friday's partner, Bill Gannon, on Dragnet.
  • Col. Potter of the Four Oh Seventy-Seventh M.A.S.H. unit based in Korea.
  • The guy in "Pete and Gladys" (Hey - I wonder why they don't show that on Nick at Nite?), a spin-off of December Bride.
Yep - that's him.

Sounds like he was a wonderful guy to those who had the chance to know him. Like B.J. Hunnicutt, or rather Mike Farrell, who has very nice things to say at Mike Farrell Online

Harry came back to Muskegon to film a television commercial back when I was in high school. It was for Life Savers. Part of that "They're like coming home" series they did with a number of Hollywood actors.
Of course I never met him. It was my junior year.
The campaign was handled by Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample - a big player out of New York city. I guess they handled Toyota's "Oh What a Feeling" campaign.
Anyway, while they were filming, they blew the high school's circuit breakers. School officials decided that our 15 minutes of fame was more important then educating kids that day, so they sent us home.
Now I would have made the same decision, as I don't think too many of us were really thinking about the three R's when Hollywood was just out the window.
Half day of school! The equivalent of a partial snow day! It was GREAT!

Well, not as great as the gig that two of my classmates had. Dawn Plouhar and Lorna Barrett were earning scale as actors appearing in the commercial. They each picked up a check for $215 for their efforts. That's somewhere between $683.51 and $1,293.68 in 2009 coin.
The commercial made it's debut during a rebroadcast of an episode of Happy Days. It was, or would become, the most famous plot in the series' history. For those tuned in, Fonzie had been challenged to a water skiing contest.
Then Muskegon High School, Morgan, Barrett, Plouhar and Life Savers all hit the screen. Nobody in Skeetown knew in advance.
Yes - it was the "Jumping the Shark" episode. And if you missed the rerun, you missed the commercial. To the best of anyone's knowledge, the commercial never aired again.
I'd love to find a copy of the commercial. Can anyone help?
As the years went on, and my interests in Muskegon history grew, questions began to surface in my mind about Morgan career.
Harry Bratsburg, as he was once known, was born in Detroit in 1915, then moved to Muskegon - home of the Actors' Colony. By 1917, Buster Keaton had made his move into film. But the Actors' Colony and Pascoe's were still around.
Morgan would attend Muskegon High School as Harry Bratsburg, graduating in 1933. He received his start in acting under the direction of Miss Frances Kleaveland, an instructor at Muskegon High School. She would later marry Muskegon High School's varsity football and basketball coach, C. Leo Redmond.
Miss Kleaveland founded the city's "Civic Theater", later rechristened the "Port City Playhouse". The groups' first production, "The Silver Cord", featured Harry, along with Phyllis Cone, and Naomi Riordan. Bratsburg's would later move to summer stock in Washington D.C. In 1937, he had moved to New York where he joined the famed Group Theater. In 1939, he ventured west to California in 1939.
Born in 1961, I knew Morgan from re-runs of Dragnet, and of course, M.A.S.H. I wondered...
  • Did he ever cross paths with Buster Keaton or any of the others from Muskegon and the Actors' Colony who ventured west?

Keaton, of course worked in film and television until he passed on in 1966. (December Bride was a Desilu Production that filmed on a set next to I Love Lucy.)
As a local sports historian, I wondered...
  • What inspired the name of his character, Col. Sherman T. Potter, on M.A.S.H.?
Morgan replaced McLean Stevenson - Col. Henry Blake - and played the role as a tough yet good-humored and caring officer. I’ve seen reference that the character was named after General William Tecumsah Sherman, but no mention about his last name.
During his high school days in Muskegon, one of the school's athletic coaches was named Harry Potter. The personalities of Colonel Potter and Coach Potter, I’m told, were very similar. I’ve come across former football players who have used the comparison. Bratsburg played at least J.V. football at Muskegon, so as a youngster, he would certainly have known of Coach Potter. Is there a connection?

Those questions resurfaced the other day, as I leafed through an old yearbook. Some old newspaper clippings fell out, reminding me of that day.

Now, without question, I should have launched this quest some time ago. For the mathematicians among us, I know that Morgan is now 93. As I understand, four years ago he was doing quite well. A Norwegian, I hope that is still the case.

With a little luck, I may find answers.

Harry Morgan's son, Charley, answers my questions.

Click here to see the response.

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