Despite later starring in three movies alongside Elvis Presley and having a #1 hit single, “Johnny Angel,” Shelley Fabares, who played oldest child Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show, was terribly afraid of singing. Last night at the Donna Reed reunion, hosted by the Paley Center, Fabares spoke of “going into a coma” when she was told she'd have to sing on the show.
Fabares chocked it up to teenage angst. “At 14, 15, 16-years-old, is there much you like about yourself?” she said. Once, when poised to film a scene in which she'd have to dance, Fabares said she went into another one of her comas, but that Donna Reed, who was a mother figure to her and many others on set, was able to calm her down. Fabares quoted Reed as saying, 'Shelley, there are three things I can't do. I can't swim, I can't dance, and I can't act.'
She said Reed went on to say she once filmed a movie in which the first three scenes she shot required her to swim, dance and sing, and that she just had to summon up some courage and do it. Fabares said Reed ended the conversation with, “Oh yeah, that movie I was talking about was It's a Wonderful Life.”
This was one of the many tales told about the late actress last night by her costars Fabares, Paul Petersen, who played son Jeff Stone, and Patti Petersen, Paul's real-life sister, who played adopted daughter Trisha Stone, along with producers and directors, all of whom had the utmost respect for Reed as a performer, a leader and feminist before her time.
The Donna Reed Show was a classic 1950s American sitcom; a contemporary of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. What set it apart, though, was that Reed was truly the center. Her character was a traditional housewife, sure, but the story came from her point of view.
The Stones shared a loving bond onscreen, and according to Reed's colleagues present last night, that bond extended into real life. At one point, Fabares acknowledged Reed's son and daughter in the audience, thanking them for sharing their mother with her and Petersen, whom she said “latched on to [Reed] as if she were their own.”
After The Donna Reed Show wrapped, Fabares said that she, Reed, Peterson and Carl Betz, who played father Alex Stone, would meet at a restaurant in Beverly Hills called The Bistro every month without fail, just to talk and catch up. Petersen said the ladies would leave after a few hours, while he and Betz sometimes stayed long after; until close sometimes.
Betz played a paternal role in Petersen's life, as illustrated best in a clip played last night of a young Petersen singing “My Dad” to Betz in an episode of Donna Reed. It's difficult to tell if the tears in their eyes were the result of genuine emotion, or just really good acting.
Peterson almost named his son after his former TV dad, though Betz wouldn't allow it. “Your father's still alive,” Petersen said Betz told him. But it didn't stop Petersen from giving his child the middle name Alexander, after Betz's character.
Lunches at The Bistro went on for years, and without fail, Fabares said, until Betz passed away. The remaining three couldn't bring themselves back to the restaurant for a while, though eventually they resumed their meetings until Reed died years later. Then, the family meals finally stopped.
This was the ultimate dream of that era, it seems. That the perfect family you saw on TV was real in some way; that it was achievable. Petersen remarked that such strong bonds didn't necessarily exist on every set, noting that the cast of Father Knows Best, which filmed on the stage next to them, greeted each other with handshakes even after years of working together.
“[Reed and Betz] promised us they would be friends for life, and they were,” Peterson said. He seemed to speak for everyone on the stage when he said, “I knew I had it good.”