Joan Davis (June 29, 1907 – May 22, 1961) was an American comedic actress whose career spanned vaudeville, film, radio andtelevision. Remembered best for the 1950s television comedy I Married Joan, Davis had a successful earlier career as a B-movieactress and a leading star of 1940s radio comedy.
Born Madonna Josephine Davis in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Davis had been a performer since childhood. She appeared with her husband Si Wills in vaudeville.
Davis' first film was a short subject for Educational Pictures called Way Up Thar (1935), featuring a then-unknown Roy Rogers. Educational's distribution company, Twentieth Century-Fox, signed Davis for feature films. Tall and lanky, with a comically flat speaking voice, she became known as one of the few female physical clowns of her time. Perhaps best known for her co-starring turn with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hold That Ghost (1941), she had a reputation for flawless physical comedy. Her pantomime sequence in Beautiful But Broke (1944) was a slapstick construction-site episode.
She co-starred with Eddie Cantor in two features, Show Business (1944) and If You Knew Susie (1948). Cantor and Davis were very close offscreen as well.
Joan Davis entered radio with an August 28, 1941 appearance on The Rudy Vallee Show and became a regular on that show four months later.
Swan soap ad featuring Davis' radio show, 1945.
Davis then began a series of shows that established her as a top star of radio situation comedy throughout the 1940s. When Vallee left for the Coast Guard in 1943, Davis and Jack Haley became the co-hosts of the show. With a title change to The Sealtest Village Store, Davis was the owner-operator of the store from July 8, 1943 to June 28, 1945 when she left to do Joanie's Tea Room on CBS from September 3, 1945 to June 23, 1947. Sponsored by Lever Brothers on behalf of Swan Soap, the premise had Davis running a tea shop in the little community of Smallville. The supporting cast featured Verna Felton. Harry von Zell was the announcer, and her head writer was Abe Burrows, formerly the head writer (and co-creator) of Duffy's Tavern and eventually a legendary Broadway playwright.
The tea shop setting continued in Joan Davis Time, a CBS Saturday night series from October 11, 1947 to July 3, 1948. With Lionel Stander as the tea shop manager, the cast also included Hans Conried, Mary Jane Croft, the Choraliers quintet and John Rarig and his Orchestra.
Leave It to Joan ran from on July 4 to August 22, 1949 as a summer replacement for Lux Radio Theater and continued from September 9, 1949 to March 3, 1950. She was also heard on CBS July 3 through August 28, 1950. She was a frequent and popular performer on Tallulah Bankhead's legendary radio variety show, The Big Show (1950–52).
When I Love Lucy premiered in October 1951 on CBS Television and became a top-rated TV series, sponsors wanted more of the same with another actress who wasn't afraid of strenuous physical comedy. I Married Joan premiered in 1952 on NBC, casting Davis as the manic wife of a mild-mannered community judge (Jim Backus) who got her husband into wacky jams with or without the help of a younger sister, played by her real-life daughter, Beverly Wills. I Married Joan did not nearly achieve the ratings success enjoyed by I Love Lucy, but during its first two years, it received moderately successful ratings even cracking the top 25 for the 1953-1954 season. However, by the start of its third year, not only were the ratings beginning to slip, but Davis was beginning to experience heart problems. As a result, the series was canceled in the spring of 1955. Ironically, in its original syndicated run, the series was extremely popular and received high ratings. However once Joan Davis passed on in the Spring of 1961, most if not all local TV stations at the time yanked the show off their line-ups due to a question of taste..the laughing at someone who has died. There were exceptions though like Curly Howard ( Three Stooges ) and The Little Rascals but those shows back then attracted more kids than adults and the kids back then would laugh at anybody on TV/movies..living or dead as long as they were entertained. Sadly back then the adults didn't share that view.
In 1956, a year after I Married Joan had ended its primetime run, Davis was approached by ABC to star in another sitcom called The Joan Davis Show. The premise of this proposed series had Davis playing a musical comedy entertainer who had raised a daughter on her own. Davis used her real name as the lead character. Veteran character actressHope Summers was cast as Joan's housekeeper and Davis's daughter Beverly Wills was signed to play Joan's daughter also named Beverly. Child actor Ray Ferrell was cast as Joan's grandson Stevie. (A year later, Ferrell was cast in three episodes of I Love Lucy as Little Ricky Ricardo's best friend Bruce Ramsey). In the pilot, Joan was being introduced to her five-year old grandson for the first time and was trying to convince Beverly that, despite her hectic show-business schedule and her somewhat zany personality, she was a loving and responsible grandmother. The pilot did not sell as a series for ABC. It was virtually forgotten among Davis's television work until many years later when The Museum of Television & Radio in New York discovered the program and added it to its vast collection. The installment can still be seen at the facility now known as The Paley Center For Media.
On May 22, 1961, Davis died of a heart attack at the age of 53 at her home in Palm Springs, California. She was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery mausoleum in Culver City, California.
On October 24, 1963, Davis' mother, daughter Beverly Wills, and two grandchildren were all killed in a house fire in Palm Springs, California.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Joan Davis has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1501 Vine Street.