Character Actress Corner: Happy Birthday to Mary Jane Croft!
"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." (Source)
You can almost hear the perky, slightly shrill, and somehow alluring voice of Mary Jane Croft speaking the words that open this article. Like Mel Blanc, June Foray, and the other gods in Voice-God Valhalla, Mary Jane was gifted with a voice that could transcend mediums and inhabit any character. She did ditzy and screwy well, an almost living embodiment of those plastic pink flamingos used as lawn decoration.
Her fame, understandably, comes from her association with Lucille Ball and Desilu Studios. Mary Jane appeared on I Love Lucy, The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy, and The Mothers-in-Law (which was also produced by Desilu.) Lucy knew that, when she had a character actor of note, to keep them with you as she could. Mary Jane's working relationship with Lucy lasted the better part of 19 years.
Like many, though I am but a scant 27, I experienced the various "Lucy" shows in their chronological order. Those who watch I Love Lucy best know Mary Jane as the woman sitting next to Lucy on the plane home from Europe in the Season 5 Finale, "Return Home from Europe." The scene with Lucy trying to smuggle the cheese onto an aircraft posing as a child is one of the most iconic moments of the franchise, and Mary Jane's pert, yet concerned, character is the linchpin that makes the scene so indelible:
Mary Jane would later go on to play Betty Ramsey in the final season of the show, after the Ricardos' move to Connecticut.
Mary Jane was given a heftier role in the next series, The Lucy Show. Vivian Vance played Viv for the first few seasons and then, understandably, decided to take a break from her sitcom madness. Mary Jane played Lucy's friend Audrey when Viv was on the show, and, as when she played Betty Ramsey, was often pitted against Lucy as a rival. When the show was re-tooled, Lucy is shipped off to California to work at Mr. Mooney's (Gale Gordon) bank. Lucy needed a gal pal to go with her new digs, so Mary Jane got bumped from playful enemy to sidekick! Her best episode is as an unwitting accomplice to one of Lucy's most madcap schemes in Lucy and The Bean Queen:
This was where she made her greatest mark - the interplay between Lucy and Mary Jane is priceless and, while many saw her pale in comparison to Vivian Vance, it's almost too difficult to split hairs between the two most important Lucy sidekicks. Vance's hard-edged "motherly" sidekick is incredibly different from Mary Jane's air-headed, light-in-the-pumps sidekick. Mary Jane was carried over to the next series, Here's Lucy, playing her namesake character once again.
Despite being best known for her work with Lucille Ball, she made her mark early as an incredible radio actress, appearing on nearly every show imaginable, from Suspense to regular gigs on Our Miss Brooks and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
She only had one large film role, 1958's Kathy O', which also stars future The Bad Seed actress Patty McCormack. Thanks to the Copyright Gods, the film is available on YouTube and is an interesting romp, featuring a very different sort of role for Mary Jane... one only wishes that she did more film!
There are very few "voices" nowadays that can rival geniuses like Mary Jane. That twinkle in the eye, sideways smile, and a voice that could turn from sultry seductress to canine squeak-toy is irreplacable and, when she died on August 24th (which happens to be my birthday) in 1999, a beautiful human was lost.
But, thanks to legions of fans and the new availability of classic TV and Radio streaming online, her legacy will live on in our hearts and in the hearts of pop culture lovers everywhere!