Almanac

Cover Story - October 27, 2010

On camera, and off

A high fashion model and a pioneer in TV entertainment, Fran Kearton has stories to tell

By Dave Boyce

Life. It's just one thing after another, isn't it? Things are swell and then they're not; everything's coming up roses and a couple days later you're all alone on Desolation Row; you think you're in for a thousand miles of bad road and around the bend is a scenic highway. On the one hand, you've got your lemons. On the other, you've got your pitcher of water and your sugar. Whad'ya gonna do?

You could write a memoir.

Fran Kearton, 90, and a resident of Menlo Park, has written two. She was a fashion and runway model for the influential John Robert Powers agency, followed by three years of co-hosting, skit-writing, prop-mastering, cartoon-drawing, acting, dancing, choreographing, ad-libbing and/or lip-synching every weekday in partnership with comedian Dick Van Dyke. In the glory days of television, the 1950s, they put on a daily hour of live comedy, song-and-dance and celebrity interviews on daytime TV for the Atlanta community.

So much for her day job. At home, she was a single mother in an era when middle-class living more or less required the higher wages of a husband. Divorced women were expected to remarry.

She eventually did, to Lockheed executive Reginald Kearton, whose name she took and with whom she visited France regularly. Her new book, "French Beds I've Slept In (and Some I Wish I Hadn't)," captures the amusing chaos of her adventures in Europe.

Her first memoir, "Waiting for the Banana Peel," was published in 1993 and covers the triumphs and trials of her collaboration with Mr. Van Dyke on "The Fran and Dick Show" (also known as "The Music Shop") five days a week.

Entertainment television back then was a world apart from what it is today. Her show included a contest to name a white mouse, lip-synching Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in costume, playing the well-dressed homemaker removing sponsor-made pot pies from the oven, and, with Mr. Van Dyke and the band, blowing bubbles while wearing party hats. TV was in its infancy.

The Jim Crow era notwithstanding, Ms. Kearton and Mr. Van Dyke did their best to treat African Americans equally and with respect, she said.

Pumping out a page of humorous dialogue every day; now there's a challenge. "Dick and I never thought we were real writers," Ms. Kearton said recently in a talk for some 100 women at the Menlo Circus Club. "We were merely survivors racing into Studio B each day clutching last-minute hastily scrawled skits to feed the insatiable Venus flytrap of a daily live TV hour."

For what she and Mr. Van Dyke were asked to do, "we really were good," she added. "We didn't know we were good, but we were."

Could she have been a contender, a writer for comedians Sid Caesar or Carl Reiner? "I couldn't have possibly survived any of that," she said in an interview. "I would have looked like a petunia in an onion patch."

"I don't know how to write comedy," she added. "I never tried to write comedy. My mother was a very funny woman. I think (being funny) is hereditary. ... She was always funny. Even when things were so bad, she was always funny."

Things did get bad. Her mother lost two husbands to death, the family savings to an unscrupulous stock broker, and Fran's 20-year-old younger sister to acute toxemia. Fran herself eventually lost her son Allison to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

When the girls lost their father, Fran was 11, one year after lightning struck their rural Georgia home and burned it down. The one item recovered, she said, was a blue cloisonne vase.

The fire presented an opportunity for a life lesson from her mother, a 1906 Vassar graduate with a degree in speech and French. "Frances," her mother said, standing amid the ashes with the vase cradled in her arms, "remember the main lesson of this loss: never become too attached to material things."

That vase now sits in her entryway. She is attached to it, she said.

Her mother, being a speech major, also discouraged attachments of an immaterial kind: Southern pronunciations. Drummed out of Fran were "pinnies" for the one-cent coins, and "aig," a breakfast food that may be scrambled or poached.

As for breakfast itself, Fran pronounced it as "breas" followed by a four-letter word that rhymes with duck. Her mother let her keep that one. "She felt sentimental about it because it was my last baby word," Fran said.

Ms. Kearton spends at least half of her TV memoir on her life as a mom raising her son in the warm and convivial company of her mother and a housekeeper/confidant and, later, several young female boarders.

Equal pay? As if!

Ms. Kearton's busy and adventurous life at home may have been invaluable because outside of it, at that time and in that place, the trials were plentiful for a working woman. Ms. Kearton's position as co-host notwithstanding, she was expected to answer a ringing phone, she said. If she had an idea, she had to arrange it so that one of the men could claim it. "That's the only way I could get things done," she said. "I had to go around the mulberry bush."

"They never heard of equal pay," she added. Once, upon learning of Mr. Van Dyke's salary, she asked for a raise. She was denied, she said, on the excuse that family men had greater financial responsibilities and that, with her looks, she would probably remarry soon.

Her boss, she said, then showed her a handful of letters from Atlanta women who "would work for a television station without any salary."

There was harassment. The world of fashion modeling "was fraught with it," she said. "I was always creeping into somebody's heart, which meant they wanted me to creep into their lap, too."

Even with her prestige as a Powers model in New York City, men touched her inappropriately and assumed she had loose morals because she was a model, she said. On more than one occasion in her career, she was chased around a desk.

"I was a very pretty girl and sometimes that's a plus and sometimes that's a minus," she said. "I prefer to see it as a plus."

Now, she's a very pretty, Georgia-accented 90-year-old who cleans her own house, drives her own car, and is a Democrat in the Republican stronghold of Sharon Heights. "I stick out," she said.

Asked to comment on contemporary politics, she replied that too many people no longer feel the need to read or think. "It's smart to be stupid now, which is really scary."

She keeps in shape by tap dancing twice a week — while holding on to a barre — takes time to stretch unused muscles while housecleaning, and likes "Sit to be Fit" among a few other TV shows.

And her passion? "Getting rid of all the 'French (Beds I have Slept In)' books. I might be killed by an avalanche of these books, but it's not a bad way to go."

By the time you're 90, "you've done all your praying really," she added. "I would have given my soul to save (my son) Allison, but a lot of things you just have to cope with."

California, here we come

"The Music Shop" went off the air in 1953 and Mr. Van Dyke eventually went on to fame and perhaps fortune with his eponymous situation comedy. What happened to Fran Kearton?

She went back on the air as the host of "Fun with Fran," a daily televised birthday party for kids from all over Georgia. "I loved that show," she said, and she expected to one day rename it to "Fun with Granny Franny."

There were complications. There was no party on days when the station's antenna wasn't working, for example. Mothers, kids in tow, would not be pleased. "It's a wonder I didn't get killed by an avalanche of unhappy mothers," she said.

She ended the show to adjust to her new husband's schedule. (She married Reginald Kearton in 1954 after 12 single years. "I had three proposals that same week," she said.)

"Reg was pretty supportive of anything I did as long as it didn't interfere with anything he wanted to do," she said, adding that she did not marry for love.

The family's move to California with her teenage son and mother and her husband's parents and two teens took three years of logistics. When Fran herself came west, she drove and her companions were her mother, her mother-in-law and her father-in-law.

Initially, everybody lived in a rented Los Altos estate. It had two swimming pools, two kitchens, 10 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms and was in the middle of an apricot orchard, she said. With intercoms everywhere, privacy was hard to come by. "It was like a bad movie," Ms. Kearton said.

She did all the cooking. "Nobody would eat the same thing," she said. "If I could have found a soup that they all liked, I would have put arsenic in it."

A month before they left for a home in Atherton, a dog tore apart the patio furniture and the cotton batting got into the apricot trees, a sonic boom blew out a window, there was a grease fire in the kitchen, and a snake fell out of the ceiling and on to her. "They found me a mile down the road," she said. But all was fixed in time to turn the house over.

Her saving graces? She took up Impressionist painting at what is now the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto and painted for 30 years, selling most of her work, she said. And through it all, she never stopped tap dancing, and she is dancing still.

To order a copy of " French Beds I have Slept In," send a check for $18 to Fran Kearton, P.O. Box 7505, Menlo Park, CA 94025; or stop by Cadeaux, a gift shop at 725 Santa Cruz Ave. in Menlo Park.

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