Joan Davis

Josephine "Joan" Davis (June 29, 1912 – May 22, 1961) was an American comedic actress whose career spanned vaudeville, film, radio, and television. Remembered best for the 1950s television comedy I Married Joan, Davis had a successful earlier career as a B-movie actress and a leading star of 1940s radio comedy.

Joan Davis
Davis on I Married Joan (c. 1952/53)
Josephine Davis

(1912-06-29)June 29, 1912
DiedMay 22, 1961(1961-05-22) (aged 48)
Resting placeHoly Cross Cemetery, Culver City
OccupationActress, vaudevillian
Years active1935–1955
Si Wills
(m. 1931; div. 1948)
ChildrenBeverly Wills

Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, she was the only child of LeRoy Davis and Nina Mae (née Sinks) Davis, who were married in St. Paul on November 23, 1910.[1] Davis had been a performer since childhood. She appeared with her husband Si Wills in vaudeville.[2]



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 also featured in Tail Spin (1939) as a supporting actor, for the women's Bendix Air Race circuit. She co-starred with Eddie Cantor in two features, Show Business (1944) and If You Knew Susie (1948).


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.

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.[3] 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, Andy Russell, the Choraliers quintet, and John Rarig and his Orchestra. Leave It to Joan ran from 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).[2] Davis was also a regular on Eddie Cantor's Time to Smile program.[4]


Davis was the star of the unsold pilot Let's Join Joanie, which was recorded in 1950. The proposed series was a television adaptation of Leave It to Joan. 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 was not 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 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 began experiencing heart trouble. As a result, the series was canceled in the spring of 1955.[2] I Married Joan experienced greater success in off-network syndication; it was one of the earliest series to take advantage of that avenue.

After Davis's death in the spring of 1961, I Married Joan was pulled from syndication until litigation over her estate---including her residuals from the show's syndicated reruns---could be settled in court (an issue complicated by the deaths of all of her next of kin in 1963), according to the Los Angeles Times.

In 1956, a year after I Married Joan had ended its primetime run, Davis was approached by ABC to star in 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 actress Hope Summers was cast as Joan's housekeeper, and Wills was signed to play Joan's daughter, also named Beverly. Ray Ferrell was cast as Joan's grandson Stevie. In the pilot, Joan was introduced to her five-year-old grandson for the first time and was trying to convince Beverly, despite her hectic show-business schedule and her somewhat zany personality, that she was a loving and responsible grandmother. The pilot did not sell as a series for ABC. It was forgotten among Davis' television work until many years later when the Museum of Television and Radio in New York discovered the program and added it to its collection.[5]


On May 22, 1961, Davis died of a heart attack at the age of 48 at her home in Palm Springs, California.[6][7] She was interred in the Holy Cross Cemetery mausoleum in Culver City, California.[3] On October 24, 1963, Davis' mother, daughter Beverly Wills, and two grandchildren were all killed in a house fire in Palm Springs.[6]

Joan Davis has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her contribution to the motion picture industry at 1501 Vine Street and one for radio in the 1700 block of Vine.[8]


Year Title Role Notes
1935 Way Up Thar Jennie Kirk Short subject
1935 Millions in the Air Singer
1936 Bunker Bean Mabel, Bunker's Secretary Uncredited
1937 The Holy Terror Lili
1937 On the Avenue Miss Katz – Dibble's Secretary
1937 Time Out for Romance Midge Dooley
1937 The Great Hospital Mystery Flossie Duff Alternative title: Dead Yesterday
1937 Angel's Holiday Strivers
1937 Sing and Be Happy Myrtle
1937 You Can't Have Everything
1937 Wake Up and Live Spanish Dancer
1937 Thin Ice Orchestra Leader Alternative titles: Lovely to Look at
Der Komet
1937 Life Begins in College Inez Alternative titles: Life Begins at College
The Joy Parade
1937 Love and Hisses Joan
1938 Sally, Irene and Mary Irene Keene
1938 Josette May Morris
1938 My Lucky Star Mary Dwight
1938 Hold That Co-ed Lizzie Olsen Alternative title: Hold That Girl
1938 Just Around the Corner Kitty
1939 Tail Spin Babe Dugan
1939 Skinny the Moocher The Maid Uncredited
1939 Too Busy to Work Lolly
1939 Day-Time Wife Joyce Applegate
1940 Free, Blonde and 21 Nellie
1940 Sailor's Lady Myrtle
1940 Manhattan Heartbeat Edna Higgins
1941 For Beauty's Sake Dottie Nickerson
1941 Hold That Ghost Camille Brewster Alternative title: Oh, Charlie
1941 Sun Valley Serenade Miss Carstairs
1941 Two Latins from Manhattan Joan Daley
1942 Yokel Boy Molly Malone Alternative title: Hitting the Headlines
1942 Sweetheart of the Fleet Phoebe Weyms
1943 He's My Guy Madge Donovan
1943 Two Señoritas from Chicago Daisy Baker
1943 Around the World Joan Davis
1944 Beautiful But Broke Dottie Duncan
1944 Show Business Joan Mason
1944 Kansas City Kitty Polly Jasper
1945 She Gets her Man Jane "Pilky" Pilkington
1945 George White's Scandals of 1945 Joan Mason
1946 She Wrote the Book Jane Featherstone
1948 If You Knew Susie Susie Parker
1950 The Traveling Saleswoman Mabel King Producer
1950 Love That Brute Mamie Sage
1950 Let's Join Joanie Unaired CBS pilot
1951 The Groom Wore Spurs Alice Dean
1952 Harem Girl Susie Perkins
1952 to 1955 I Married Joan Joan Stevens 99 episodes

Award nominations

Year Award Category
1953 Emmy Awards Best Comedienne

See also


  1. "Joan was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on June 29, 1912. Joan's birth certificate is interesting in that it was altered some 32 years after it was originally filed. It has been stamped with a notation along the bottom edge reading, “Amended by State Registrar pursuant to affidavit filed on _____,” with the date 2-11-44 written by hand. Asterisks indicate three areas of the document that were amended. The birth date, originally recorded as July 4, 1912, was crossed out by hand and changed to June 29. No middle name had been recorded on the original document; “Donna” was subsequently written between the first and last names, with a caret to indicate its placement. The spelling of Joan's mother's maiden name was also corrected. The original document was filled out by Rose Labon, who delivered baby Josephine at the family's residence at 275 Bates Avenue."
    Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy by David C. Tucker (Biography, pg. 3), McFarland (March 24, 2014),ASIN B00JH2B0ZG, ISBN 978-0786477845/ISBN 0786477849.
  2. Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507678-8.
  3. Tucker, David C. (2007). The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms. McFarland. pp. 30, 78–79. ISBN 978-0-7864-8732-5.
  4. Terrace, Vincent (1999). Radio Programs, 1924-1984: A Catalog of More Than 1800 Shows, pg. 335. McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0-7864-4513-4.
  5. "Joan Davis Show, The {pilot} (TV)". The Paley Center for Media. Retrieved February 3, 2015.
  6. Cullen, Frank; Hackman, Florence; McNeilly, Donald (2007). Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America. Routledge. pp. 297–298. ISBN 0-415-93853-8.
  7. "Television Comedienne Joan Davis Dies At 53". St. Petersburg Times. UPI. May 24, 1961. Retrieved September 30, 2012.
  8. "Joan Davis". Los Angeles Times Hollywood Star Walk. Retrieved February 3, 2015.

Further reading

  • Ohmart, Ben. Hold That Joan – The Life, Laughs & Films of Joan Davis. Albany: BearManor Media, 2007. ISBN 1-59393-046-1
  • Rapp, Philip. The Television Scripts of Philip Rapp. Albany: BearManor Media, 2006. ISBN 1-59393-070-4.
  • Karol, Michael. Sitcom Queens: Divas of the Small Screen. iUniverse, 2006. pp. 22–24. ISBN 0-595-40251-8.
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