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Culture

Blanche Hanalis: Lost Legend of the Golden Age of Television

October 30, 2019

Blanche Hanalis was one of the most creative and vigorous writers of the Golden Age of Television. Between, roughly, 1959 and 1974 Hanalis wrote more than 250 television plays and over two dozen movies (Marion Star, Ohio) March 27, 1974). For the time period in which she worked Hanalis received most of the awards and accolades then offered from the emerging medium of television.

While Hanalis’ writing was diverse she was always drawn to the experiences and contributions of women. Having said all that, surprisingly little is now available in public documents on Hanalis’ personal life.

We do know Hanalis was born in Ohio on December 11, 1915 but she grew up in Chicago, where she attended Theodore Roosevelt High School. This is especially noteworthy since, as her daughter recalls, her mother worked on the school’s Lantern Yearbook in 1932. It seems her mother was an avid writer even then: “Her first published writing was in high school. She wrote so much of her high school yearbook that the school told her she had to write some of the articles under another name.”

Not long after Hanalis’ high school graduation her father’s candy store failed and the family moved to New York City. Rather than attend college Blanche began working to support her family. How Hanalis met and married her husband, Irving Wodin, is still not a part of the public record. We do know that the couple had three children.

Blanche Hanalis’ recollection of her beginning as a writer seems preordained. “My husband was a struggling school teacher in New York,” she said, “and the day the youngest of my three children started school, I pulled out the typewriter on the kitchen table and wrote a television script. I mailed it to the old Philco-Goodyear Playhouse and three days later they called me and said they wanted to produce it…I called my husband at school and told him they were paying m $2,500 for the script…There was silence on the line. Then he said: “Be careful crossing the street,” (Los Angeles Times March 27, 1974). This teleplay was The Littlest Little Leaguer, broadcast on the Alcoa Hour in August 1957.

From that moment onward Hanalis wrote successful feature films, television movies, as well as episodes for television for the next three decades. Hanalis almost instantly became an award winning writer known for her warm-hearted family tales and biopic biographical pictures of great women as well as telecasts of remarkable young women. Through all this Hanalis is credited as saying, “I’m often overwhelmed by the thought that what I have written is reaching an audience of forty or fifty million people in a single night.”

Hanalis wrote numerous film scripts and screenplays between the early 1960s and the 1980s. But she is perhaps best known as a television writer of family-oriented shows such as My Favorite Martian and Little House on the Prairie. Hanalis was the creator of and also a staff writer for Little House on the Prairie and all of the subsequent made for TV movies based on the original pilot movie, Little House on the Prairie, which aired on NBC-TV on March 30, 1974. She continued her prolific career writing television movies, including, but not limited to, A Home of Our Own, The Children of An Lac, Little Lord Fauntleroy, Big Bend Country, Camille, Christmas Eve, and ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.

We learn something of Blanche Hanalis own life by hearing columnist Cecil Smith’s recollection when he was “sent out to 20th Century-Fox last week in search of Blanche Hanalis. I found her in a screening room watching A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and weeping quietly. I joined her and wept a little myself…Blanche…mopped her eyes at the end and said: ‘I suppose it sounds silly, but I cry every time I see it. I cried at the dailies. I identify so with Francie. My family were Greeks, and we lived in the slums of Chicago when I was growing up. We were poor. We played games like Francie did when there was no food for dinner…and dreamed,” (Marion Star, Ohio) March 27, 1974). Another similarity Hanalis does not mention is that Francie’s main dream, frequently expressed in this teleplay, was to become a successful writer.

Another project Hanalis was especially drawn to was her script for the made-for-television movie: Portrait of a Rebel: The Remarkable Mrs. Sanger (1980). “The Blanche Hanalis teleplay traces Mrs. Sanger’s tempestuous life from 1912 when she lived on the East Side of New York City where the compassionate nurse is first struck by women dying of blood poisoning as the result of self-abortion, to 1917, when she is jailed and later released from a short term in Queens County Penitentiary to resume her crusade for the right of women to understand birth control.” (Star Tribune (MN) April 20, 1980).

Given that Hanalis became a professional writer so late in life and proved to be so prolific it seems we need to add something about her work habits. Who better to provide us such information than the producer of one of her longest running creative efforts, Little House on the Prairie, Edwin ‘Ed’ Friendly. “In his unpublished memoir, Friendly describes his working relationship with Blanche, after she agreed to write the teleplays (and scripts for television movies) for Little House: ‘I engaged a writer, Blanche Hanalis…to write a script. Every morning Blanche, who lived about six blocks from me, would call at 7:00 or 7:30 AM and tell me that she had written ‘x’ number of pages (Blanche was one of these people that would get up at 4:00 AM and do her best work between 4:00 and 7:00 AM). She would bring over the pages she’d written and we would go over them together and then she would return home and make the changes. This went on for a couple of months. Let me say, modestly, that the script just turned out wonderfully,” (c.f. littlehouseontheprairie.com› about-blanche-hanalis).

Without drawing too fine a line under the topic of Blanche Hanalis’ numerous awards it seems necessary to provide some background on her professional record. Remarkably, Hanalis’ first feature film, Weddings and Babies, won an Italian Cinema Club Award at the 1958 Venice Film Festival. In 1978, Hanalis’ screen play A Love Affair: The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig Story, was nominated for a Prime time Emmy in the category for Outstanding Writing in a Special Program – Drama or Comedy – Adaptation. Her 1987 teleplay, The Secret Garden (which was filmed at England’s Highclere Castle of Downtown Abbey fame) won a Writers Guild of America Award in the category of Television: Children’s Script. She did not collect the award until 1989 due to the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. Other awards could be cited.

Still for someone so notable and accomplished one would expect to find more exacting details – from reliable sources – about their life. Yet somehow  details concerning Blanche Hanalis’ personal life are few in number. Hedda Hopper, gossip columnist and major proponent of the Hollywood blacklist, once labeled Hanalis a “Left writer” to her over 35 million daily readers (Los Angeles Times December 6, 1965). We do find a quote that attests Hanalis “was passionate about civil rights and environmental causes…given that…both Blanche and her husband Irving Wodin, were involved very early on in the civil rights,” organizations.(c.f. littlehouseontheprairie.com›about-blanche-hanalis).

A self-described Greek, Hanalis was also known in public accounts as a Greek Jewess (Des Moines Tribune August 31, 1965). In her 1932 Roosevelt High School Yearbook Blanche’s last name is given (without any further explanation) as Weiss. This while all other public accounts refer to her strictly as Blanche Hanalis. On July 27, 1992, Blanche Hanalis passed away after a lengthy illness and was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Undoubtedly there is more exacting information exists on the life of the writer television and movie viewers knew as Blanche Hanalis. In fact this writer was (and remains) so accomplished it can only be a matter of time before her full and documented history takes its rightful place in the wider flow of Greek-American history.

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