Question: I remember loving Donny and Marie as a kid, because they were older and seemed cool, but nice. Now, of course, I realize they were kids, too. How old were they? Thanks. — Rob T., Moab, Utah
Televisionary: When producers Sid and Marty Krofft launched the brother-sister team on their own musical-variety show in January 1976, Donny Osmond was 18 and Marie was 16, but both were entertainment vets by then.
Donny was but a wee one when he first hit the stage singing "You Are My Sunshine" on The Andy Williams Show. By 13 he was a teen heartbreaker, selling record after record with hits like "Go Away Little Girl" and "Puppy Love." Marie, for her part, recorded "Paper Roses" when she was 13, and then teamed with Donny a year later for "I'm Leaving It All Up to You."
So putting them together on their own series was a no-brainer, especially considering the wild popularity of the Osmond franchise at the time. By 1975, the brothers had sold more than 65 million records, were playing to packed concert halls and commanded top dollar for shows in Vegas and Tahoe. So ABC head honcho Fred Silverman saw an obvious opportunity in Donny and Marie.
"It was Freddie who sensed that the two kids had the right chemistry," Marty Krofft told TV Guide in 1976. "The kids are pros. Even if you're not a fan, how many performers their age would you trust to head up an expensive hour of prime-time TV? At 16, Marie is already a beautiful lady.... And Donny, who comes off as shy, has an amazing amount of savvy. He's very shrewd about show business. But then, he's been on stage since he got out of diapers, so I guess it figures."
It also didn't hurt that Donny was an obvious breakout star at an early age. "I had just turned 12," he recalled in 1976. "I forget where we were playing, but when I came out on stage that night, the screaming began in a way I'd never heard before. I remember thinking something was wrong, that an accident had taken place or something. Eventually I learned to like that sound."
But how did a couple of young kids — and Mormons, to boot — maintain their innocence in the face of Hollywood's corrupting influence? The same way they maintained it in the face of Vegas's corrupting influence: They were protected by Mom and Dad. "We're there to entertain, not to judge others," Olive, the kids' late mother, said when asked about playing the booze-, nudity- and gaming-heavy town. "We're in and out the back door. Sometimes I'll peek out from behind the curtain at the people in the audience, and they'll look worried and unhappy. Maybe they've just lost their shirts. And I watch them watching my children, and I see them begin to smile and relax. I really don't enjoy Vegas. But it's a part of show business — and when I see my children bringing joy to those people in the audience, I know there's nothing wrong with our being there."
Apparently not. And just in case, the young 'uns also had their older brothers around as backup. Marie, for instance, turned 18 in 1977 and ABC pushed her new grown-up image, dressing her in Bob Mackie gowns (albeit tasteful ones, of course). Before her birthday, she was looking forward to being allowed to go out on "single" dates, though not without the family say-so. "My brothers approve every date," she said then. "They talk to the guy and make sure he's all right."
Asked if spending her childhood working under such close supervision prompted any regrets, Marie couldn't identify many. "Not really," she said. "Maybe I missed out on a little of the social part of high school, but that's all."
Of course, adulthood brought on a different outlook. Interviewed when launching their talk show in 2000, for example, Donny wasn't quite all smiles. "I look back at our image," he said. "It was a very concocted, plastic, goody-goody kind of thing, and I think that is why people couldn't relate. I own all the old Donny and Marie shows, and when I watch them, I have to have my insulin shot afterward because they are so sugary sweet.... The whole Osmond image was just too perfect."
Maybe so. And if the show itself wasn't, it was good enough for a time, as far as the audience was concerned. It made a three-year run of it before changing its name to The Osmond Family Show and then heading off to Cancelville in May 1979.