Mary Davies Orfield was a multitalented entertainer, but former Twin Cities kids know her best as Carmen the Nurse, one of the most enduring characters in Twin Cities’ children television. Introduced in 1954 on the WCCO-TV series “Axel and His Dog” and later given her own show in “Carmen’s Cottage,” Carmen was on the air for more than 35 years.
Orfield died Friday at age 88.
It wasn’t just the younger set who made her part of their morning routine.
“I used to come up to young fathers and ask them if they watched ‘Axel’ when they were growing up,” said Orfield’s frequent co-star Allan Lotsberg, best known as the bumbling Willie Ketchem. “Many would say, ‘We still do! That’s one good-looking babe. Hubba, hubba.’ ”
Orfield also charmed adults as a singer of pop ballads, most notably with the Jerry Mayeron Band. She even won in her category when performing on the hugely popular radio show “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.”
Lotsberg would often accompany Orfield on her singing engagements. He also would invite her to make an appearance during his “New Fogey Follies” stage show.
“She’d sing and I’d stand there with my mouth hanging open,” he said. “Whenever she would come and sing for me, she would just stop the show.”
Orfield’s likability factor wasn’t limited to the stage. Carol Schaubach, who co-founded the Axel and Carmen Fan Club when she was a teenager, said the actress went out of her way to make her feel comfortable when she visited the studio to write stories for her newsletter.
“She was always so welcoming and comforting,” Schaubach said. “She was very warm. She would always greet us by saying, ‘Oh, you dear girls.’ ”
Old Log Theater founder Don Stolz, who also worked on “Axel and his Dog,” said Orfield was a natural on camera, often talking directly to viewers through the camera lens, calling out children’s names, much to their delight. He praised her ability to work well with animals and keep up with the antics of his character, Tallulah the Cat.
She managed all of this without a script, which was not unusual in those early days of daytime television. Almost every moment had to be ad-libbed and Orfield had to play ball with theater veterans and showboat personalities.
“She was the children’s close friend,” Stolz said. “They felt they could take any problem they had to her, and a lot of them did.”
The story of Carmen the Nurse’s origin is a perfect example of how TV once flew by the seat of its pants. According to Lotsberg, Orfield was supposed to be in a scene where she was to climb into a treehouse with an older actor. Someone remarked that the idea of the two of them alone in a cramped setting might come across as tawdry. Someone suggested it might be less unbecoming if she played a nurse out on a house call.
The director took a piece of white typing paper, folded it in half, and put a slight crease in it. Orfield stuck a pin into the makeshift hat and placed it on her head. Carmen was born.
Despite her title, Carmen never practiced much medicine on the show, with the exception of telling Axel to watch his diet. Her brand of medicine was treating her audience and co-workers with tender loving care.
Orfield is preceded in death by her husband, Robert. She is survived by her six children and eight grandchildren. A gathering for her was held Monday night at the Cremation Society of Minnesota. A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Union Congregational UCC Church in St. Louis Park.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431