Once an Episode to open the show, teenager Henry Aldrich would be called by his mother — "Henry, Henry Aldrich!" — and in a voice cracking with adolescence he'd respond "Coming, Mother!"
Henry Aldrich started out as a minor character in the Broadway play What a Life by Clifford Goldsmith, which ran from April 1938 to July 1939 for a total of 538 performances. Henry was only intended as a comic relief, but instead turned out to be the most memorable character there. As described by the press, "Chief amusement centres in Henry Aldrich (Ezra Stone), a cross between Penrod and Willie Baxter, who attends classes mainly in the principal's office. With a talent for head-on collisions, always ingenious, never crafty, always there with an answer, never with the right one, brash, bouncing, rumpled, rattled, rueful by turns, Henry grows into that rare thing on the stage — a person..."
Rudy Vallée asked Goldsmith to adapt the popular character for use in radio. A few short sketches based on the theatrical play were the first such use for Henry Aldrich, followed by his own segment in The Kate Smith Hour. Then the full series The Aldrich Family was produced, running from October 1939 to April 1953, with Goldsmith becoming "the highest paid writer in radio". Ezra Stone continued playing his character until 1942, when he left to serve in World War II. He was replaced by Norman Tokar (1942-43), Dickie Jones (1943-44), and Raymond Ives. Stone returned to the role from 1945-52. The final voice actor for the character was Bobby Ellis (1952-53).
The show was also adapted to cinema by Paramount Pictures. A total of eleven Henry Aldrich films were released between 1939 and 1944:
- What a Life (1939), starring Jackie Cooper.
- Life with Henry (1941), starring Jackie Cooper.
- Henry Aldrich for President (1941), starring Jimmy Lydon.
- Henry Aldrich, Editor (1942), starring Jimmy Lydon.
- Henry and Dizzy (1942), starring Jimmy Lydon.
- Henry Aldrich Swings It (1943), starring Jimmy Lydon.
- Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour (1943), starring Jimmy Lydon.
- Henry Aldrich Haunts a House (1943), starring Jimmy Lydon.
- Henry Aldrich, Boy Scout (1944), starring Jimmy Lydon.
- Henry Aldrich Plays Cupid (1944), starring Jimmy Lydon.
- Henry Aldrich's Little Secret (1944), starring Jimmy Lydon.
A television adaptation debuted in October 1949, lasting until May 1953. The series was notable for its unusually frequent casting changes (only Henry's father Sam was played by the same actor for the entire run), with Henry Aldrich himself being played by a total of five actors: Robert Casey, Richard Tyler, Henry Girard, Kenneth Nelson, and Bobby Ellis. A pre-fame Paul Newman appeared in several episodes of the final series as a supporting character.
The supporting cast of Henry Aldrich in all his incarnations included his parents Sam and Alice Aldrich, sister Mary Aldrich, girlfriend Kathleen Anderson, best friends Dizzy Stevens and Homer Brown, etc.
This show and its adaptations provide examples of:
- Girl of the Week: Though Kathleen Anderson was Henry's steadiest girlfriend, many girls came and went from his romantic life over the course of the series, with many a budding relationship snuffed out because Henry somehow got waylaid against his will while trying to keep a date, resulting in the girl in question breaking things off with him in anger at being stood up and ignoring his attempts to explain that it wasn't his fault.
- Hypocritical Humor: Sam Aldrich was a steady source of this; many were the episodes when he would impress on Henry the need to concentrate on his schoolwork or his household chores, quashing all his son's attempts to make excuses so that he can go out and have fun with Homer and/or his Girl of the Week. Then he would get a call from someone (often Homer's father, Will) inviting him to go bowling or fishing, and Sam would be the one trying to make excuses to get out of the chores he has ordered Henry to assist him in completing - excuses that generally involved trying to conceal from Henry that he, too, would rather go out and have fun than work, given a choice.
- Not Allowed to Grow Up: Henry Aldrich remained a teenager after 15 years of appearances.
- Poor Communication Kills: Well, there were no fatalities, but poor communication was a constant source of the comic mayhem that seemed to follow Henry everywhere (usually dragging his family, especially his father Sam, along for the ride). There were countless conversations where Person A couldn't articulate himself or herself (either due to embarrassment over the subject or simple poor word choice) and/or Person B either wasn't paying attention or refused to listen. Just to give a few examples:
- In "Homer's Party", Henry's date for the title event, Diane Conway, has arranged for Henry to pick her up, but their arrangements left her uncertain about whether they were to meet at her house or DeHaven's Drugstore, so she calls the Aldrich house, by which time Henry has gone to borrow a record player for the party. Alice assumes Henry will be going by her house, but Diane is already at the drugstore, so Alice sends Sam to collect her - without first telling him what Diane looks like (all she knows is that Diane has blue eyes). Meanwhile, Homer's mother overhears a conversation between her son and Henry about Schubert's Eighth (the record player's owner only having classical LPs) and interprets this to mean Diane is waiting at Schubert's Delicatessen on 8th Street, sending Sam on a wild goose chase in search of a girl whom he only knows to have blue eyes (and who has long since run into Henry anyway).
- In "French Notes Mix-up", Homer has managed to borrow class brain Charlie Clark's French notes for a cram session with Henry the night before their big test, but they must return the notes to Charlie after he gets out of the movies at 10pm (as, unbeknownst to them, he has borrowed them from their teacher, Mr. Prescott). Unfortunately, Henry fumbles an explanation to Sam involving going to Homer's and something about the movies, and Sam interprets this to mean Henry and Homer are planning to skive off studying and go to the movies together, and orders him not to leave the house. When the Aldriches join Homer's parents for an evening of bridge, the Browns mention having overheard Homer's side of the conversation, and as Homer has gone out, Sam decides to take Will Brown to the movies to catch the boys in the act; in the process, they run into Mary, who goes back home and tells Henry and Homer, who are feverishly studying the borrowed notes, that their fathers are waiting for them at the movies. Protecting the notes from the evening's snowstorm with a comic book so that they can walk and study at the same time, the boys go to the movies, where they are subjected to a tirade from their fathers, who confiscate and throw away the comic book before they can explain that it has the notes inside.
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The Aldrich family live at 117 Elm Street in Centerville... but their home state is never mentioned in the interest of giving them a more universal appeal.
- Zany Scheme: Henry often tries to get himself out of a sticky situation with a convoluted plan that just makes things worse. For example, in "Henry Buys a Hat", he is allowed to go to the emporium unaccompanied to buy his first hat, but his parents order him to return the West Indian straw hat he purchases, as they think it looks ridiculous. Unfortunately, he has had the hat initialled, so he and Homer try going through the phone book looking for someone with the initials H.A. who takes a size 6 1/2 hat and is willing to buy it for the $3 Alice thinks Henry received in store credit. They end up calling the newspaper in an attempt to narrow down the list of prospective buyers, but Henry's fumbled explanation leads the reporter to believe that someone wearing a straw hat with the initials H.A. has taken Henry for everything he has. And when Sam secretly decides he wants the hat for himself and takes it to the emporium to have it enlarged, he is arrested on his way home when the police are looking out for someone wearing a straw hat with the initials H.A. on it... even though they're not entirely sure what crime has been committed and end up having to let him go without charge.