Celebrating the Single Life: From Ann Sothern to Mary Tyler Moore

Today marks the beginning of National Singles Week. So, we’re taking a closer look at two women who were single and okay with it.

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In the 1950s, Ann Sothern starred in two sitcoms that were almost one and the same. From 1953-57, we watched her in Private Secretary. Susie McNamara was the assistant to Peter Sands at his theatrical agency. When it went off the air due to contract disputes, Susie moved to a New York hotel, and in 1958, she morphed into Katy O’Connor. The show ran until 1961, and Sothern brought three of her former cast members to the hotel with her with new identities.

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In 1970, we met Mary Richards. Mary is an independent career woman. She’d like to meet the right guy, but till he shows up, she’d rather be alone than in an unfulfilling relationship. Like Susie and Katy, Mary’s workmates become part of her extended family.

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Ann Sothern was one of the first, if not the first, single working woman to appear on a sitcom. Susie previously worked as an actress and was a WAC in World War II. Her best friend Vi (Ann Tyrrell) is the receptionist at the agency. Susie often meddled in her boss’s private affairs, especially his female relationships. She could be described as a bit ditzy, but she also ran the office and was very bright.

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Sothern was praised for her acting ability. She was nominated for Emmys three years in a row, but lost to Loretta Young in 1955, Lucille Ball in 1956, and Nanette Fabray in 1957. Lucille Ball, one of her closest friends, called Ann “the best comedian in this business, bar none.”

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To ensure she came across as a serious career woman, great care was taken with the set. It was a state-of-the-art office with the most up-to-date equipment. Connie Brooks, on Our Miss Brooks, was praised by teachers for her realistic portrayal of an educator. Similarly, Ann Sothern was a heroine to secretaries throughout the country. In real life, Sothern was a smart business woman. She invested her money well, owned a variety of companies and a large ranch. She produced Private Secretary and insisted it be preserved on film. As a result, it went into syndication where it was titled “Susie.” From 1987-1990, it aired on Nick at Nite, creating a new fan base for the show.

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The show holds up well. The scripts are a bit predictable and stereotyped, but it reflected the time. Susie McNamara gave young women hope that there was more to life than getting married and raising a family, although that was still an important role for women.

When Sothern was helping to run a posh hotel, Laura Petrie was at home, running her household. She gave up her dancing career to do so, but she was much more than a wife and mom. She and her husband were co-parenting at that time, and they were friends. She and Rob entertained a lot. Laura supported Rob’s friendship with Sally Rogers, one of his co-writers on this television show. She was a career woman who was very funny and smart, albeit lonely.

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Nine years later, The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted. Laura Petrie had become Mary Richards, a single career woman making her way to Minneapolis. Mary lived alone, dated infrequently, and spent a lot of her time at work or with her new best friend who lived in the apartment above her.

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While we got to know Susie at work, we just got to know Mary. We saw her at her best and her worst. We saw her joyful, depressed, frustrated, angry, and saw her uncertainty as she navigated life alone.

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Mary’s coworkers became her family. Mary wasn’t ditzy, although she occasionally did a ditzy thing or two. She didn’t try to fix her boss’s problems; she had problems of her own, but she was always there for her WJM family.

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Mary would have liked to find the right guy, but until he came along she was satisfied with her life the way it was. She spent her money any way she wanted. She could wear her pajamas all day on Saturday. She had a fun, modern wardrobe. Work gave her great delight, and it also could be extremely stressful.

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Murray was her best friend at work. He and Mary shared a lot of life. We knew part of Murray was in love with Mary, but we also knew neither of them would ever act on any of those possible feelings since he was married.

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Mary was smart and funny. She was an assistant producer for the daily news. Her office space was not as elaborate as Susie’s. There was never enough money at work or at home.

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The times had allowed Mary to move to the city by herself and set up a home. However, even Mary Richards was not allowed to be a divorcé. The network vetoed the original script and converted Mary to a formerly engaged girl whose relationship fell apart. During the run of the show, her boss’s wife asked for a divorce, so the show still ended up featuring a divorced character.

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The Mary Tyler Moore Show was one of the best-written shows in television history. Like M*A*S*H and The Bob Newhart Show, the ensemble of characters drove the show and they were realistic and likeable. The show received 29 Emmys, including three years in a row for Best Comedy (1975-1977). The series tackled a lot of social issues during its run, including equal pay for women, marital infidelity, ethical behavior when Mary goes to jail to protect a news source,  dealing with death of a friend, and Mary’s sleeping pill addiction–real issues facing women at that time.

This was a sophisticated show. It was not predictable. Mary was nice, sometimes too nice for her own good. When everyone else called Mr. Grant Lou, Mary couldn’t bring herself to do it. We were always rooting for her. She had hopes, dreams, and ambitions, and a realistic attitude about life.

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It seems like a big leap between Susie McNamara and Mary Richards, but there were a lot of smaller steps in between. Marlo Thomas’s That Girl provided another smart, funny woman who chose to give up her teaching job to pursue an acting career in New York. Ann Marie was another link in the chain that helped move women forward. While she did have a boyfriend and became engaged during the run of the show, Marlo Thomas ended the show with their marriage up in the air.

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Mary’s life was more realistic than Susie’s. When the Ann Sothern Show ended, Katy and her boss (still played by Don Porter) kiss, and you know that they will end up married, and Katy will no longer be running the office.

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When Mary Tyler Moore’s show ended, everyone on the WJM staff was fired except the totally incompetent Ted Baxter. We don’t know what Mary will be doing, but she has choices. Perhaps she found another news job in a new city. I like to think she found a position in management at a local corporation. Maybe she fell in love with one of the employees she was supervising. I think when she retired and turned on the television, she was watching Murphy Brown’s FYI program, celebrating the leaps women were taking in the workforce.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Celebrating the Single Life: From Ann Sothern to Mary Tyler Moore

  1. I remember hearing you talk about The Mary Tyler Moore Show and how well written and important it was. I don’t remember ever hearing about Private Secretary so it was nice to learn a little about that show. I like learning about shows that were pushing the envelope on what was accepted and helping to tackle the issues of the times. It’s not always the easiest thing to do but ends up leaving a lasting impact.

    Like

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