Mary Kay and Johnny and Company: The First Sitcoms

We are in the midst of our “They Were the First” blog series. In past weeks we’ve learned about the first crime drama and the first news show. Today we take a peek at some of the first sitcoms on the air.

She Was the First Lucy, but Where Is the Love?
Mary Kay and John Stearns Photo: gr8erdays.com

The very first sitcom I could find evidence for was Mary Kay and Johnny which debuted in 1947. This show was only on three or four seasons, but it produced 301 episodes so it was on more often than once a week. The description on imdb.com is that it’s about the “adventures and misadventures of the strait-laced bank employee Johnny Sterns and his zany wife Mary Kay.”

Real-life spouses Mary Kay Stearns and John Stearns played the married couple that the show centered on. Nydia Westman played Mary Kay’s mother and Howard Fischer played Howie. When the Stearns had a baby named Christopher, he also became their son on the show.

The show was shot live in New York and sponsored by Anacin. During the first season, Anacin tested the market to see how many people might be watching the show because TV ratings had not been collected at that time. They offered a free mirror to the first 200 viewers who submitted comments about the show; to their surprise, more than 9,000 viewers sent letters.

Believe it or not, this was the first married couple to share a bed. At some point, networks rethought this decision, because it would be a battle for years during the fifties and sixties.

So, what were some of the other earliest sitcoms? Here are a few of the other sitcoms that were on during the early years of the golden age.

the laytons | THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!
Photo: jacksonupperco.com

The Laytons. This short-lived show was on the air from August to October of 1948 on the Dumont network. However, it was notable in that it was the first show to feature an African American in a recurring role. I could only find detailed information for one episode which starred Vera Tatum as Ruth Layton, Amanda Randolph as Martha, and Elizabeth Brew as Ginny Layton. From what I could determine it moved to Dumont after running locally for a month.

Growing Paynes (1948-1949) | New york broadway, Elaines, Theatre poster
Elaine Stritch Photo: pinterest.com

The Growing Paynes. From 1948-49, this show followed the “trials and tribulations” of an insurance salesman and his screwball wife.  I’m not sure why all the wives were screwballs in the forties. The show had a cast overhaul after the first couple of months. John Harvey and Judy Parish were replaced by Ed Holmes and Elaine Stritch. The sponsor was Wanamakers Department Store. This show is historically important because it was the first sitcom to work the sponsor’s business into the script. Despite the change in casting, the show was cancelled after ten months.

Golden Age of Radio: Program #123 | WMKY
Photo: wmky.com

The Aldrich Family. This well-known family made the leap from radio to television in 1949. The show centered around the Aldrich son Henry and his family who lived on Elm Street in Centerville.  Imdb.com lists 18 episodes but five seasons so it was on sporadically apparently like The Jack Benny Show when it began on the small screen. I’m not sure how this show survived five seasons. While Jameson House played Sam Aldrich, during the 18 episodes, there were three different women playing his wife Mary and five different actors who showed up as his son Henry.

The Life of Riley. This show also began life as a radio show. There were two versions of the show and the second version was the better known one.  In this earlier version from 1949, Riley is played by Jackie Gleason and his wife Peg is Rosemary DeCamp. Their son Riley Jr. was played by Lanny Rees and Gloria Winters took on the role of their daughter Bab. The other cast member was Jim Gillis, Riley’s friend, played by Sid Tomack. The show primarily focuses on Riley’s home life though we hear about life at the aircraft plant he works in as a riveter. His catchphrase was “What a revoltin’ development this is.”

The Life of Riley: A matter of perspective | CharlesPaolino's Blog
Photo: charlespaolino.com

The show only lasted for 26 episodes; at that time, a full season was 39. Their sponsor was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer and part way through the year the company decided it would rather put more money into the Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts, a boxing show.

This show also made history. It was the first sitcom to win an Emmy, beating out The Silver Theater and The Lone Ranger.

William Bendix could not accept this role because, oddly enough, he was filming a movie, The Life of Riley. He would perfect the role in the second television version which debuted in 1953.

Amazon.com: I Remember Mama TV Show (aka.- Mama Television Series ) : Peggy  Wood, Dick Van Patten, Judson Laire, Rosemary Rice, Robin Morgan, Don  Richardson: Movies & TV
Photo: amazon.com

Mama. This show ran from 1949-1957, producing 178 episodes. Peggy Wood starred as Mama Hansen and Judson Laire played her husband Papa Hansen. A young Dick Van Patten appeared as their son Nels, Rosemary Rice was daughter Katrin, and Robin Morgan was daughter Dagmar.

The show chronicled the lives of a family who recently immigrated to San Francisco shortly after 1910. The movie starring Irene Dunne was also very popular. Many viewers fondly recalled the series as a heart-warming and tender show. Like, most of these early shows, it was shot live so there are no reruns available for this much-loved show.

It, too, made history, being the first show listed as a comedy drama which was not the new thing that we thought it was in the 1970s.

Beginning in 1950, the sitcom genre would become the king of the television schedule. That was the year one of my all-time favorite shows, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show aired and the two popular, but disgraceful shows, Beulah and Amos ‘n Andy hit the air.

The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show | TIME
George Burns and Gracie Allen Photo: timemagazine.com

It was interesting to go back to learn about the first sitcoms which are not well-known or available for viewing. It’s television history we don’t want to lose. These were the pioneers of classic television, and it’s amazing how each series made history of its own that often would not be repeated for several decades.

Make Room for Daddy: The Show That Persevered

As we wind up our salute to fathers during Father’s Day month, we finish with Make Room for Daddy. This iconic show doesn’t get the respect that I Love Lucy did, but it is one of the first iconic family sitcoms. This sitcom had to survive cast changes, network moves, and ratings fluctuations.

Photo: famousfix.com

The show debuted on ABC in 1953. In 1957, it moved to CBS until 1964 when it went off the air. Danny Williams (Danny Thomas), a nightclub singer and comedian, tries to balance his work life with his family life. Danny obviously loves his children but is not an overly affectionate dad and is just as likely to tell his son Rusty, “I love you, you little jerk.”

In March of 1953, Thomas singed a contract for the show and picked Desilu Studios for filming because of their three-camera method. Several of the working titles for the show were “The Children’s Hour” and “Here Comes Daddy.”

The title of the show was from a Thomas family joke. Whenever Danny was away for work, his children had the run of the house. They slept in the master bedroom with their mother, even putting clothes in the dresser there, so when he came home from a tour or a filming, he told them it was time to spread out and “make room for daddy.”

Danny has three children (two in seasons 1-4 and three in seasons 5 and after): Terry (Sherry Jackson and later Penney Parker), Linda (Lelani Sorenson, then Angela Cartwright), and Rusty (Rusty Hamer). The first three seasons his wife Margaret was played by Jean Hagen. They had Terry and Rusty. Louise (Louise Beavers) was their maid. When Beavers passed away, Amanda Randolph took over the role. Terry was later played by Penney Parker. Mary Tyler Moore auditioned for the role, but Danny felt Mary’s nose did not match his as well as Parker’s.

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

The show was filmed live before 300 people, so there was a lot of pressure on the younger kids to know their lines. All three children continued in successful acting careers after the show. (Unfortunately, Hamer had a harder time finding good roles as an adult and committed suicide at 42. Cartwright left acting to focus on a career as a photographer.  Jackson continued acting.)

Photo: pureflix.com

With Danny Thomas’s connections, you can imagine the quality of guest stars this show was able to feature. Some of the bigger names include Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Durante, Shirley Jones, and Dinah Shore. If you looked at a Who’s Who in Comedy Sitcoms, you would find a huge percentage of them on this show.

Like many shows from this era, the original sponsor was The American Tobacco Company, advertising its brands like Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Tareyton.

While the theme song went through variations during the run of the show, it was always a version of “Danny Boy.”

Photo: youtube.com

The show was popular and did well in the ratings but had not made the top 30 after three years. Jean Hagen decided to leave the show.

At the beginning of the fourth season, the title changed to The Danny Thomas Show. Thomas and producer Sheldon Leonard were trying to decide how to explain Hagen’s absence. Divorce was not acceptable and filling the same role with another actress didn’t seem like a good option either. They decided to have her die between seasons.

The emphasis of the show now switched to Danny being a widower. The family moved from their home to an apartment. Danny dated occasionally and almost got engaged to singer before learning she didn’t like children. The ratings were declining with the new format, so it was decided to have Danny marry again.

Mary Wickes played the role of Liz O’Neal, Danny’s press agent from 1955-1957.

Photo: jacksonupperco.com
Mary Wickes in the background

At the end of the 1957 season, Rusty becomes ill, and Danny hires Kathy O’Hara (Marjorie Lord) as his nurse. Kathy was a widow with a young girl (Lelani Sorenson). Danny and the kids both fall in love with her and they become engaged in the season finale. ABC cancelled the show, but CBS* was looking for a show to take over the spot of I Love Lucy which was ending its production, so they took it over and put it on the schedule for the fall of 1957.

The first episode of the fifth season “Lose Me in Las Vegas” centered on Danny and Kathy who had married an were on their honeymoon. Angela Cartwright took over the role of Kathy’s daughter from Sorenson. Danny adopted Linda. The family moved into a larger apartment. The ratings skyrocketed, and it was the number 2 show by the end of the season.

Photo: peoplequiz.com

Sherry Jackson decided to leave the show during season six, and her absence was explained by her going to a school in Paris. Jackson had a five-year contract which she honored. She and Hagen had been very close, and Jackson wanted to leave when Hagen did, but Hagen only had a three-year contract.

In season seven, Terry comes back, now played by Penney Parker. During the season she gets engaged and eventually marries Pat (Pat Harrington Jr.), a friend of Danny’s. Terry and Pat move to California and are rarely mentioned afterward.

Photo:closerweekly.com

Make Room for Daddy might have had the first spinoff of a character not in the cast. In one of the episodes from 1960, “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” Danny is pulled over in Mayberry and is detained in the jail. Sheriff Andy Taylor is featured in the show, and The Andy Griffith Show was created.

“The Danny Thomas Show” (aka “Make Room for Daddy”) Pat Carroll, Sid Melton circa 1950s Photo by Gabi Rona

For the final two seasons, Danny and Kathy traveled for much of the series. They toured Europe while Rusty and Linda stayed home with Danny’s manager Charlie (Sid Melton) and his wife Bunny (Pat Carroll). Thomas decided to retire from the show in 1964. The show ended on a high note, still ranking number nine.

Photo: pinterest.com

Although the show ended in 1964, NBC brought back the main cast of Thomas, Lord, Cartwright, Hamer, Jackson, Randolph, and Hans Conried, Uncle Tonoose, to star in a two-hour reunion special, The Danny Thomas TV Family Reunion.  Having a reunion show was another first accomplished by this sitcom.

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

In 1969, CBS created their own reunion special, titled Make Room for Grandaddy. It had such high ratings that CBS put it on the schedule, but Thomas didn’t like the time slot and pulled the show.

In 1970, ABC tried again. Sherry Jackson again was Terry, but her husband now was Bill; what happened to Pat? Terry had a six-year-old son Michael (Michael Hughes) whom Terry left with Danny and Kathy (still played by Thomas and Lord) to join Bill, a soldier stationed overseas. The show only lasted one year. One of the reasons given was that Sheldon Leonard was no longer controlling the scripts and actors, and the show was moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays during the season.

The show was so popular with kids that a comic book series was developed.

Photo: pinterest.com

As I mentioned, this show does not get the credit it deserves. While Danny tended to be short-tempered and Kathy was the voice of reason, the scripts for the entire series were well written and realistic. It had an extremely talented cast. Unlike some series, the children really carried the show. The children acted like children, not mature adults, in most ways, but they created great characters and were very funny. Rusty always had a viewpoint on any given situation. Their moments are the ones that make this show so memorable. Many of the episodes center around the kids. A typical example is “Casanova Junior ” : Rusty hasn’t asked a girl to the school dance because he has no confidence. Danny gives him some pointers and now the girls are falling all over themselves to go out with Rusty. The only problem is Rusty, he’s gone from no confidence to treating the girls badly and Danny is not happy about it.

Photo: facebook.com

The show ended in the top ten. It created the first sitcom spinoff of a non-cast member and the first reunion movie. I specify “non-cast” member because December Bride included Pete Porter in its cast, and he talked about his wife Gladys. Later the show Pete and Gladys was created.

Despite the challenges it faced with cast members coming and going, the change from ABC to NBC, and the characters growing up on the show with changed the dynamics of the series, the show continued to garner great ratings and was given a second life in a new series in Make Room for Grandaddy. Along with The Donna Reed Show, it was one of the trend-setting family sitcoms from the 1950s and ’60s.

*Thanks to reader Howard Ian Stern for letting me know I originally had the wrong network listed.