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.
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. 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
We are wrapping up our series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” At the beginning of the month, we learned about a show that featured four women who spent much of their life together for seven years (Designing Women). Today we end our series with another show that featured a quartet of women that also ran for seven years.
In September of 1985, a new type of sitcom debuted. This show featured four retired women who lived life together, relying on humor to make things work. The show, Golden Girls, was on the air seven years, ending in 1992 and producing 177 episodes. The show was always on Saturday nights with the seventh season moving to an earlier hour.
I read two different versions about the creation of the show, so take your pick. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. One version is that the idea came from Brandon Tartikoff, an NBC executive. When he was visiting his aunt one day, he noticed that she and her next-door neighbor who was her best friend, argued a lot but loved each other. He thought the concept would make a great show.
The other version
credits NBC senior vice president Warren Littlefield. He was in the audience
when Selma Diamond and Doris Roberts acted in a skit called “Miami Nice,” a parody
of the popular Miami Vice. The skit featured old people living in Miami.
Either way, Susan Harris created the show itself, and it was produced by Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, with Tony Thomas and Harris serving as original executive producers. After the first year, Harris was not as involved with the show, but still oversaw the scripts.
The four main characters are quite different which is probably why the series was so successful. Blanche (Rue McLanahan) owns the house in Miami. Two women, widow Rose Nylund (Betty White) and divorcee Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) respond to an ad on a grocery store bulletin board to become Blanche’s roommates. In the pilot episode, the retirement home where Dorothy’s 80-year-old mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) lives burns down, so she joins the trio. All four of the characters appeared in every episode.
Blanche worked for an art museum. She grew up in a wealthy family, living on a plantation outside Atlanta. When she married her husband George, they moved to Miami. With six kids, Blanche should be a busy family matriarch, but she was man-hungry and always involved in some romantic entanglement much to the chagrin of Rose.
Dorothy was a substitute teacher. She became pregnant in high school and married the father, Stanley. Stan and Dorothy moved to Miami but after 38 years of marriage, he had an affair with an airline stewardess and left Dorothy.
Rose lived most of her life in a small farming town, St. Olaf, Minnesota. She and husband Charlie were happily married with five children. After he passes away, she moves to Florida and works at a counseling center. At one point she works for a consumer reporter at a local television station. Rose had an on-again, off-again relationship with a college professor, Miles Webber, during the run of the show.
Sophia left Italy to get out of an arranged marriage and ended up in New York where she met Salvadore Petrillo. Sophia also has a variety of jobs on the show, including a fast-food worker and a developer of a spaghetti sauce and sandwich business. Sophia is the only character to marry during the seven seasons. She married Max Weinstock, but they separated soon after the wedding.
The role of Sophia was the first one cast. Estelle Getty had received rave reviews for her performance in Torch Song Trilogy. Although Getty played Dorothy’s mother, in reality she was a year younger than Arthur. It took Getty three hours in make-up to transform into the older Sophia, donning a white wig, heavy make-up and thick glasses. Apparently, even though she was an experienced actress, she suffered from stage fright and often froze on camera. This affliction got worse as the show continued, and by the fifth season, she was reading her lines from cue cards. McClanahan tried to describe what Getty suffered with, “She’d panic. She would start getting under a dark cloud the day before tape day . . . you could see a big difference in her that day. She’d be walking around like Pig-Pen under a black cloud. By tape day, she was unreachable. She was just as uptight as a human being could get. When your brain is frozen like that, you can’t remember lines.”
was cast as Rose and White as Blanche. White had portrayed Sue Ann Nivens, a
man-crazy woman, on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Director Paul Bogart felt
they should switch roles.
up with the idea that Blanche should have a southern accent which she exaggerated
to make the character more interesting. Apparently, one of the set jokes was
where Rue McClanahan might be sleeping on the set. She was often found napping
in different places.
Although Harris created Dorothy as a “Bea Arthur type,” the producers originally wanted Elaine Stritch for the part, but her audition did not go well. Arthur didn’t want to do the show because she didn’t want her and McClanahan to be portrayed as Maude and Vivian as they were in the show Maude. After reading the script and learning about the role switch of her coworkers, she came on board.
Costume designer Judy Evans created a different look for each of the cast members. Rose was down home and Midwestern. Sophia relied on comfortable clothing. Dorothy had a “pulled-together, no nonsense” look. Blanche was sexy with flowing outfits. Rue had a clause written into her contract that she be allowed to keep all Blanche’s clothing, which was custom made. By the end of the series, she filled thirteen closets with the designer wardrobe. Late McClanahan would create a more affordable line of clothing for QVC, “A Touch of Rue” based on Blanche’s show wardrobe.
While the characters argued from time to time, you knew they loved and cared about each other and were a family, even if they made each other crazy at times. In reality, Arthur was very difficult to get along with. Betty White, who seems to love everyone, admits she did not have a good relationship with Arthur. Apparently, White’s positive and perky manner irritated Bea. McClanahan said Bea was very eccentric and hard to be friendly with. However, White, always the professional, never revealed their difficulties until after Arthur passed away. White and McClanahan became close friends during the show’s run. White always loved game shows and she found a kindred spirit in Rue. They frequently played games between takes.
The house was
often a fifth character on the show. The exterior of the home, which was supposed
to be at 6151 Richmond Street, was part of the backstage studio tour ride at
Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the first two seasons. Designer Ed Stephenson
used a “Florida look” for the home with wooden accents, columns, cypress doors,
rattan furniture, and tropical prints. Of course, Blanche’s bedroom featured pink
carpeting and a vanity table. Dorothy’s room was filled with books and
intricate wallpaper. Rose’s walls are covered with clouds, and her room contained
a lot of ruffles and chintz. Sophia’s room was also modern with dainty floral
wallpaper and mahogany furniture covered by bedding with a satin trim.
If you watch the scenes in the kitchen, you will notice that although four people live there, there are only three chairs at the table. If all four girls were sitting there, someone had their back to the camera, so the director solved the problem by only having three of them in the scene at a time.
plots would feature one of the characters mired in a problem, typically
involving their family, their love life, or ethical dilemmas. When they gathered
around the table to talk, the stories they told would help each other, even
though Rose’s stories from her youth typically had no connection to the current
problem and Sophia’s stories were often made up. Many controversial issues were
covered during the show including same-sex marriage, elder care, homelessness,
HIV/AIDS, immigration, death, assisted suicide, and discrimination whether racial,
sexual or gender.
The critics praised the show, and the public adored it. For six of the seven seasons, the show ranked in the top ten. Both Betty White and Estelle Getty received seven Emmy nominations during the seven-year period, while Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan each received four. Fun fact, all of them won an Emmy during the run of the show. Overall, the show received 68 Emmy nominations.
Mother loved the show so much that she asked the quartet to come to England and
perform for her personally. When the cast assembled in London, they appeared in
an episode about the visit to the Queen.
seventh season, when the show had dropped into the top 30, Bea Arthur decided
to leave the show. In the finale, Dorothy finally meets the man for her, who
happens to be Blanche’s uncle Lucas (Leslie Nielsen), and they move to Atlanta.
Sophia is uncertain whether she should move with them or stay in Miami and, in
the end, decides to stay in Florida.
series ended, White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their Golden Girls roles
and starred in The Golden Palace about a hotel. The series ended after
the first year and never enjoyed the rankings of the original, coming in 57th
for the year.
Harris developed two spinoffs from the original series. Empty Nest starred Richard Mulligan as pediatrician Harry Weston who lives next to the women with his two grown daughters. The show was also very popular and lasted seven years as well.
Empty Nest then launched a show about some of the nurses who worked in Weston’s hospital, simply titled Nurses. While this series was never as popular as Golden Girls or Empty Nest, it did last three years.
enjoyed The Golden Girls, I actually did not watch it often. I think maybe because it was on Saturday
nights during a time that I was not likely home in the evening. I did enjoy it
when I caught an episode but was never the fanatic many of my friends were. I
think I should let the “Girls” have the last words about their series:
Dorothy: You know, sometimes I can’t believe my ears. Sophia: I know. I should’ve taped them back when you were seven.
Sophia come home after Sophia’s best friend’s funeral]
I guess Phyllis Glutman will be my new best friend.
Dorothy: I thought you hated Phyllis Glutman.
Sophia: I do, but at the rate my friends are going, I won’t have to spend too much time with her.
Happy Monday. It’s National Encourage a Young Writer Day. I love to encourage writers of all ages. If you’re a writer, you know the two golden rules of writing. (1) Write what you know and (2) Be original. With those two qualifiers, one would think there would be a myriad of great shows out there about writers. Not so. It took a lot of exploring on my part to come up with 12 shows about writers in the past 70 years!
If writers are writing what they know, it seems writers know much more about incompetent parents, complex medical surgeries, and dating bachelors than they do about writing and writers.
Don’t get me started on being original. Unfortunately, any viewer knows that when one genre show succeeds, the next year will feature ten more just like it; hence, the number of medical and police dramas currently on the schedule. This doesn’t hold true anywhere else in life. No grocer says avocados are so popular, let’s replace the oranges and apples with them. No radio station decides to play the top five songs to the exclusion of the other songs. That being said, I’ll jump off my soapbox before ranting about how the shows on today’s schedule are either amazingly written or not worth the time it takes to turn on the television. So, let’s look at shows about writers.
Apartment 3-C. In 1949 John and Barbara Gay played themselves. Living in New York City, he was a writer. The 15-minute show went off the air after one season. They moved to California where they raised their family and spent 66 years together. As far as I can tell, neither of them acted again, but John went on to be a prolific scriptwriter.
Young and Gay/The Girls. Debuting in 1950 as Young and Gay, this series was based on an autobiographical novel written by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. CBS bought the rights. After the first two episodes, the name was changed to The Girls. The premise of the show was that two Bryn Mawr graduates come to Greenwich Village after spending time in Europe, trying to develop careers as an actress and a writer. After a few more episodes, their acting career ended when the show was cancelled.
Dear Phoebe. In 1954, ex-college professor Bill Hastings, played by Peter Lawford, decided he wanted to try his hand at journalism. The option he receives is becoming Phoebe Goodman, providing advice to the lovelorn. Ironically, his girlfriend, Mickey (Marcia Henderson), is the paper’s sports writer. After one season, they both received advice to seek new work when the show was cancelled.
My Sister Eileen. It would take half a decade before another show about a writer was produced. In 1960, My Sister Eileen aired. The concept will sound vaguely familiar. It’s based on a book and two movies about two sisters from Ohio who move to Greenwich Village wanting to be an actress and a writer. The sisters were played by Elaine Stritch and Shirley Boone. The only memorable thing about the show was the pairing of Rose Marie and Richard Deacon who went on to try their hand at another show a year later called The Dick Van Dyke Show.
The Dick Van Dyke Show. Hands down, this was the best comedy to debut about a writer. It was also the longest running show, going off the air five years because the cast wanted to quit while the show was still successful. Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) is the head writer of the Alan Brady Show, creating scripts with Sally (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam). Mel (Richard Deacon) is the long-suffering producer. This is one of the first shows to concentrate on work life. We get to see what goes on behind the scenes of a comedy/variety show. While Rob, Sally, and Buddy have lives outside the office, they are somewhat married to their work. Sally is always hunting for Mr. Right. Buddy deals with more comedy at home because of his not-so-bright wife Pickles, although it’s obvious he is in love with Sally. Rob and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) are both confident and intelligent adults and insecure parents, raising their son Richie (Larry Mathews) in New Rochelle. The show won an Emmy its first year and never left the top 20, producing 157 of the best-written sitcom episodes ever created.
Window on Main Street. Mention the name Robert Young, and most viewers fondly recall Father Knows Best or Marcus Welby. In this 1961 show, Robert Young plays Cameron Garrett Brooks, an author. After his son and wife pass away, he returns to his small home town of Millsburg to write about the town’s citizens. It must have been a very small town with few people to write about, because the series was cancelled after one year.
The New Loretta Young Show. Loretta Young starred in several shows using her name so it gets a bit confusing, but in this 1962 version, she plays Christine Massey, a children’s author and widow with 7 children. Living in Connecticut, she decides to get a job with Manhattan Magazine. However, after meeting the editor she falls in love and marries him. Perhaps the network had a policy banning inter-company marriages, because the show was cancelled after six months.
Glynis. In 1963 Glynis Granville (played by Glynis Johns) moved to town. She is an amateur sleuth who solves crimes to have something to write about. Her husband Keith (Keith Andes) is an attorney. She consults with a former policeman Chick Rogers (George Mathews). The show only lasted three months. Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of I Love Lucy, apparently forgot this was a different show, airing episodes that were very Lucy-esque.
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. In 1968, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies came to the small screen. Based on Jean Kerr’s book, it was also a movie starring Doris Day about the Nash family. James (Mark Miller) is a college professor and his wife Joan (Patricia Crowley) is a free-lance writer. The show featured their four sons, two of whom were twins, their large dog, and their housekeeper Martha (Ellen Corby). Faring better than most of our shows, this one lasted two years.
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This show about a writer, a widow Carolyn Muir (Hope Lange) who moves into an old house in Schooner Bay in New England, appeared in 1968. The house turns out to be haunted by Captain Daniel Gregg (Edward Mulhaney), a captain who built the house in the 1800s. This show was also based on a movie. Captain Gregg is annoyed with the interruption and noise of the new family, but ultimately falls in love with Carolyn. Charles Nelson Reilly plays the Captain’s nephew Claymore Gregg. Dabbs Greer is Noorie Coolidge, the owner of a local lobster restaurant, and Reta Shaw is their housekeeper Martha. The show was on NBC for one year then moved to ABC for one year. Apparently, CBS declined its turn, so the show was cancelled.
THE DEBBIE REYNOLDS SHOW, Debbie Reynolds, Tom Bosley, 1969-70
The Debbie Reynolds Show. In 1969, another show produced by Jess Oppenheimer eerily reminiscent of I Love Lucy was on the fall schedule. Jim Thompson (Don Chastain) is a sports writer. His wife Debbie (Debbie Reynolds) is a stay-at-home wife who wants to be a feature writer. Jim discourages her, wanting her to stay home. Instead of Ethel and Fred, we have her sister Charlotte (Patricia Smith) and her brother-in-law Bob (Tom Bosley). After one season, the network decided they did not care if Debbie worked or stayed home and sent the crew packing.
Suddenly Susan. Jump almost thirty years to 1996 and we have another show about a writer, Suddenly Susan, starring Brooke Shields. Susan leaves her husband-to-be at the altar and is forced to ask her ex brother-in-law (Judd Nelson) to hire her back at his magazine. Most of the show is set in the workplace. Luis Rivera (Nestor Carbonell), Vicki Groener (Kathy Griffith), and Nana (Barbara Barrie) round out the cast and appear on all the episodes. (The photo above also includes Andrea Bendewald [the blonde] and David Strickland [laying down] who were in about half the episodes.) The show continued until 2000.
I should mention that because I focused on comedies I did not include Murder She Wrote or Castle, both having long runs of 12 and 8 years respectively. I did not include Everybody Loves Raymond because that show concentrated on his family life, and rarely revealed his writing profession.
I wish I had more encouraging words for writers who wanted to get involved in television. About the only thing I can tell you, is if you want to develop a successful show around a writer, make it a drama for job security.