Everyone Could Use A Private Secretary

After learning a bit about the career of Ann Sothern last week, today we take a look at two of her shows: Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show. Although they were two different shows, the second almost seemed like a continuation of the first. To make things even more complicated, when the shows went into syndication, Private Secretary was renamed Susie and all the episodes of Susie would air, followed by The Ann Sothern Show and then back to Susie.

Photo: allposters.com

As we learned last week, Ann suffered from hepatitis for three years. With her medical bills mounting and less film work coming in, she needed to make a living, so she turned to television to revive her career.

After appearing in series of ten Maisie films earlier in her career, Ann had a solid fan base. Ann was a smart business woman and she had a 42% ownership in her new show, Private Secretary. The show debuted in 1953.

Sothern with Don Porter–Photo: pinterest.com

Ann portrays Susie MacNamara, a former actress and WAC WWII veteran; she is the secretary to Peter Sands (Don Porter), a talent agent. Susie often complicates life for her boss, although she means well.

One of her best friends was Violet (Ann Tyrell), their receptionist. Cagey Calhoun (Jesse White) is always trying to cause trouble for Peter as a rival talent agent.

Sothern with Ann Tyrell and Jesse White–Photo: episodate.com

While the scripts weren’t ground-breaking, they were well written and witty. Some shows reference one of Mr. Sands’ clients, actress Harriet Lake, which was Ann’s real name.

The show was noted for its state-of-the-art set decoration featuring IBM typewriters and Western Electric phone systems, as well as stylish furnishings.

Photo: wikimedia.com

The show was on Sunday nights on CBS and alternated weeks with highly rated Jack Benny Show.  I have never seen this with any other show but Lucky Strikes, the show’s sponsor also financed The Jack Benny Show on CBS and Your Hit Parade on NBC. So, when Your Hit Parade was on hiatus for summer, Private Secretary’s reruns were shown on that network and then new shows would begin in the fall back on CBS.

The show continued to have great ratings but in 1957, even though the show was renewed for the next year, Ann got into an argument with producer Jack Chertok and she left the series which ended. I could never find definitively why they argued, but it had to do with the show’s profits.  

Photo: wikipedia.com

Sothern was nominated for Best Actress Emmy for 1955, 1956 and 1957, losing to Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, and Nanette Fabray.

Instead of a sixth year of Private Secretary on CBS, The Ann Sothern Show debuted in 1958 as a weekly show. Chertok kept the rights to the title, hoping to get another actress to fill the MacNamara role. This show was created by Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf. Desi Arnaz would produce the show which worked out as Ann and Lucille Ball were very close friends. They appeared on each other’s shows.

In The Ann Sothern Show, Ann now plays Katy O’Connor, the assistant manager of an upscale New York hotel, The Bartley House. Her secretary is Olive Smith (Ann Tyrrell), the front desk clerk is Paul Martine (Jacques Scott), and the bell boy is Johnny Wallace (Jack Mullaney). Later Ken Berry replaced Mullaney as Woody Hamilton.

Many of the cast members from the former show appear on the new series. Although Katy has a boss she answers to, she has a lot of authority running the hotel. Katy’s first boss is Jason Macauley (Ernest Truex), a man who is dominated by his nagging wife Florence (Reta Shaw). When ratings were not great, Truex was replaced by Don Porter as James Devery. As in Private Secretary, there are some romantic currents between Katy and James. Olive’s boyfriend, a dentist, Dr. Gray, is played by Louis Nye. In season two, Jesse White showed up as Oscar Pudney an unethical newsstand owner near the hotel.

Sothern with Jacques Scott–Photo: wikipedia.com

The storylines often revolved around the personal life of the staff and stories about guests staying at the hotel. The concept provided the opportunity to attract a variety of guest stars during its run. In addition to Lucille Ball, actors who appeared on the show included Jack Albertson, Frances Bavier, Constance Bennett, Eva Gabor, Joel Grey, Van Johnson, Jayne Meadows, Howard McNear, Janis Page, Cesar Romero, and Connie Stevens.

Once again Ann was nominated for an Emmy is 1959 but lost to Jane Wyatt for Father Knows Best.

Post Cereals and General Foods were sponsors for this show, and the cast would often appear in commercials at the end of the show. Ann would then sign off with “Well, goodnight everybody. Stay happy!”

Photo: pinterest.com

For the second year, the show’s ratings were decent but not great. The show was moved to Thursday nights up against The Untouchables, a top ten show. The ratings declined, so it was cancelled.

The final episode ended in a cliffhanger. Mr. Devery finally realizes that he is in love with Katy and proposes to her. They kiss but the show ends before Katy can answer yes or no.

I remember watching the shows in syndication and I thought they were good. Ann Sothern appeared to be a likable person and a hard-working actress. Both shows were often in the top 25% of the ratings. With all the reboots that have been done, I have never heard of either of these shows as possibilities and they seem to be good options for a contemporary show.

If you want to check out the shows, Private Secretary has several DVD options. The only place I could find The Ann Sothern Show was on etsy, and the site specifically mentions that it is “not a retail set nor is this a commercial studio release.” Maybe with all the classic television networks debuting, we will see Private Secretary back on the air again soon.

The Donna Reed Show: It’s All About the Mom

Merry Christmas Eve.  In honor of It’s a Wonderful Life which will be playing quite often today, this week’s blog is about Donna Reed, who played Mary in the Jimmy Stewart holiday favorite.

In 1958, most of the television shows were game shows, variety shows, or westerns. Almost all the sitcoms on the air were based on a star; we had The Danny Thomas Show, The Ann Sothern Show, The Bob Cummings Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was also the year The Donna Reed Show began. The show would last eight seasons, resulting in 275 episodes.

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Photo: dallas.wikia.com

The series was created by William Roberts. Donna and her husband Tony Owen developed and produced the show, under the name “Todon.” We had shows about single adults in The Bob Cummings Show and The Ann Sothern Show. We had families, including The Danny Thomas Show, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Roberts wanted to concentrate on the demanding roles a stay-at-home mom had to juggle. Reed agreed with him. As she noted, “We started breaking rules right and left. We had a female lead, for one thing, a strong, healthy woman. We had a story line told from a woman’s point of view that wasn’t soap opera.”

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Photo: imdb.com

The Donna Reed Show is often evoked by critics who say television scripts are not realistic but center around unreal family expectations, but that is not the goal Reed and her husband had. Donna described the show as “realistic pictures of small-town life—with an often-humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family.” The shows featured typical family problems families faced in the late 1950s: having to fire a clumsy housekeeper, quality time with your spouse, dealing with disciplinary issues, or Donna being swamped with requests to volunteer for charity drives or community theater shows. However, there were times the show delved into more controversial issues such as women’s rights or freedom of the press.

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Photo: metv.com

The Stone family includes Donna, Alex, Mary and Jeff. Donna (Donna Reed) is the iconic mother. She grew up on a farm (which Reed did). She became a nurse and occasionally helps Alex (Carl Betz), a pediatrician who has his office at the house. Mary (Shelly Fabares) is in her first year of high school. She studies ballet and plays the piano. During the series, she has several boyfriends. Mary left for college before the show ended, but Fabares made guest appearances. Jeff (Paul Petersen) is in grade school. He loves sports, likes to eat, and often teases his sister. In 1963 when Fabares leaves, Paul Petersen’s real sister, Patty was cast as a runaway orphan taken in by the Stone family. The Stones live in Hilldale, an All-American town.

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Photo: pinterest.com

Several other characters appear often. Dave and Midge Kelsey (Bob Crane and Ann McCrea) are good friends of Donna and Alex’s.  Dave is also a doctor. Another of Alex’s colleagues who is a good friend is Dr. Boland (Jack Kelk), whom the kids call “Uncle Bo.” Smitty Smith (Darryl Richard) is Jeff’s best friend and Scotty (Jimmy Hawkins) is Mary’s boyfriend.

Photos: pinterest.com and metv.com

With Donna’s movie relationships, many guest stars appeared on the show during its run. Baseball players Don Drysdale, Leo Durocher, and Willie Mays played themselves. Musicians Harry James, Tony Martin, and Lesley Gore appeared. Buster Keaton was featured in two different shows. Esther Williams played a fashion designer. Other stars who showed up included Jack Albertson, John Astin, Dabney Coleman, Ellen Corby, Richard Deacon, Jamie Farr, Gale Gordon, Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Marion Ross, William Schallert, Hal Smith, Marlo Thomas, and William Windom.

In the opening credits, Reed comes down the stairs and answers the telephone which she gives to Alex. She then hands the kids their lunches and books and sends them off to school. When Alex leaves on a call, she closes the door and smiles. In 1964 when The Munsters debuted, their opening credits were a parody of Donna’s show as Lily performs the same actions.

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Photo: metv.com

The Donna Reed Show faced the Milton Berle show, Texaco Star Theater Wednesday nights and ratings were not great. It was renewed and moved to Thursdays the next year. I was surprised to learn that during the eight years the show was on the air it was only in the top 20 in season six and only in the top 30 in season four.

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Photo: cinemacats.com (Look closely and you’ll notice this was                                                                 the living room for I Dream of Jeannie as well).

Although the show never received very high ratings, Donna Reed was nominated for an Emmy every year from 1959 to 1962. (Jane Wyatt won in 1959 and 1960, Barbara Stanwyck won in 1961, and Shirley Booth won in 1962.) Donna Reed won the Golden Globe in 1963.

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Photo: metv.com

In 1962 Donna felt that the writers had run out of creative ideas and were recycling plots. Both Mary and Jeff were allowed to perform in this season. Fabares debuted a single, “Johnny Angel” in February which went to number one on the charts, selling more than a million copies. In October, Petersen sang “My Dad” which made it to number six. Donna decided that would be the last season, but when ABC made her a very lucrative offer for three more seasons, she and her husband agreed.

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Photo: nytimes.com

When this contract ended in 1966, Donna was ready to retire. Reed was considering a television movie reunion but when Betz passed away in 1978, she decided it was no longer an option.

Campbell Soup was the first sponsor, and later sponsors included Johnson & Johnson and The Singer Company. Whenever a scene takes place in a supermarket, Campbell’s Soup, V-8 Juice, Franco-American Spaghetti and Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder are likely to be in the shot.

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Photo: metv.com

Reruns of the show were seen on Nick at Nite from 1985-1994 and on TV Land from 2002 until 2004. MeTV began airing the show in September of 2011.

The cast was a close-knit one and continued their relationships after the show ended. Paul Petersen credited Donna as being the nurturing adult he needed in his life to get him through the years of being a child star. She helped him understand how the industry worked and helped him during some tough times during his life. Shelly Fabares also said Donna and Carl were amazing. Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected Paul and herself and loved them as second parents. Donna never forgot to send Shelly a birthday gift.  In 1986, before she passed away from pancreatic cancer, her final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.

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Photo: lapostexaminer.com

Despite the bad raps the show often received from the women’s lib organizations, Donna Reed did help advance the way women were perceived in the media. She endowed her character with strong emotions, definite opinions on issues, and independence. In her personal life, Reed expressed her views on the medical industry and the political arenas.

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Photo: geocaching.com

Paul Petersen summed up the value of the show in an interview he did in 2008. In his words, The Donna Reed Show, “depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life. Jeff and Mary and their friends had all the same problems that real kids in high school did. That’s what the show was really about, the importance of family. That’s where life’s lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There’s a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection.”

I couldn’t say it better.