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.

Ann Sothern: An Actress Who Paid Her

Ann Sothern was born Harriette Arlene Lake, a natural redhead, in 1909 in North Dakota. An interesting note, her paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, invented the modern submarine and her sister Marion was secretary to Abigail Van Buren of Dear Abby fame. She and her two sisters were raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the age of five, she began taking piano lessons and studied at the McPhail School of Music where her mother was a piano teacher. By 11, she was an accomplished pianist, and she was singing solos in her church choir. At 14 she began taking voice lessons. During her time at the Minneapolis Central High School, she appeared in a variety of productions as actor or director.

Photo: pinterest.com

After her graduation, her mother moved to Los Angeles to become a vocal coach for Warner Brothers. Ann moved to Seattle with her father (her parents had divorced earlier) to attend the University of Washington, but she dropped out after her first year. Ann turned back to her singing talent and sang with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra.

While visiting with her mother, she did a screen test for MGM and was signed to a six-month contract. She had a variety of small bit parts but never received that break-out role. After meeting Florenz Ziegfeld at a party, he offered her a role in New York. When MGM chose not to pick up her option, she moved East to work for Ziegfeld. In 1930, she received her Broadway stage debut.

Photo: pinterest.com

In 1934, Columbia signed her to a contract. At this time, she changed her name to Ann Sothern and her hair color to blonde; “Ann” was for her mother and “Sothern” for Shakespearean actor E.H. Sothern. She was cast in a bunch of B movies, but, unfortunately, in 1936 her contract was not renewed.

A contract that was made that year was her marriage with Roger Pryor. They divorced in 1942. A week later, she married Robert Sterling with whom she had a daughter; they divorced in 1949.

Photo: oldtimeradio.com

At that time, she signed with RKO and again could just not find that perfect role, so she made the full circle, returning to MGM. MGM cast her in her first big-screen feature in 1939 as Maisie Ravier, which led to a series of Maisie films. The film was based on the book Dark Dame by Wilson Collison published in 1935.The property had been bought for Jean Harlow, but she passed away in 1937. In all, there were ten Maisie films. The popularity of the series led to a radio program, “The Adventures of Maisie,” which starred Sothern from 1945-47.

In 1949, Sothern was diagnosed with hepatitis. She contracted it after getting in serum injection during an English stage production. When she became ill, MGM let her go. Sothern suffered with the disease for three years. She was receiving a few supporting roles such as in The Blue Gardenia, but her medical bills were mounting, so she turned to television.

Sothern was offered her own sitcom in 1953. Titled Private Secretary, the show would last five years on CBS before transitioning to The Ann Sothern Show in 1958.

Photo: wikipedia.com

In Private Secretary, she appeared as Susie MacNamara, a secretary working for Peter Sands (Don Porter), a New York City talent agent. The series alternated weeks with The Jack Benny Show. Private Secretary had great ratings, placing in the top ten consistently. Sothern was nominated for an Emmy four years. Sothern had a 42% interest in the show and after the fourth year, she and Jack Chertok, producer, had a major disagreement and she left the show.

Sothern with Jacques Scott–Photo: wikipedia.com

The next year she showed up in The Ann Sothern Show, a very similar sitcom. Now Ann was Katy O’Connor an assistant manager at the Bartley House Hotel. Originally her boss was played by Ernest Truex but after dismal ratings, Don Porter was brought back as James Devery, hotel owner. The show’s ratings picked up significantly and were good until CBS moved the show to Thursday nights against The Untouchables. The show was cancelled in 1961.

Sothern with friend Lucille Ball–Photo: pinterest.com

Sothern returned to film features and made several appearances on Lucille Ball’s the Lucy Show as Countess Framboise. Ball was one of her best friends and called Sothern “the best comedian in the business, bar none.”

Ann was a good business woman. She opened the Ann Sothern Sewing Center in Sun Valley, Idaho, selling fabrics, patterns, and sewing machines in the 1950s. She also bought a cattle ranch in Idaho, A Bar S Cattle Co. In addition, she owned the production companies that produced Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show.

Photo: wordpress.com

Ann also continued with her early musical abilities. In the mid-fifties, she starred in a nightclub act in Las Vegas and Chicago. In 1958, she released an album, “Sothern Exposure.”

Jerry Van Dyke and his “mother”–Photo: youtube.com

In 1965, Sothern made a bad career move by signing on to star in the sitcom My Mother the Car with Jerry Van Dyke. Van Dyke played a lawyer who restored a 1928 antique car only to learn that it spoke to him through the radio as his mother. The show somehow lasted one season and has been named one of the worst sitcoms ever.

For the next two decades, Ann worked in both film and television but never had an iconic role. One of the issues she had to deal with during this time was a back injury. During a stock production in Florida, a fake tree fell on her back. She was put in traction and had to wear a back brace. She also developed a case of depression. For the rest of her life, she would suffer from numbness in her feet and need a cane to walk.

In 1987, Sothern had her final role in the film The Whales of August starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. She earned an Oscar nomination for her role.

Retiring to Ketchum, Idaho, Ann enjoyed the rest of her life in retirement and passed away from heart failure in 2001.

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Her long career spanned six decades and like so many early stars, she found work on stage, on radio, in film, and on television. Ann definitely paid her dues, spending more than a decade in Hollywood. If her health had not thrown her a curve, she might have become one of the top stars. What impressed me most was that after more than sixty years in the entertainment industry, she was able to retire to a place she loved and enjoy almost twenty years as part of a community with her favorite activities such as embroidery and outdoor fun.