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.

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 1: Edward Andrews and Herb Edelman

We’ve all experienced that moment we’re at the grocery store and see someone we know, but we can’t remember their name or how we know them. Maybe it was work or school, or their kids were friends with ours.  Sometimes we even remember we spent a lot of time with them and like them, but the name and relationship is just not there.

This month we are meeting some of our television friends that we’ve gotten to know, even if we can’t remember their names or what we watched them on. We’ll learn more about eight different character actors. We start off the month learning about Edward Andrews and Herb Edelman.

Edward Andrews

Photo: findagrave.com

I remember Edward Andrews from Doris Day and Disney comedies. Anyone who grew up in the 1960s or 1970s will remember this military man with a grandfatherly softness to him.

Andrews was born in Georgia in 1914. His father was a minister and their family moved a lot; he lived in Pittsburgh; Cleveland; and Wheeling, West Virginia. He had a very small part in a James Gleason production at age 12. He attended college at the University of Virginia. In 1935, he got his first part in a Broadway production, “So Proudly We Hail.” He continued in Broadway for the next twenty years, including a touring production of “I Know My Love” with Lunt and Fontaine. During that time, he took a leave from his career to serve in WWII. He was a Captain and commanding officer of Battery C with the 751st Artillery Battalion of the Army.

Photo: movieactors.com

In 1955 he married Emily Barnes and they would have three children, remaining together until his death. About the same time, his movie career took off. Andrews looked older than his age which helped him get parts for older roles. He could play a grandfather, then turn around and handle a sleazy businessman or legalistic bureaucrat. He portrayed George Babbitt in Elmer Gantry in 1960. He worked for Disney playing the Defense Secretary in both The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963). I remember him fondly in Doris Day’s movies, The Thrill of It All (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964), and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). One of his last roles was Grandpa Howard in Sixteen Candles in 1984. His movie credits totaled 46.

Photo: dorisday.com

Edward also kept busy with television appearances. One of the first actors to guest star on television, in 1950, Andrews was on Mama. As early as 1952, he began acting in the variety of drama shows on television. During the 1950s he would appear in eighteen of these shows including The US Steel Hour, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One in Hollywood, and Omnibus.

Photo: scsottrolling. blogspot.com
On The Wild Wild West

He showed up in westerns including The Real McCoys, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Rawhide. We saw him on medical and legal dramas such as Ben Casey, The Defenders, The Bold Ones, Ironside, and Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. Mysteries and crime thrillers also found a place for him. You might remember him from Naked City, The Wild Wild West, The Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-0, McMillan and Wife, and Quincy, ME.

Photo: pinterest.com

Like his films, he seemed to excel in comedy. Andrews played George Baxter in the pilot for Hazel, but unfortunately when the show went into production, the part was recast with Don DeFore. He would guest star in some of the most popular sitcoms, including The Phil Silvers Show, The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Paul Lynde Show, Love American Style, The Bob Newhart Show, and Three’s Company.

Photo: pinterest.com

In 1964 he starred in Broadside. Commander Adrian (Edwards) is not happy when a group of Waves are posted to his station on the South Seas island Ranakai. His men no longer have focus, so he spends the series trying to get the women relocated.

In 1970 he had a recurring role on The Doris Day Show as Colonel Fairburn. He also starred as Harry Flood in the show Supertrain in 1979. Playing on the Love Boat and Hotel themes, the show was about a bullet train that had new passengers each episode.

Photo: imdb.com
On Bewitched

Perhaps Andrews will be best remembered for his guest starring role on two Twilight Zone episodes, “Third From the Sun” (Andrews plays a company man who thinks a coworker William, a nuclear engineer, and his friend Jerry are going to steal a spaceship to leave Earth) and “You Drive” (Andrews hits a newspaper boy and then flees the scene, trying to hide the crime).

In all, he appeared on 118 different television series as well as made-for-television movies.

Photo: pinterest.com

Andrews enjoyed playing a character actor. He said it ensured more work and longevity in his career. He was quoted as saying, “What you get are people who speak to you. They know you from somewhere, but they don’t think of you as an actor. They stop and say, ‘Harry, how’s everything in Miami?’ I’ve learned by experience not to argue with them.”

In March of 1985, Andrews had a heart attack and passed away at age 70. With his white hair, and horn-rimmed glasses, Andrews was an adaptable character actor. Whether he was playing a lovable doctor, a nosy coworker, a fun-loving grandfather, or a despicable murderer, he was believable. He truly was a great character.

Herb Edelman

Herb Edelman, circa 1981
Photo: travsd.wordpress.com

Another fun actor everyone will recognize is Herb Edelman. Herb was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1933 in the midst of the Depression. Tall, lanky, and prematurely bald, he would go on to have a long career in movies and television.

Originally, Edelman wanted to be a veterinarian, and he went to school at Cornell but left after his first year. He served in the Army as an announcer for Armed Forces Radio. After he left the service, he started college again, this time studying acting at Brooklyn College. Once again, he dropped out. He made a living as a hotel manager and a cab driver.

Photo: cscottrollins.blogspot.com
In Barefoot in the Park

In the mid-1960s he began both his film and television careers. Some of his best-known roles were in the movies. He played Harry Pepper, a wise-cracking telephone operator, in Barefoot in the Park and Murray the Cop in The Odd Couple, as well as Harry Michaels in California Suite.

Photo: movie-mine.com
In The Odd Couple as Murray the cop

However, it was television where he received most of his work. In the 1960s, he began his career, appearing on a variety of shows, including That Girl, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., and The Flying Nun. During these years he also dated and married Louise Sorel who he was wed to for six years.

Photo: en.wikipedia.com

In 1968, he accepted the role of Bert Gamus in The Good Guys. Bert and his friend Rufus (Bob Denver) open a diner, their dream. Bert’s wife Claudia (Joyce Van Patten) helped him serve customers.

In the 1970s, his career continued as he appeared in many shows every year. Some of the hit series we saw him on during this decade include Room 222, Bewitched, McMillan and Wife, The Partridge Family, Love American Style, Maude, Happy Days, Barney Miller, Kojak, and Charlie’s Angels.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
On Barney Miller

In 1976, he was again cast in a show, Big John Little John. Edelman was a middle school teacher who drank out of the fountain of youth on vacation. Afterward, he would randomly turn into a thirteen-year-old and worked to keep the secret from his friends and coworkers. The show was short-lived.

Photo: picclick.com

Edelman’s work schedule did not slow down in the 1980s. He would have roles in the cast of five television shows and spent time in between guest starring on other shows such as Trapper John, Highway to Heaven, The Love Boat, and thirtysomething.

From 1980-81, he was cast as Reggie on Ladies’ Man, about a woman’s magazine with one male journalist. From 1981-82, he appeared as Commissioner Herb Klein on Strike Force. This show followed a strike force team that handles cases too difficult for the mainstream officers. The following year, he was Harry Nussbaum on Nine to Five, the show based on the movie about a group of office workers. From 1984-88, he was cast as Richard Clarendon on St. Elsewhere, a teaching hospital.

Photo: aveleyman.com
On Murder She Wrote

Although his roles decreased in the 1990s, he had one of his most memorable roles during those years as Stanley Zbornak, Dorothy’s ex-husband, on Golden Girls; he was nominated twice for his role on the show.

In 1990, he played Sergeant Levine on Knot’s Landing. Knot’s Landing was a night-time soap about the lives of the wealthy who live in a coastal suburb of LA. His last recurring role was Lieutenant Artie Gelber on Murder She Wrote, about a mystery writer who helps solve crimes.

Photo: imdb.com
On Golden Girls

Edelman died much too early in 1996 from emphysema at age 62.

Another character who was unforgettable in his movie and television roles. Whether playing a repairman, a cop, a teacher, or a ex-husband, he always came through as an authentic actor.