“Mary Kay and Johnny”: Television’s First Sitcom
Everyone has a favorite sitcom, whether it’s a current series, or one that has been among the more popular in TV history. Or, it might be a more obscure, short-lived show that despite its brief existence, still had its own charms — and laughs — to offer. But few devoted TV viewers know much about the very first American TV sitcom, Mary Kay and Johnny. It was the first original sitcom to air in prime time on an American television network, premiering in November of 1947 on DuMont, and starring real-life married couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns.
The two were young, up-and-coming stage actors in New York when they met and fell in love in 1946. Both had been appearing in Broadway productions together and separately when, in 1947, Mary Kay heard of an on-camera television job opening at the Dumont studios, located in Wanamaker’s department store in lower Manhattan. The 15-minute weekly program, Jay Jay Junior Dresses, was a simple fashion show sponsored by dress manufacturer Jay Jossel. Mary Kay’s job was to model a few dresses per program, speak to the viewers about the fine points of each outfit, and introduce brief film clips that ran as she made a quick change from one dress to another.
Before long, Jossel realized that most of the television sets in New York were found in bars, where most viewers were male, and thus unlikely to appreciate a TV fashion show for women. He was about to give up his sponsorship of the time slot when Johnny asked if he could use the air time to try something different: a radio-style domestic comedy for television, starring himself and Mary Kay. Jossel agreed, with one proviso: He had a friend who manufactured cosmetic compacts (with mirror attached). If Mary Kay pitched the product at the end of the time slot, and if it resulted in the sale 200 compacts, the duo could take over the time slot to produce Johnny’s domestic comedy.
Johnny wrote a 15-minute script based on his and Mary Kay’s real life, and, on November 18, Mary Kay and Johnny debuted at 9:00 p.m. (the first of its many time slots). As agreed, Mary Kay concluded the program with the sales pitch for the compacts. Within days, Jossel reported nearly 9,000 responses to the program (and a good deal more than 200 compacts sold), and presented a contract to the couple to continue their program.
Johnny was not a professional writer, and never claimed to be, but the scripts came to him easily, since they were based on his and Mary Kay’s personal experiences as a young married couple. He was simply following the old adage for writers, “write what you know best.”
“If we portray ourselves,” he explained in an interview decades later, “some people may not like us, but they wouldn’t like us if they knew us. But if we’re totally ourselves, people can’t say they don’t believe us. And so for that reason, we wrote very close to home, obviously dramatizing and going for gags and comedy, but keeping it on things that actually happened to us.”
The show took place in the couple’s Greenwich Village apartment. Mary Kay’s character was perky, enthusiastic, but a bit of a screwball, while straight-laced bank teller Johnny found himself spending much of his time getting her out of various minor crises. “Because of Mary Kay’s big, generous heart, she would create a situation that would put me in a real bind, but by the time [the episode] was over, she either intentionally or unintentionally would get me out of the bind.”
The production was simple and low-budget — typical not only for that early period of TV history, but also for Dumont’s infamous shoestring operation. A 3-sided living room set was provided, furnished with pieces from Wanamaker’s store displays. Johnny became the de facto producer/director, as well as sole writer. When he was on camera, a sole technical director sat in the control booth, punching the buttons to switch shots between the two studio cameras.
After the program had been on for half a year, Mary Kay became pregnant with the couple’s first child, so Johnny simply wrote that into the scripts, making her the first pregnant female character on a TV series (they were also the first couple to share a bed on TV — three years before the debut of I Love Lucy).
In the early autumn of 1948, Whitehall Pharmaceuticals decided it wanted to sponsor a domestic comedy, and hired Mary Kay and Johnny to do a half-hour version of their sitcom for NBC. This meant shooting the show at the studios in Rockefeller Center, which afforded the program higher production values.
In October, Variety magazine offered its take on the show. “Much of the show’s charm is traceable directly to the femme half of the team, who displayed a pleasant personality that prototyped the average conception of a young American housefrau…[The] storyline picked them up with Mary Kay making plans for her first baby, which is due in a couple months, and her difficulties in buying the right baby carriage. It was that simple, but also that good. Whether the gal is actually going to have a baby wasn’t made clear, but it would be a neat idea for the series…”
Indeed, their real-life son, Christopher, was born on December 19, 1948, but his arrival in no way hindered the Stearns’ commitment to the show. That evening’s episode was shot thirty minutes after Christopher’s birth, and featured an ‘expectant’ Johnny pacing the waiting room floor. Mary Kay missed only two episodes for the birth, and Christopher even appeared briefly for his first episode when he was less than two weeks old.
Continuing the program at NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios had its advantages, including a bigger budget and more impressive sets. The studio crew was also bigger, and there were three cameras following the action instead of two. Bud Yorkin, future creative partner with Norman Lear, was a cameraman on the show, and future Emmy-winning director Paul Bogart (who also later worked with Yorkin and Lear on All in the Family) served as studio floor manager. In addition, some of the Stearns’ young actor friends at the time appeared on the show, including Jack Gilford as the neighborhood grocer, James Whitmore as a cop, and Howard Morris, soon to be one of Sid Caesar’s comic foils.
But the half-hour shows proved more challenging for Johnny to write. He often tried to bring in writers to help share the workload, but none of them managed to capture the couple’s real life situations satisfactorily. The program moved to CBS for part of 1949, as Johnny’s goal of finding a writing staff still eluded him. Finally, that summer, the show returned to NBC, and to its original 15-minute running time. After a jumping back to a 30-minute format yet again, Johnny decided that he was too exhausted to continue, and the program ended its run in March of 1950. Even so, he and Mary Kay appreciated being recognized on the street, and were grateful for the fan mail-but, as Johnny insisted, “We purposely did not want to be celebrities.”
Johnny continued a busy career as a producer and director, while Mary Kay worked on Broadway and occasional television. They were married for fifty-five years, until Johnny’s death in 2001.
The first several months of Mary Kay and Johnny episodes were not recorded via kinescopes, and, according to Johnny, only special episodes were preserved at first, due to budget considerations. Even as more episodes were recorded for later airing on the West Coast, their ultimate fate proved to be the same as that of most DuMont programs. In 1975, a vast majority of all DuMont program kinescopes on 16 mm film were disposed of (in New York’s East River) to make room in the warehouse for the network’s successor, Metromedia. A single episode of Mary Kay and Johnny exists today, at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles; a most unfortunate fate for a program of such historical significance.
Until next time…
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