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This is an original studio issued publicity still from the TV Show Mary Kay And Johnny, circa 1947.
Mary Kay And Johnny aired from November 1947 until March 1950 on Dumont, NBC, and CBS.
This live domestic-comedy was also the very first network situation comedy. It revolved around young New York newlyweds Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns. She was pretty, pert, and something of a screwball, while he was more serious and always getting her out of various dilemmas. Johnny worked in a bank, but the setting for the action was usually the couple's apartment in Greenwhich villiage. The Stearns who were also married in real life, had a baby boy in December 1948, whom they named Christopher. The blessed event was worked into the script and Infant Chris was added to the cast less then a month after his birth, appearing in his bassinet. He was surely one of the youngest regular cast members on any show in tv history. Howie ( Howard Thomas) was Johnny's best friend, while Nydia Westman played Mary Kay's mother.
In addition to being the very first network situation comedy , the series was notable for it's longtime sponsor Anacin, which even in 1948 was using an ouline chart of a human figure with flashing lights to show the product bringing fast, fast relief to every corner of the body.
That sponsors were quite uncertain of the effectiveness of tv at this early stage , however, is illustrated by the following. A few weeks after the program premiered, the sponsor who had no way of knowing whether anyone was watching ( there were no audience ratings yet), decided to conduct a test by offering a free mirror to the first 200 viewers who wrote in their comments on the program. Just to be safe, the company ordered an extra 200 mirrors, so as not to disappoint anyone; 8,960 letters were received.
Here's a newspaper article printed in 1997 celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the sitcom.
Friday, November 14, 1997
50 years later, Mary Kay and Johnny recall TV's first sitcom
Friday, November 14, 1997
NEW YORK (AP) -- It would have been the perfect November "sweeps" ratings-getter: "Bill Cosby and the Olsen Twins Salute 50 Years of TV Sitcoms ... with Special Guests Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns!"
Or maybe, "A Golden Sitcom Celebration, Starring Kelsey Grammer and Roseanne ... with Special Guests Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns!"
The sitcom's big Five-O arrives just weeks into a TV season gorged with more sitcoms than ever before. Consider: 62, on top of the half-century of sitcoms that preceded them. If you had a dollar for every one, you'd have almost as much money as Jerry Seinfeld earns from his.
But history's very first sitcom, predating "I Love Lucy" by four years and "The Honeymooners" by eight, premiered at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 18, 1947.
"Mary Kay and Johnny" was created by and starred Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns. Like their sitcom doppelgangers, they were happy young marrieds building a life together in the Big Apple. But, more than that, they were TV pioneers beyond imagining.
"I didn't realize the anniversary was coming up," says Mary Kay. Now 72, she lives with her husband in Corona del Mar, Calif.
But once upon a time she was a winsome young actress who had moved from her native Los Angeles to Manhattan, where she fared well on Broadway and landed roles in summer stock -- not to mention meeting and marrying a Boston-born actor named Johnny Stearns.
Then she lucked into a sideline: Modeling junior wear on a weekly TV show sponsored by the garments' manufacturer. "Television was just one of those things that you did to help pay the rent while you were looking for a real job in the theater," Mary Kay explains. But Johnny smelled potential.
Now 81, he still remembers his pitch to the sponsor: What about starring Mary Kay in a brand-new TV series, something a little splashier, with a cast of characters, a storyline, even a few laughs?
"I said there are a lot of very successful domestic comedies on radio, but that nothing had ever been done like that on TV." Even radio's popular "Ozzie and Harriet," which featured the Nelson family light-heartedly playing themselves, wouldn't begin its long TV run until 1952.
"We got the go-ahead to try one episode," says Johnny. "So I went back to our apartment in the Village, and I wrote a little script about a young married couple -- WE'D only been married a year -- and played it for comedy."
The 15-minute "Mary Kay and Johnny" originated live on the DuMont Network, and quickly proved itself not just a trailblazer, but also a hit, winning "several popularity awards from the tele fan mags," as Variety would note.
Today no kinescopes of those broadcasts exist. But thanks to countless sitcoms drumming similar themes in the decades that followed, your mind's eye can now see "Mary Kay and Johnny" about as clearly as viewers once saw it on their Crosley set's 9-inch screen.
Just picture it: Johnny worked at a bank. Mary Kay, a homemaker, was as cute as a button and somewhat of a screwball. Johnny had "brunet sobriety" while Mary Kay displayed "blonde vivacity," as a feature story put it at the time.
"The show hit very close to home," says Johnny, who would write all the scripts. "If Mary Kay one day got stuck in the elevator, well, it would give me an inspiration about us getting stuck in an elevator."
Or maybe Mary Kay pretended to wow Johnny by playing her harmonica while, out of sight, a delivery boy actually performed the tunes. Or maybe Mary Kay left the apartment with a cake in the oven, leaving the culinarily-challenged Johnny to finish the task.
"The program has an unforced quality of naturalness, which is its greatest asset," wrote Variety in a 1949 review.
Indeed, the program's naturalness reached into the realm of procreation. When real-life Mary Kay was expecting, so was TV Mary Kay. "The whole program is based on our actual married life," Johnny remembers thinking, "so why not write the pregnancy in?"
The blessed event occurred Dec. 19, 1948. Mary Kay, who missed that night's broadcast, had given birth to Christopher William Stearns a half-hour before airtime. Then viewers watched a comically anxious Johnny pace the waiting room, anticipating word of his newborn, who would also be a boy named Christopher.
Thus did "Mary Kay and Johnny" predate the parallel pregnancies of Lucille Ball and "I Love Lucy"'s Lucy Ricardo. And unlike that series' TV son, who was played by a child actor, Christopher played his parents' child on TV from the age of 10 days.
Mary Kay's second pregnancy spelled the end of the series -- that, and the growing fatigue she shared with Johnny. One whole summer, they had produced a show every weeknight while "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" took a break.
So "Mary Kay and Johnny," by then airing Saturday nights on NBC, bade its fans farewell on March 11, 1950.
A few years later, the Stearns family moved to the West Coast, where Johnny directed and produced TV programs.
He still does, when he gets the urge. "But once in a great, great while, someone will stop Mary Kay and me on the street," he says, "and recognize us from the TV show."
For TV sitcoms' First Couple, recognition is richly deserved.
From The Archive of American Television
"Mary Kay and Johnny," American Network TV’s First Sitcom, Celebrates its 60th Anniversary!
Mary Kay and Johnny was a live domestic comedy that centered around a young couple that lived in Greenwich Village: he worked at a bank and she was a homemaker. It debuted on November 18, 1947. Mary Kay and Johnny (1947-50) originally ran on the Du Mont network (for nearly a year), then (except for a brief stint on CBS) spent the rest of its run on NBC.
Among the true-to-life storylines used on the show: Mary Kay got stuck in an elevator; Mary Kay left the apartment with a cake in the oven, leaving the “culinary-challenged” Johnny to finish the task; and, most importantly, Mary Kay’s pregnancy and birth to son Christopher William (on December 19, 1948: that night’s episode was done thirty minutes after his birth and showed an “expectant” Johnny Stearns pacing the waiting room floor). At the age of ten days, Christopher William made his debut on the show, and became a regular, years before there was a “Little Ricky.”
Variety’s October 13, 1948 review opined: “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…. 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…”
The Archive of American Television interviewed both Johnny Stearns (creator/writer/co-star) and Mary Kay Stearns (co-star) of this pioneering program.
Mary Kay on breaking into television:
I went back to New York to start looking for work, and I got a call from an agent saying that there was a television job that I should go and see about. And of course, at that time, I didn’t know that much about television. But you know, a job is a job. So, I went down into the garment neighborhood of New York, and had an appointment with a man named J. Jostle, who owned a junior dress company. And he said, “yes, I’ll– it’s fine, you can do it.” And I said, okay, so I went at the appointed time to Du Mont studio, which was downtown in New York, in what was Wannamaker’s Department Store… And so it was a fifteen minute program [modeling dresses] and during the 15 minutes, I think we had something like five dresses so it was quite hectic.
Johnny Stearns on convincing the sponsor of Mary Kay’s previous show to consider a sitcom:
So I want up to this garment district and up in the elevator, and met J. Jostle, a very nice man, and he said, “you know,” he said, “we’re all madly in love with your wife. She’s the cutest thing we ever saw. But I’m going to get out of TV, because the only sets in New York City are in bars, and I don’t think I’m going to sell too many J. J. Junior dresses to fellows drinking beer in a bar.” And I said, well, I think you’re absolutely right. And I said, however, if you’re going to go off of the air, how about letting us have one performance, because there’s something I’d like to try. And he said, “what is it?” I said, well, in radio, there’s a great many domestic comedies and comedies, I mean, The Jack Benny Show, and The Easy Aces and Henry Aldrich, and you know, all of these… but there’s never been anything like it on TV. So, I’d like to try it. He said, “well, I’ll tell you what. I have a friend who manufactures compacts that have a flashlight in them so that women can powder their nose in the dark.” And he said, “I’m going to give you 200 of those.” And if you can do anything you want to on the air, and just offer these to the viewers, and if you can get rid of all 200 of them, give them away free, maybe I’ll continue.” So, we went home to our little apartment, and I wrote a script about a young married couple– well, we hadn’t been married very long. And so we did the program, and at the end of the 15 minutes, Mary Kay said, “and now, in honor of our first performance of the Mary Kay and Johnny show, we want to give you these–” And then we went home and prayed all night, because we thought, how embarrassing it’s going to be if no one likes them. And about 11 o’clock the next day I called up Mr. Jossel and I said, are you getting mail? And he said, “come on down.” And I said, but did you get any– and he said, “come on down.” Wouldn’t tell me, so I went down there, climbed up to the office in the warehouse district, and he had something like 8000 letters, telegrams, over night mail, and a contract this long for Mary Kay and Johnny show, to sign. And which flabbergasted us. And I said this was the start of Mary Kay and Johnny show.
Johnny Stearns on the show’s plotlines:
I can remember an episode that we did, and the reason I remember it, I also used it as an audition for U.S. Steel when they were considering hiring us. And it consisted of the two of us in the living room. I was reading the paper and Mary Kay was at a writing desk, writing a letter. And she said: “Darling.” And I’m lost in the paper. She said, “Darling.” I said, “hum?” Not looking up, the paper’s around. She said, “how do you spell ‘scrumptious?’” And I said, ‘scrumptious’? Just they way it sounds.” And Mary Kay went, “No, that isn’t one of the words you can do that. How do you spell it?” I said, “s-c-r-u-m-p– shush.” And she says, “shush?” And I said, “yes.” And she said, “are you sure that’s right?” And I put down the paper and I said, would I have any reason to lie to you?” And she said, “well, I’ll take your word for it. It looks funny, but I’ll take your word for it.” I said, “well, you are you writing to?” She said, “I’m writing to the president of U.S. Steel.” And I said, “oh, how long have you two been carrying on a correspondence?” She said, “Not long. This is my first letter.” I said, “well, what are you writing him about?” And she said, I’m writing about our stainless steel flatware that we just bought.” And I said, “well, what are you saying?” She said, “I’m saying it’s ‘scrumptious’.” And, you know, it went on kind of– so this was kind of little bit of the flavor of the thing that ah– generally the situation was that because of Mary Kay’s big generous heart, she would create a situation that would put me in a real bind, but then by the time the half hour was over, she either intentionally, or unintentionally would get me out of the bind. That was kind of basically what would happen. But there were all sorts of things done.
Johnny Stearns on getting revenge on a critic:
I remember one we did where I was returning some glasses to a neighbor across the hall because we had had a party. And Mary Kay said, “be very, very quiet, because I’ve finally gotten Christopher asleep. So I went out the door, to return the glasses, and when I came back, she inadvertently had put the chain on the door. So I you know, “Mary Kay, Mary Kay,” which obviously she couldn’t hear, and Christopher couldn’t hear. So I was stuck. I was outside, couldn’t ring the bell. So went down the hall and climbed out a window and went along a ledge, you know, a little tiny ledge and we had– this was on film, so you could shoot all this kind of thing. It’s perfectly safe, but it looked great, and while this was going on, Mary Kay had the radio on very low, and an announcer was saying, “there’s a cat burglar in such and such an area of New York, has been spotted, so we just want to warn people. So at this point, I was pulling the window up from the outside, and Mary Kay was, you know– so she got a vase, and as I– because the room was dark. And she got a vase, and as I came in, she hit me over the head, and boom, I went down. And so Mary Kay ran to the phone and asked information, the number for the police station. And at this point I began groaning, and so she said to the information, “oh, hold the line a minute,” she went back and hit me again.” And finally, she got off the phone and she turned on the light, and she said, “oh, it’s you, darling.” Well, we had gotten a bad review from a columnist by the name of Harriet Van Horn. And you know, when someone writes a bad review, there’s no way you get back. You can’t write a bad review about them. So when Mary Kay said, “oh, it’s you, darling.” I said, who were you expecting, Harriet Van Horn?
John (“Johnny”) Stearns (1916-2001) talked about growing up with a theatrical background, as his mother founded the “Petersborough Players,” in Petersborough, New Hampshire. This town was the model for Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town” and Stearns described how Wilder staged “Our Town” there himself, making this theatre the first summer theatre to do the play after its Broadway run. Stearns described his days in the theatre on the New York stage and his entrance into television on the experimental Philadelphia station WPTZ-TV. He described his work on stage and in film (Boomerang) with Elia Kazan. Stearns described how he became the creator, writer, producer, and star (along with his wife) of the very first television situation comedy, Mary Kay and Johnny (1947-50). He described the week by week production of the show, storylines used, and a description of its run on three different networks (Dumont, NBC, CBS). He also talked about his several year stint in the 1950s as the spokesperson (along with his wife) for U.S. Steel, appearing in commercials during the U.S. Steel Hour. He talked about other series he produced and directed such as: The Steve Allen Show (the WNBC show which would later become the Tonight show), Faye and Skitch (1953-54), Make Me Laugh (1958), Music Bingo (1958-59), and Seven Keys (1961-64). He also described in detail producing the long running agricultural program AG, USA, which began in 1961.
Mary Kay Stearns described her stage debut at age 2 and a half at the Pasadena Playhouse in California. She talked about her appearances on stage and in film on the West Coast before moving to New York to appear on Broadway. She described her television debut on the Dumont network on a show called J.J. Juniors, in which she modeled junior fashions. The timeslot was then taken by the Mary Kay and Johnny show (1947-50), television’s first situation comedy in which she described her co-starring role with her husband. She later found herself on television in Mary Kay’s Nightcap, in which, from 1951-52, she “signed-off” for NBC by telling the viewers what would be on television the following day and doing occasional interviews. She talked about appearances on “live” television shows such as the Armstrong Circle Theatre and Kraft Television Theatre. She also talked about her several year stint in the 1950s as the spokesperson (along with her husband) for U.S. Steel, appearing in commercials during the U.S. Steel Hour.
Here's Johnny Stearn's Obituary From The LA Times
Johnny Stearns, 85; Paired With Wife in Trailblazing TV Sitcom of Late '40s
December 09, 2001|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER
Before Lucy and Desi, George and Gracie, and Ozzie and Harriet, there was Mary Kay and Johnny.
In the fall of 1947, Johnny and Mary Kay Stearns made TV history playing "themselves" as young New York newlyweds in a pioneering television situation comedy, "Mary Kay and Johnny."
The weekly 15-minute show was broadcast live from New York, beginning on the old DuMont Network and later moving to NBC and CBS. The character of Johnny, the more serious of the pair, was a banker; and Mary Kay was his homemaker wife, who was prone to getting into odd predicaments.
Johnny Stearns, who wrote the scripts for the popular show during its 2 1/2-year run and went on to a career as a television producer, director and host, died Wednesday at a Newport Beach hospital of complications from a fall. He was 85.
Stearns, a Corona del Mar resident, produced Steve Allen's precursor to "The Tonight Show" on WNBC-TV in New York and produced and directed "The Arthur Murray Dance Party" on NBC.
In 1961, after moving to Los Angeles, he began a long-running career in public affairs television as producer and host of "Agriculture U.S.A." on NBC. Later known as "AG-USA," it ran on NBC stations until 1990 and continues in syndication.
After 40 years and 1,100 episodes, Stearns recorded a voice-over for the final episode of the show only days before he died.
Born in Billerica, Mass., in 1916, Stearns began acting at age 14 at the Mary Arden Theater in Peterborough, N.H. He also performed at the Peterborough Players Summer Theatre, which his family founded in 1933.
He made his Broadway debut in "Night Music" with the Group Theater and performed in "One Touch of Venus" with Mary Martin, "On the Town" and "Are You With It."
It was during this period that he met Mary Kay Jones, a young actress from Glendale, whom he married in 1946.
In 1947, Mary Kay landed a job modeling dresses on a live weekly 15-minute television show in New York. When Stearns watched her on camera, he told the stage manager that he thought she did fine but that the show was awful. He thought he could come up with something better.
"I said there are a lot of very successful domestic comedies on radio, but nothing had ever been done like that on TV," he told the Associated Press in 1997. "We got the go-ahead to try one episode. So I went back to our apartment in the [Greenwich] Village, and I wrote a little script about a young married couple--and played it for comedy."
The show, which predated "I Love Lucy" by four years, was an instant hit.
"It was tremendously popular actually at the time, because there was very little else on TV," Mary Kay Stearns said Friday.
For the most part, she said, the episodes were dramatizations of incidents that happened to them. "However, obviously, they were made much funnier than when it actually happened.
"We got a tremendous amount of mail," she said, "because people had never seen a husband and wife in real life doing skits that were based on what really happened in our marriage. So people became tremendously identified with us as people, and they did all sorts of wonderful things, like knitting Christmas stockings for our children."
Son Made TV History on Parents' Show Too
The couple had three children, but their firstborn, Christopher, made TV history himself.
More than four years before the much-publicized birth of Desi Arnaz Jr.--and the coinciding birth of "Little Ricky" on "I Love Lucy"--Mary Kay gave birth to her son Dec. 19, 1948, the morning of one of their broadcasts.
On the show that night, viewers watched the anxious Johnny pacing the set of a hospital waiting room as he awaited the birth of his TV son, who would also be named Christopher.
When Mary Kay returned to the show, she was shown walking over to a bassinet in one scene. And although the show was live, NBC inserted a film clip of the Stearns' 13-day-old son in his bassinet.
"It was in 'Ripley's Believe It or Not' that he was the youngest performer that had been on TV," she said.
"Mary Kay and Johnny," which had expanded to 30 minutes after moving to NBC in 1948, was canceled in the spring of 1950.
In the early '50s, the couple spent several years doing live commercials for the "U.S. Steel Hour" and served as U.S. Steel spokesmen around the country.
In addition to his wife, Stearns is survived by sons Christopher of Corona del Mar and Jonathan of Laguna Beach; daughter Melinda of Seattle; and one grandson.
For the Urban Legends Page: First Series to Portray a Married Couple in Bed? go to http://www.snopes.com/radiotv/tv/marykay.asp
For a history of the situation comedy which started with Mary Kay And Johnny go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sitcom
To watch the Archive of American Television Mary Kay & Johnny Stearns go to http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/shows/mary-kay-and-johnny
· Date: Sat August 12, 2006 · Filesize: 61.2kb · Dimensions: 549 x 693 ·
Keywords: Mary Kay And Johnny Stearns (Links Updated 5/10/2017)