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TV pioneer
Stearns remembered for creating 1st sitcom



Published: Friday, December 21, 2001



FRAZIER MOORE



Associated Press



NEW YORK As TV genres go, none can match the sitcom for popularity, endurance and devotion to its past.
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Even this season, which isn't such a big year for sitcoms, the networks are airing "Frasier," "Friends," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and two dozen others that, whatever their individual strengths, share a resolute sameness that spans decades.



This, of course, is in keeping with the formula perfected by "I Love Lucy," which marked its golden anniversary this fall.



A half-century ago, "I Love Lucy" established the sitcom protocol: a multicamera filming technique; the obligatory home and workplace settings; and that overcompensating laugh track.



But however seminal, "Lucy" wasn't the first sitcom. A show called "Mary Kay and Johnny" was. It preceded "Lucy" by four years, debuting Nov. 13, 1947.



Originating live from Manhattan, it starred newlywed actors Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns as happy young marrieds named Mary Kay and Johnny who were building a life in New York. It was created and written by Johnny, who made his TV counterpart a bank employee. He made Mary Kay a zany, yet often shrewd, housewife.








Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns pose in the courtyard of their Corona del Mar, Calif., home Nov. 11, 1997. Johnny died this month at age 85.



"The show hit very close to home," Johnny Stearns said in an interview a few years ago. "If Mary Kay one day got stuck in the elevator, well, it would give me an inspiration about us getting stuck in an elevator" on an episode of the show.



When real-life Mary Kay found she was expecting a child, so did TV Mary Kay. "The whole program is based on our actual married life," Johnny figured, "so why not write the pregnancy in?"



The blessed event occurred Dec. 19, 1948, as did the TV birth (albeit offscreen) on that same night's show. Thus did it predate the parallel pregnancies of Lucille Ball and Lucy Ricardo by four years.



And it beat every other sitcom by decades in another respect: This husband and wife shared a bed. After that, twin beds were the rule in every sitcom master bedroom well into the 1960s.



During its three-season run, "Mary Kay and Johnny" aired several times a week on three successive networks (Dumont, NBC and CBS). Then, soon after the series folded in March 1950, the real-life Stearns family left their Greenwich Village apartment, as well as TV comedy, and moved to California.



Earlier this month, Johnny Stearns died. He was 85. He and Mary Kay were married 55 years.



After a long career as a West Coast-based producer, director and host of public-affairs programming, Stearns had planned to retire soon, said Mary Kay Stearns last week from their home in Corona del Mar. He taped what he intended as a final voiceover just a few days before his death.



But "Mary Kay and Johnny" was "the centerpiece of his life," she said. Through the years, Stearns remained proud of his role as a TV pioneer, "though he was frustrated sometimes," Mary Kay allowed, "because a lot of publicity was concentrated on 'Lucy."'



Unlike "Lucy," preserved on film and repeatable forever, no films exist of "Mary Kay and Johnny." That goes a long way toward explaining why the show, and its stars, are today largely forgotten. With TV, if it can't be seen, it may as well have never existed.



But is there a viewer today who, exposed to countless sitcoms that have followed in its wake, can't bring "Mary Kay and Johnny" into focus with the mind's eye? Every sitcom that came after the show, or is yet to come, can be seen as a memorial to Johnny Stearns.



Even if precious few viewers know it.



"I think he felt, 'I wish more people knew,"' Mary Kay said.



Richard Moss knows.



"I have never felt, before or since, so safe and warm as when I watched 'The Mary Kay and Johnny Show' with my family," Moss is happy to report.



By now its storylines and other details elude him, but not the show's basic premise: "Johnny was kind of a bumbling guy," Moss summed up last week, "and Mary was the behind-the-scenes brain."



Today he's a 60-year-old plastic surgeon practicing near Boston. But he fondly recalls his childhood in Scotch Plains, N.J., circa 1947, when his father, figuring the budget would allow for either a house or a television, chose to bring home the first TV on the block.



After that, joined by his family and much of the neighborhood, Moss could often be found in his apartment, parked in front of the new Philco.



Meanwhile, Mary Kay and Johnny could be found making history.
Date: Wed June 27, 2018 � Filesize: 30.7kb � Dimensions: 318 x 441 �
Keywords: Mary Kay, Johnny & Christopher Stearns

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