|Subject: Mary Kay Stearns, a Star of One of TV’s Earliest Shows, Dies at 93
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Date Posted: Tuesday, January 08, 06:47:18pm
Mary Kay Stearns, who with her husband, Johnny, starred in “Mary Kay and Johnny,” a very early television sitcom that set the stage for better-known marital fare like “I Love Lucy,” died on Nov. 17 in Newport Beach, Calif. She was 93.
Her son Jonathan informed The New York Times of her death recently; it had not been previously reported.
Ms. Stearns was a theater actress in 1947 when an agent suggested that she audition for a job on a New York garment maker’s primitive TV show.
“What it consisted of is Mary Kay, looking 14 years old, wearing junior dresses and modeling them and telling about the belt and this and that,” Johnny Stearns recalled in an oral history for the Archive of American Television in 1999. When someone asked him what he thought of the program, Mr. Stearns responded that he didn’t think it was much of a program at all and suggested that the garment maker instead sponsor a show that the Stearnses would create about a fictional couple not unlike them.
What resulted was “Mary Kay and Johnny,” which was broadcast live without an audience beginning on the DuMont Network that November. It later moved to NBC, then to CBS, then back to NBC before ending in 1950.
The show, which at various points in its run was 15 minutes or a half-hour long, told gently humorous tales of the fictional Johnny, a banker, and Mary Kay, a homemaker. Mr. Stearns, who wrote the episodes, often drew from the couple’s lives for inspiration.
That was especially true in 1948, when Ms. Stearns became pregnant. In 1952 and early 1953, “I Love Lucy” engendered some controversy over whether and how to incorporate Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy into the show. For the Stearnses, there was no such angst; they matter-of-factly wove in the pregnancy, including the day their son Christopher was born in December 1948; the episode that night featured the fictional Johnny pacing in a waiting room. Just days later, the infant Christopher was shown.
“It was in ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ that he was the youngest performer that had been on TV,” Ms. Stearns said of Christopher in a 2001 interview with The Los Angeles Times on the occasion of her husband’s death at 85.
Mary Katherine Jones was born on Oct. 27, 1925, in Glendale, Calif. Her father, Walter, worked for the Bank of America, and her mother, Katherine (Power) Jones, was a homemaker.
Mary Kay, as she was called from an early age, grew up in Santa Monica and graduated from North Hollywood High School. She was interested in performing from an early age, making her first stage appearance at 2 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“I wore a bunny outfit,” she recalled in the oral history.
She made her film debut in the mid-1940s in a bit part in the comedy “Our Hearts Were Growing Up,” then relocated to New York in 1945 in hopes of working in the theater. She quickly got a job as an understudy in “Dear Ruth,” a comedy that had been running on Broadway since 1944, and was soon in the cast as a replacement player.
Hoping to further her career, acquaintances arranged for her to have tea with Edith Bond Stearns, the founder of the Petersborough Players, a summer theater in New Hampshire. During the tea, Edith’s son, Johnny, dropped by unexpectedly.
“Before the tea was over I decided I wanted to marry him,” Ms. Stearns said in the oral history. In 1946, she did.
When “Mary Kay and Johnny” began, DuMont was broadcasting out of space in the Wanamaker’s department store at Broadway and Ninth Street in Manhattan. Relatively few people had television sets; programming listings in The New York Times had dozens of radio shows each day but only a handful of television offerings.
The Stearnses were doing nothing on “Mary Kay and Johnny” that hadn’t been done on numerous radio shows, but they may have been the first to try the domestic-comedy formula on TV. Viewers who found the show took it to heart. When Mr. Stearns gave the fictional Mary Kay an illness that kept her out of a few episodes because the real Mary Kay was in a play out of town, viewers sent get-well cards. When the pregnancy came along, they sent baby gifts.
“We got a tremendous amount of mail,” Ms. Stearns said in 2001, “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.”
It was television by the seat of the pants, and Ms. Stearns fit it in while also pursuing her theater career. In 1948 she landed a part as a teenage girl in the Broadway comedy “Strange Bedfellows.” In the oral history, Mr. Stearns described having their Dodge parked on Ninth Street on days when they were shooting “Mary Kay and Johnny” so that they could quickly head uptown to the theater when the show was over. Ms. Stearns changed into her pregnancy-hiding costume on the way.
Television reviewing, like television itself, was in its infancy back then, though the show did garner a few reviews. The critics were not all in agreement.
In Billboard in 1948, Ira Hecht found an episode about trying to get Johnny to enroll in a baby-care course “neither cute nor funny, the struggle with the lines obviously proving too much for both principals.”
But in 1949 Variety called the show “an unpretentious and amusing series of domestic comedies,” adding that “Miss Kay makes a pert, pixyish wife while Stearns, who also scripts, contributes a dry style of comedy thesping.”
In contrast to some early TV shows, episodes of “Mary Kay and Johnny” do not live on via YouTube, though pieces of it may survive in archives. It is, however, widely said to have been the first show in television history in which a couple shared a bed, something that became taboo for years once TV became more widespread.
With the show expanded to a half-hour in its final incarnation, NBC sought to add writers. But Mr. Stearns, in the oral history, said the couple was not comfortable with the scripts they produced, and in March 1950 the show was dropped.
In 1951 and 1952 Ms. Stearns was host of “Mary Kay’s Nightcap,” in which she told NBC viewers what was coming up the next day on the network. She appeared on a few other shows in the period as well, including a 1952 episode of “Kraft Theater” called “A Kiss for Cinderella” in which she played the title character, with Leslie Nielsen as Prince Charming.
The Stearnses also appeared in commercials for U.S. Steel in the 1950s during the run of “The United States Steel Hour.”
Before the decade was over, though, the couple had moved to the West Coast, where Mr. Stearns became a TV producer and Ms. Stearns largely left show business to raise their two sons and their daughter, Melinda. They survive her, as does a grandson.
In a 1997 interview with The Associated Press for the 50th anniversary of “Mary Kay and Johnny,” Ms. Stearns was nonchalant about her pioneering work.
“Television,” she said, “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.”
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