As Women’s History Month nears closure, we reiterate our commitment to highlight the contributions of women year round in all creative industries (and beyond) at LA Weekly. We are still appreciative of the attention we get and give in March, though. Our sister publication The Village Voice, published this wonderful piece about the impactful work of women in the early eras of television. Enjoy.
– Lina Lecaro (Culture & Entertainment Editor)
“If television didn’t already exist, women would have had to invent it.” As I remember it, these words were spoken by the Village Voice’s own Andrew Sarris, in a Columbia University classroom, circa 2007. I was a 20-something TV buff masquerading as a cinephile, living in New York off dormitory food and the Wilder movies Sarris screened in class. (I was raised in the church of Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, courtesy of my parents and their extensive VHS collection — not the same denomination, exactly, but the same religion.)
I can’t recall whether Sarris’s insight about women and television was originally his own or someone else’s, whether it was pronounced in earnest or with some irony. Sometimes I wonder if I imagined this origin story altogether to justify the decade-plus that followed, which included my writing a book on postwar women television writers, Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (2022). Somewhere along the way, I became a working writer and mother myself, making the process of studying these women more interesting and, at times, more personal.
It was in the middle of writing my doctoral dissertation on the subject that I found myself at a house party hosted by a Harvard professor. Modernists and medievalists circulated in greater supply than hors d’oeuvres, but considering that I was crashing, I had little cause to complain. A friend introduced me to another friend who introduced me to a professor, who wanted to know what I “worked on.” I told him I was writing about women writers for 1950s television; after a beat, he asked dryly, “So, were there women writing for television in the 1950s?” His tone indicated he did not care either way, and while I responded, too eagerly, “Yes!,” sometimes I wish I had answered in the negative and let the awkwardness fester.
That comment tapped into a fear I was having as I scoured archival magazines and fan pamphlets and trade publications, looking for women’s names and faces: What was I looking to find besides proof they were there? So much of what I was learning about these writers and script editors and precursors to what we now call “showrunners” came from their obituaries. Their professional accomplishments presented less as artifacts of industry workings than as cherished memories from friends and family, as personal rather than institutional legacies. I knew I should reach out to those still living and talk to them myself, but mostly, I didn’t. I didn’t know what I would say, what I would ask. God forbid I ended up sounding like that party snob, inquiring, helplessly, if they had, in fact, once upon a time, written for television.
With my second-wave feminist inheritance, mixed with my elder millennial girl-power upbringing, I, like Carrie Bradshaw, couldn’t help but wonder: If these women didn’t exist, would I have invented them?
Women’s History Month is upon us again, and with it, the occasion to remember that women wrote for television then and write for it still. But any semblance of “add women and stir” won’t suffice. There is no history of television without women, no second-wave feminism — as we know it, anyway — without TV. (On this front, Sarris got it so right.) In many ways, these women have never left us, even considering the extent that they got left behind. Preservationists, curators, and scholars have labored for decades to showcase the work of these early writers; contemporary women in television build on their bequeathments, and often echo their talking points about managing (or failing) to “have it all.”
These women writers of the past still mostly suffer in obscurity, held up as exceptions when, truly, they constituted their own hard-won rule. They labored to give us joy and tears — they are the mother figures of mass culture, and, as Tina Fey jokes in a 30 Rock episode guest starring Carrie Fisher, that makes us the ungrateful kids who never call. Time to pick up the phone and dial.
In Miranda Banks’s book The Writers, actress and author Sandra Tsing Loh describes her work in television writing as being “locked in a room with ten white male comedy writers named Josh.” But the marking of the television writer as a white man, likely wearing a baseball hat and possibly a Harvard Lampoon T-shirt, was not predetermined or inevitable. As television sought to find its footing as a commercial art form — Would it be live or pre-recorded? High-brow or entirely populist? Based out of New York or Los Angeles? — the question of who should write these programs at all remained unanswered.
At its beginnings, network television relied on sponsor support, and many shows were financed by a single company or even a single product. The Colgate Comedy Hour (later, The Colgate Variety Hour, NBC, 1950–1955) was hosted by a series of performers, including Eddie Cantor, Frank Sinatra, and the comedy team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; The U.S. Steel Hour (ABC, NBC, 1953–1963) was an anthology drama that showcased scripts from up-and-coming writers such as Rod Serling and Ira Levin. (The sponsor didn’t always appear in the title, as with Carnation Evaporated Milk’s bankrolling of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.)
Unsurprisingly, the domestic medium of television was often in the business of shilling home goods. Women were courted as both consumers and the gateway creatives to those consumers. As CBS Radio vice president John Karol told an audience full of women at the 1956 meeting of the Advertising Association of the West: “In virtually every product category, you are the goal.… You are the reason for almost every product innovation and every ad in print or on the air. You are the subject of endless research.” I can picture this sea of women, in their tweed suits and pencil skirts, pencils poised over their notebooks. I am the goal? one scribbles. I am the reason? His language verges on the romantic, though it’s unclear whether Karol is wooing them primarily as customers or professionals. Ideally, it seems, both.
This “any gal can do it” mentality — that the white middle-class woman would discover that her own tastes and preferences were the only focus group she needed — ultimately proved useful to female professionals in television. Who better, after all, to run a show about the home and family than a woman who does the job in real life? And who better to push product than middle-class wives and mothers? Gertrude Berg, creator, writer, and star of the radio-turned-television-show The Goldbergs (CBS, 1949–1957), would tell an interviewer in 1940: “A woman’s career doesn’t necessarily have to cause her to neglect her other responsibilities…. I really believe that being a wife and mother made it possible for me to write in a manner which only a mother could.”
Berg leaned into this sentiment — “only a mother could” — with her on-screen alter ego, Molly Goldberg. She was committed to telling reporters about her real-life inspirations, especially her mother and grandmother, who spoke with Molly’s trademark Yiddish lilt. (Her training in playwriting from Columbia University came up considerably less in her chats with the press.) Peg Lynch, who wrote and starred in her own slice-of-life family sitcom, Ethel and Albert (NBC, ABC, CBS, 1953–1956), treated this idea with some ambivalence. A proponent of television realism, Lynch would say that all her plots came from her life and the lives of others, telling one reporter, “I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that was pure fiction.”
But at the same time, Lynch refused to be conflated with the characters she wrote. Because she created Ethel and Albert while she was single, interviewers were curious how she knew so much about domestic travails; after she married, they wanted to know if she was really Ethel and if her husband was really Albert. Her reply to one reporter, in 1956? A crack along the lines of How many mystery writers are murderers? In another interview, she gave a more measured reply: “I can’t explain how I did it … unless it’s because I think all people are the same.” Be this a move for privacy or artistic autonomy, Lynch insisted that she was not Ethel, nor Ethel her, and dismissed the kind of persona-blurring that Berg encouraged.
Berg’s and Lynch’s shows together offer an alternative history of television at that time, as a medium designed to be listened to rather than keenly watched, one meant to keep women company while they tidied. The television incarnations of The Goldbergs and Ethel and Albert never let go of the companionate mode of radio storytelling and built around what The New York Times’s Jack Gould called “the small situation of married life.” These shows also open up an avenue for speculation: What if the showrunner (or as I call these women in my book, these “stay-at-home showrunners”) was coded female? What if women writers had been the default rather than the skirted exception?
While Berg and others may have used certain maternalist sentiments to their advantage, other women writers, in addition to Lynch, strained against such conventional ideals. A “comedienne” who would go on to produce comedy albums and books and even co-star in the NBC sitcom Night Court (NBC, 1984–1992), Selma Diamond began her television career writing for comedy-variety shows such as The Colgate Comedy Hour and Caesar’s Hour. She made a place for herself as the only woman in the writers’ room with her tomboy antics, her rough humor, and her outsider perspective on her own “kind.” “If it weren’t for the fact that, like all women, I have absolutely no sense of humor, I’d be ideally suited to my job,” she snarked in a 1952 guest column for Cue Magazine.
Still other women writers saw their roles not as simply spoofing gender norms but as actively intervening in their political moment. Writer Ellen Violett told the Television Academy Foundation about working with Albert McCleery, who produced, among other shows, Cameo Theatre (NBC, 1950–1955). As Violett recounts it, McCleery told her: “‘I want faces, I want to use faces as background. I know how to light faces. And I want the kind of story — terribly strong — and I want it to be anti-fascist,’ which was an interesting thing to say right in the middle of blacklisting.” Inspired by his words, Violett showed him Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” published in The New Yorker in 1948 and famously centering on a small town that enacts a sacrifice ritual, seemingly to maintain order and prosperity. In both Jackson’s story and Violett’s adaptation, one of the town’s matriarchs is chosen, by lottery, to be brutally stoned by her own neighbors and loved ones, inviting a possible critique of the cult of domesticity and its ceaseless, even violent, demands. Violett recalls how well her teleplay was received, even as it metaphorically touched on the third-rail issue of the Hollywood blacklist. “In 1950, television was just there,” she explained. “Nobody was aiming at television. It was just there: it was starting, and we were starting.”
This newness made it possible for women writers to break into television on the ground level. But it did not allow all of them to stay, particularly as the work became more desirable, as offices and writers’ rooms relocated to the West Coast and the industry became increasingly absorbed into the film studios. As television grew, growing not just more lucrative but also more into a national pastime, many of these women were written out of the narrative altogether. But to look at this postwar moment as one in which women like Lucille Ball and Donna Reed talked, but men decided what they were to say, is a mischaracterization as phony and false as a canned laugh track.
The truth is, it’s hard to make that shift once the narrative becomes entrenched, and the instinct is, perhaps, to make lists, to scour pay sheets, all to prove that women were there. But the act of finding the Ellen Violetts, the Peg Lynchs, of mid-century America is not an act of charity or condescension. It is only by uncovering their work that a better, more complete history of television comes into focus.
Men such as Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, Paddy Chayefsky, and Rod Serling wrote the bulk of scripts for television in the ’50s, and in the process have become the protagonists in the story of the medium: smart guys in suits and ties, creative without being arty. As Reiner told Travel and Leisure magazine, in 1974, “[Comedy writers] are programmed to produce laughter, and when there is a job at stake, a professional reputation involved … the comedic motor quickly turns over.” Reiner created the semi-autobiographical Dick Van Dyke Show (NBC, 1961–1966), Simon wrote the 1993 play (and 2001 TV movie) Laughter on the 23rd Floor, and Mel Brooks produced the 1983 film My Favorite Year, not to mention the countless memoirs and autobiographies by legions of male scriptwriters that have come out in the decades following that first Golden Age of Television. These writers’ lives have long been synonymous with the history of television; we don’t just know they were there, we know how they felt about it.
Women exist in these stories — Rosemarie portraying writer Sally Rogers in The Dick Van Dyke Show being perhaps the most central example — but they rarely speak in their own words. Lucille Kallen, the only woman in the writers’ room of Your Show of Shows (NBC, 1950–1954), wrote a stirring description of her time in television for The New York Times, an inspiring though at times enervating phase of her career before she became a mystery novelist. Madelyn Pugh Davis wrote a book about co-authoring (with Bob Carroll) all 180 episodes of I Love Lucy (CBS, 1951–1975), Laughing with Lucy.
Both of these women are about as candid as they come, but I’m greedy. I want glimpses of the real women, the people behind the curated personae, behind the “only a mother could”s. I see glimmers in the private correspondence between Kallen and Your Show’s head writer Mel Tolkin, letters filed away at the Writers’ Guild Foundation in which the two humorously gripe about their colleagues’ successes. I sense a living, breathing human behind the curt memo written by U.S. Steel Hour’s script editor Dorothy Hechtlinger to “Bill” (likely the Guild’s managing director, H. William Fitelson): “Had it been a high escallop private meeting — without John, Mark or me — it would have been another matter, but to be singled out not to attend is, frankly, something that I did not expect from any of you … the Story Department is an integral part of the production unit and there is no one who is fully equipped to discuss it.”
But mostly I find cleaned-up, chipper, press-ready clips, like the item about writer Shirley Gordon, whose experience writing for Peck’s Bad Girl (CBS, 1959) made her so “interested in children … [that] she … adopted a Korean orphan boy.” (Nothing makes a woman’s biological clock sound off, inspiring her to become a single mother, than … working in a comedy writers’ room? Sure.)
Perhaps I ask too much, and maybe I let my hopes get up too high. In the long-running serial of me trying to find women writers in the archive, a 1953 sketch from The Buick-Berle Show (NBC, 1948–1956) actually takes the story inside the Berle writers’ room. The woman onstage is introduced as (the aforementioned) Selma Diamond — as she tells it, “I’m a writer. I write jokes. That’s my job. I write jokes, make coffee and empty ashtrays.” But this is not the real Selma Diamond — she’s been re-cast, and anyone who has heard Diamond’s signature rasp would know that immediately. This actress has the smooth tones and crisp diction of a noir femme fatale (which is sort of the gag), and a more girlish manner than the blunt, tomboy appeal of the real Selma Diamond. Was this actress deemed more believable as the office work wife than Selma herself, or was it that none of the writers was trained or willing to play their likeness on television? (Or was it a joke about television writers, what Walter Matthau refers to in the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd as thankless workhorses of the industry, “men without faces”?)
Aaron Sorkin’s Lucille Ball biopic Being the Ricardos (2021) is a false start of a different sort. The film begins with a series of talking heads, a framing device to underscore that the film is based on true events. All have been re-cast, including the character of Madelyn Pugh, though in Sorkin’s defense, Pugh had died a decade prior to the making of the movie. Still, the drive to frame the narrative this way underscores how much we, even Aaron Sorkin, want to feel that we are hearing these stories from the women themselves.
In 2013, I was fortunate enough to sit down with the real Peg Lynch, the woman who insisted that she was not Ethel Arbuckle but who served me watermelon pickles just as her radio-television namesake would have. She told me about all the care and time she took with the people on set, seemingly unaware that not every showrunner thinks about other people’s feelings; she seemed surprised that I’d heard of her. Her tape collection was extensive, the labels handwritten, as though the commercial enterprise of Ethel and Albert were a homemade project.
“In interviews,” I started in, nervous, “you talk about how Ethel is not good at math, and that’s something you two have in common. But you knew to hold onto the rights of your show rather than sell them to CBS. So, that kind of business, um, acumen, that’s sort of like math, right? Like, were you being.… Was this idea that you’re not good at math … a kind of ploy?”
She looked at me kindly, but also a little like I was nuts. “I’m not good at math,” she reiterated. I think she was worried that I wasn’t so good at reading, which would certainly prove a handicap for me moving forward.
I took another bite of my sandwich and smiled apologetically. Here I went again, inventing the women who invented television (with a nod to When Women Invented Television, by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong).
“Mom, what are you going to do with your archive?”
“What do you mean, archive?”
This is how Astrid King, Peg Lynch’s daughter, explains the origins of her undertaking to me in a phone call: to preserve her mother’s work and share it with the world, as an archive and a body of work. Her efforts began long before Lynch’s passing, in 2015, as King went through her aging parents’ home, which held “90 kinescopes, over 6,000 scripts plus copies, tapes, CDs, scrapbooks” and paperwork including accounts, ledgers, and other production documents. Having kept ownership of her intellectual property, Lynch took her work with her after her time at CBS concluded, and these materials have since been donated to the University of Oregon’s Peg Lynch Collection. They have also inspired a series of creative projects for King, including a one-woman show staged at Lynch’s alma mater, as well as a podcast and curated autobiographical manuscript (both of which are seeking distribution).
Fans reach out to King regularly, asking for copies of scripts and seeking particular episodes. But with so little of Lynch’s work publicly and commercially available, Ethel and Albert is not finding many new listeners or viewers. “She’s hardly known,” King tells me. “See, that’s my mission. She’s quite special.” As for the television kinescopes, those are “cleaned, respooled, rewound, climate-controlled environment, awaiting the next step.”
Podcasts, stage shows, documentaries, and other forms of public history can do wonders in driving attention back to the creative work these women produced. Gertrude Berg, Lynch’s most direct compatriot in light domestic realism, became more widely known through the premiere of the 2009 documentary Yoohoo, Mrs. Goldberg, directed by Aviva Kemper. A year later, Shout! Factory produced The Ultimate Goldbergs DVD boxed set, containing more than 70 episodes, a collaboration with the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which, under the direction of television curator Mark Quigley, has also digitized 130 radio episodes. As the archive’s head of Research and Education, Maya Smukler emphasizes to me in an email that Berg’s materials appeal to a wide range of scholars, experts, and television buffs: “those interested in studying early television aesthetics and technology; representations of religion, ethnicity and culture in media/television; characterizations of Jewish mothers; comedy — in the early television sitcom format.” UCLA’s holdings of The Goldbergs were granted by Gertrude Berg’s son, screenwriter Cheney Berg, who periodically wrote for his mother, with screen credits including The Goldbergs and, later, Mrs. G. Goes to College (The Gertrude Berg Show) (CBS, 1961–1962). “Cultural and historical significance is always a key factor in decision making,” Quigley tells me. “And when rights aren’t restrictive, the ability to share broadly also can serve to help fund work. Access and preservation are symbiotic in that way.”
Viewing these kinescopes demands a television historian’s eye, able to see around and through a multitude of sins: scan lines, grain, dirt, dust, film flicker, and that’s not all. The job of any preservationist — in the case of The Goldbergs, Pauline Stakelon — is to imagine how the broadcast image looked to audiences at the time and to try to evoke that, even when it means leaving imperfections intact. Because “a kinescope is literally a television program filmed off of a TV screen,” Quigley explains, “[they] have a certain aesthetic and charm that is all their own…. Digital scanning hardware and digital clean-up software tools have advanced quite a bit … but the specific intentionality of that digitization work done at UCLA at that time  would be mostly the same if the project was undertaken today.”
Preservation is a highly demanding and intentional process, but the discovery of lost objects can feel near providential. In 2000, the operating engineer at City Center in New York City discovered a closet full of scripts and memorabilia from Your Show of Shows. How easy would it be for these papers and programs and misplaced toupees — this literal trove, an orphaned archive — to fall onto the literal trash heap of history?
This happy accident was featured in The New York Times, with the reporter interviewing one of the only living members of the show’s production team: Natalie Chapman Goodman. I can only imagine that I was one of a dozen television historians (give or take) for whom that name rang a loud and melodious bell. Chapman was the personal secretary to Your Show of Shows’ producer Max Liebman. After Your Show ended, Chapman would work as a production assistant, alongside actress Imogene Coca and writer Lucille Kallen, on the failed feminist experiment that was The Imogene Coca Show (NBC, 1955).
Unlike Kallen, who was often mistaken for a secretary because she was the only writer who knew how to type, Chapman was a secretary, and her role was largely administrative. But she fulfilled two additional — and significant — functions on set. The first was to let the writers test their jokes out on her, as a 1951 Coronet Magazine spread testified: “All hands give [Chapman] the hawk treatment — eagerly watching to see if and when she’ll laugh.”
Her other job? To douse the recordings. As Chapman Goodman told The New York Times, “It was my job to water the film every two weeks so it wouldn’t disintegrate.” Much of television, in its beginnings, including Your Show of Shows, was aired live, and kinescopes, in addition to being blurry, are fragile things. Still, in this era before syndication and reruns, someone — but who? — sensed that these might be worth saving; that, like plants, the art and the esteem afforded to television was bound to grow. Given the proper care, that is.
I want to see myself in the fiery memo of Dorothy Hechtlinger and her spirited defense of story production; I want to see myself in the sarcastic musings of Lucille Kallen, plucking her voice out from under the tangle of the men’s screaming matches; I want to see myself as the type, dear reader, to invite you over for watermelon pickles and lively conversation. But mostly, I see myself in Natalie Chapman Goodman, poised in front of her typewriter, laughing, nodding, taking notes. On my best days, my job is to fill the watering can when it gets too low and keep the history from drying up.
Annie Berke is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of Their Own Best Creations: Women Writers in Postwar Television (University of California Press, 2022).
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