In the 1950s, television networks and producers were always on the lookout for the next Lucille Ball -- searching for a the next funny lady who could capture America’s hearts and keep viewers coming back, week after week. Gale Storm, Gracie Allen, Joan Davis, and Eve Arden were a few of these laugh-inducing, leading ladies. The one who came closest to giving Lucy a run for her money was Ann Sothern. Ann had been a big hit on Broadway in the early 1930s in shows like “America’s Sweetheart” and “Of Thee I Sing.” This success led to her very own MGM film series called “Maisie,” and to starring roles on several radio programs.
Private Secretary was Ann Sothern’s chance at television stardom. She played Susie MacNamara, former stage actress and secretary to Peter Sands (Don Porter), a successful New York talent agent. You might consider him a prototype for Mad Men’s Don Draper. As a secretary, Susie was ideal, and maybe a little too good at her job. As she carefully arranged Mr. Sands’ business matters, she also got involved in his personal life. Her efforts to help him often led to hilarious misunderstandings and confusion. (Not unlike a certain redhead). During the run of the show, Susie was intent on finding Mr. Sands a suitable wife, but no lasting relationships ever came of her efforts.
Susie was ably assisted by her best friend Violet “Vi” Praskins (Ann Tyrell,) who was also the office’s somewhat inefficient receptionist. Jesse White, known later to audiences as the lonely Maytag Repairman, played loudmouth Mickey “Cagey” Calhoun, Peter Sands’ biggest business competitor. The show was known for displaying all of the latest in office technology and stylish, executive décor. It featured IBM’s newfangled electric typewriters, and only the best office telephone gear from Western Electric.
The show aired from February 1, 1953 to September 10, 1957 on CBS, alternating with The Jack Benny Program. Private Secretary’s best year in the ratings was season four, when it placed twelfth for the year. The show lasted five seasons and was renewed for a sixth, but Ann Sothern walked out during a contract dispute with the producers. The following year, Sothern, along with several Private Secretary regulars, went on to star in a similar weekly series entitled The Ann Sothern Show.
Susie MacNamara would make one more appearance on television, in November of 1957 in “Lucy Takes a Cruise to Havana,” the premiere episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. It was a flashback showing how Lucy and Ricky Ricardo met, and Susie was portrayed as Lucy’s pre-Ethel Mertz best friend.
- John Dalton