Saturday, November 18, 2023

Mary Kay and Johnny: The earliest sitcom/reality show on television


Are you ready?  Let's go way back to a time when television was in its infancy and owning a TV set was a novelty.  You may not have heard of Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns, but they were trailblazers.  In the post-World War II era, they were ahead of their time.  If you think I Love Lucy was the first sitcom on network television, you'd be wrong  Before there was Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz or George Burns and Gracie Allen, there was Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns.  This real-life married couple were the stars of American television's first situation comedy.  Their show, Mary Kay and Johnny, ran from 1947 until 1950.  It finished its run before I Love Lucy premiered in October of 1951, and it paved the way for the famed Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz sitcom.  It was also an early version of a TV reality show.

Mary Kay and Johnny began as a 15-minute program on the old DuMont network on November 18, 1947, exactly 76 years ago today.  The sitcom aired on DuMont until August of 1948.  In subsequent years, however, it was broadcast on NBC (October 1948-February 1949), CBS (March 1949-June 1949) and then NBC again (August 1949-March 1950).  It ended its run as a 30-minute program.

The Stearns played fictional versions of themselves in a domestic comedy about the lives of a newly married couple in New York.  Johnny Stearns' character was employed at a bank and he and his zany wife, Mary Kay, resided in a Greenwich Village apartment.  Johnny, who wrote the episodes, often took his inspirations from the couple's real life experiences.  Unlike the more well-known Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, the Stearns' characters slept in the same bed, something that would become taboo in early television sitcoms.  However, it should be remembered that Mary Kay and Johnny was not constrained by the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, which came into effect in December of 1951.

Mary Kay and Johnny was filmed live in front of a New York studio audience.  Unfortunately, very little footage remains in existence.  It cannot be found on YouTube.  Unlike I Love Lucy, it is mostly recognized by TV trivia buffs.  When Mary Kay and Johnny was launched, television was a new medium and its future was uncertain.  As Mary Kay put it in a 1997 interview with The Associated Press for the 50th anniversary of Mary Kay and Johnny, "Television was just one of those things that your did to help pay the rent while you were looking for a real job in the theatre."

Mary Katherine Stearns (née Jones) was born on October 27, 1925 in Glendale, California.  Her father Walter, was employed by the Bank of America.  Her mother, Katherine Jones, was a homemaker.  Mary Kay, as she was called, was raised in Santa Monica and she graduated from North Hollywood High School.  She began her show business career at an early age.  At two and a half years old, Mary Kay appeared as an actress and singer at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California.  "I wore a bunny outfit," she recalled when she and Johnny sat down for an interview in 1999 with the American Television Academy as an oral history for the Archive of American Television 

Mary Kay made her made her film debut with a tiny part in the 1946 comedy Our Hearts Were Growing Up.  She then moved to New York in order to work in the theatre.  She was soon hired as an understudy in Dear Ruth, a comedy that had been appearing on Broadway since 1944.  It wasn't long before she became a replacement player.  In an attempt to improve her career prospects, Mary Kay had tea with Edith Bond Stearns, founder of of the Peterborough Players, a summer theatre based in Peterborough, New Hampshire.  Edith was Johnny's mother and during the tea, he showed up unexpectedly.  By the time the tea was over, Mary Kay was smitten with the young actor.

John Stearns was born in Billerica, Massachusetts on October 13, 1916 and he was a member of his mother's theatre troupe  which she founded in 1933..  Johnny began acting at the age of 14 at the Mariarden Theater in Peterborough.  He made his Broadway debut in Night Music with Group Theater.  He also performed in Broadway musical productions such as One Touch Venus with Mary Martin in 1943, On the Town in 1944 and Are You With It in 1945.

Inn 1946, Mary Kay Jones and Johnny Stearns were wed.  Mary Kay had been performing on Broadway when her agent suggested that she audition for a new television fashion show, actually a New York garment maker's. couple were not impressed.  Johnny told the American Television Academy the following: "What it consisted of is Mary Kay, looking 14 years old, wearing junior dresses and modelling them and telling about the belt and this and that."  

After making it clear that he disliked the fashion program, Johnny put forth a proposal.  "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 Stearns needed a sponsor to back their fictional series based on a young newlywed couple, not unlike them.  That sponsor turned out to be Anacin, a pain relief medication whose executives feared they might be wasting money on a show with a sparse audience.  In those days, there were no Neilsen ratings (the measurement of ratings began in 1950).  However, Anacin found another way to gauge the popularity of the show.

During one commercial spot on Mary Kay and Johnny, Anacin offered a free pocket mirror to the first 200 viewers who requested one  To be on the safe side, the company purchased 400 mirrors, in case the requests were twice as large as they anticipated.  Although the ad was only shown once, they received almost 9,000 requests for mirrors.

According to Mary Kay, the show was "tremendously popular actually at the time, because there was little else on TV."  The couple received a high volume of mail, Mary Kay explained, "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." 

In December of 1948, the real Mary Kay Stearns gave birth to the couple's son, Christopher William Stearns.  Mary Kay's pregnancy and the child's birth was incorporated into the script.  The birth was worked into an episode on the exact day that Mary Kay delivered the baby.  Since the show was done live, Mary Kay had to be absent.

On the day of Christopher's birth, the episode that night featured the fictional Johnny anxiously pacing the waiting room floor.  Days later, the infant, also named Christopher, was displayed on the show.  He joined the cast less than one month after his birth, appearing in his bassinet.  According to Ripley's Believe it or Not, he was the youngest cast member of any show in television history.

Christopher's 1948 birth predated the January 1953 birth of Desi Arnaz Jr./"Little Ricky" by about 4 years.   In 1952 and early 1953, Lucy's real-life pregnancy stirred up controversy over whether it should be incorporated into the show.  There was no such apprehension for Mary Kay and Johnny.  They easily wove the pregnancy into the show.  "I decoded, well, Mary Kay and Johnny is about us, and Mary Kay is pregnant, so I just wrote it into the script," Johnny said in the interview for American Television Academy.  

Mary Kay accepted a couple of  TV roles after the series ended.  She appeared in a 1951 episode of Armstrong Circle Theatre entitled "Danny's Tune" (Season 2, Episode 2, Air Date: September 25, 1951) and she played the role of Cinderella in a 1952 episode of Kraft Theatre, alongside Leslie Nielsen's Prince Charming.  In 1951 and 1952, Mary Kay hosted Mary Kay's Nightcap, in which she informed NBC viewers of the next day's schedule on the network.  However, she mostly retired from acting after Mary Kay and Johnny.  Johnny went on to become one of the original producers of  the precursor to The Tonight Show with Steve Allen on WNBC in New York.  He also produced and directed The Arthur Murray Party, a musical variety show.

When the Stearns family moved to California, Johnny continued to pursue work as a television producer, director and host.  In 1961, he began a lengthy career in public affairs television as producer and host of NBC's Agriculture U.S.A. (later known as AG-USA), which aired on the network until 1990.

Johnny Stearns passed away on December 5, 2001 after complications from a fall.  He was 85 years old at the time of his death in a Newport Beach, California hospital.  Mary Kay died on November 17, 2018, five years ago yesterday.  She died in Newport Beach at the age of 93.  Her death was not reported until two months later.       

Mary Kay and Johnny are largely forgotten today, but they were truly television pioneers.  They hold an important place in TV history.


* Mary Kay and Johnny had three children together: sons Christopher and Jonathan, and daughter. Melinda.  It was Jonathan who reported Mary Kay's death to The New York Times for an obituary.

* The supporting cast on Mary Kay and Johnny consisted of Hoard Thomas, who played Johnny's best friend Howie, and Nydia Westman, who portrayed Mary Kay's mother.

*In the early 1950s, Mary Kay and Johnny appeared in live commercials for the U.S. Steel Hour.  The couple promoted U.S, Steel around the United States.

SOURCESDeadline (, "Mary Kay Stearns Dies: Star of Pioneering 1940s Sitcom Was 93," by Greg Evans, January 10, 2019; Los Angeles Times, "Johnny Stearns: 85: Paired With Wife in Trailblazing TV Sitcom of the Late '40s," by Dennis McLellan, December 9, 2001, Wikipedia; Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

- Joanne

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