The First Working Woman on an American TV Sitcom

Ann Sothern (January 22, 1909 – March 15, 2001) was an “American stage, radio, film, and television actress whose career spanned six decades.” Ann started doing bit parts in film in the 1920s. She hit success with the 1939 movie Maize Ravier. Ann played “a brash yet lovable Brooklyn showgirl.” The movie was so popular that it spawned a ten movie series from 1939 to 1947 as well as a radio series from 1945 to 1947.

Ann Sothern became ill with hepatitis in 1948 and MGM canceled her contract. Ann turned to television to further her career. In 1953, Ann took the lead role of Susan Camille “Susie” MacNamara in the CBS sitcom Private Secretary.      

Private Secretary aired from 1953 to 1957.  It alternated Sunday nights at 7:30 pm with The Jack Benny Program. Ann Sothern as Susie “is secretary to handsome talent agent Peter Sands and keeps getting messed up in (and messing up) his private life. She’s assisted (usually) by receptionist Vi.” The set decoration on Private Secretary was one of the trademarks of the series. It  showed “a 1950’s state-of-the-art executive office, with stylish décor, IBM typewriters and the latest office telephone gear from Western Electric.” At least it was state-of-the-art back then. It just looks bulky and inconvenient now. The series aired in black and white and episodes were 30 minutes long.

Ann’s character Susie was also the “first working woman on an American TV sitcom.” Although, in this particular episode, Susie spends more time trying to reform a young hooligan and set him up in business then in actually tending to her own office and boss. Ann had gained some weight during her bout of hepatitis and she was uncomfortable about it. To disguise her weight gain, Ann wore primarily black outfits with only a little color or white as accents on both of her TV sitcoms, Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show (1958 to 1961). I was actually a bit surprised to learn about Ann’s concern over her weight. Does anyone remember Marilyn Monroe? Actresses had a few more curves back in the day than the supper scawny emaciated starlets of today. Ann looks fine to me. Now the fluttery collars on some of her dresses – some of those look just plain silly.

Private Secretary was very popular with viewers and Ann was nominated four times for an Emmy Award for her role as Susie MacNamara. The show was renewed for a fifth season, unfortunately Ann walked out after a contract dispute with the producer (Ann described it as a “violent fight” over profits from the series) The producer withheld the rights to the show’s original title when it went into syndication and the title was changed from Private Secretary to Susie. Ann Sothern and several of her cast mates went on to star in a new series, The Ann Sothern Show (1958 – 1961), which featured Ann as an assistant manager of a hotel.

I first saw Susie (originally Private Secretary) when it aired in syndication on the Nick at Nite channel back in 1987 to 1990. I was familiar with Ann from her seven episode stint as the Countess Framboise on The Lucy Show starring Lucille Ball in 1965 (I’m a huge Lucille Ball fan). I enjoyed the show but unfortunately, I caught Susie at the end of its run on Nick at Nite so I only ever saw a few episodes. Fortunately, when I was recently exploring The Internet Archive, I discovered that one episode of Private Secretary is in the Public Domain. Episode #84 “The Little Caesar of Bleaker Street” is FREE to watch in the Public Domain.

The Little Caesar of Bleaker Street” originally aired towards the end of season four in 1956. This is a very mild and predictable episode. Susie brings her grandmother’s diamond ring to work so naturally it will go missing. Susie tries to reform an amiable little hooligan so naturally something will happen that puts him in a bad light. The roughest things the budding young crook does is pocket some money and make a fist and threaten another boy. In this episode the devious shoeshine boy appears in Susie’s office touting the “hottest shoe shine in town.” Susie and the boy trade some quips:

  • Susie offers to introduce the boy to her boss, “Whom shall I say has come to shine?” The boy intelligently replies, “Huh?”  Susie explains, “Your name. Your moniker. You know. Your handle.” The boy gets the drift, “Uhhhh. Smith. John Smith.” Susie smiles knowingly, “Oh that’s a nice name. Familiar, too.”
  • The shoeshine boy tries to sweet talk Susie’s boss, Mr. Sands, “I don’t want you to even think of paying me. Even if I am a poor orphan and I live in the rundown section of the slums. No sir, this shine is on me.” Susie is not impressed, “The kid’s up for an Academy Award.” Mr. Sands is not impressed either, “You’d have to look through six butcher shops to find that much ham.” 

Susie tries to help the boy and his shoeshine business. Unfortunately for Susie, the boy is a sneaky scoundrel and, when Susie is busy, he quickly steals her five dollar bill. He does stop to give Susie’s friend and the office receptionist, Vi Praskins (actress Ann Tyrrell) a shine although he is a bit too rude about it for the poor, meek receptionist:

  • The boy orders Vi, “OK, Mouse, up with the tootsies. The crazy blond in the next office is treating you to a shine.”

By the next day, Susie has discovered the loss of the five dollar bill and realized that the boy is not coming back to do any of the shoeshines Susie pre-paid for. But Susie has no intention of giving up on reforming the boy so she calls the police for help in locating the boy and gets a clever and very flirtatious officer:

  • Sergeant O’Halloran (actor Don Haggerty) boasts, “I know every living soul on Bleaker Street. And most of the departed.”
  • The Sergeant is very interested in Susie, “You know, tonight’s my night for the squad car. Why don’t we take a little spin?”

Sergeant O’Halloran takes Susie to the apartment where the boy, who she now knows is named Chuckie and is ten years old, lives with his aunt and uncle. I actually get a kick out of this part because the apartment building is supposed to be rundown and in a very bad neighborhood. The Sergeant tells Susie that Chuckie has had a hard life. Then he gallantly goes off and leaves her all alone. He tells her it’s such a bad neighborhood but he is apparently not too concerned about the safety of a well dressed blond lady wandering around all alone. Actually, I like that Susie is not overly dependent on the men around her. She kind of treats Sergeant O’Halloran like a pesky little insect, rather cute and somewhat useful but his buzzing is also slightly bothersome.

Susie will not be put off and talks (and pokes) her way into Chuckie’s apartment.  This is one of the things I like best about Susie: her determination. She does not let any doubts stop her from doing what she feels is necessary. But she also quickly realizes that she can not be too obvious in her attempts to reform the boy so she plucks at the boy’s desire for money and prompts him to think about how he can build a legitimate shoeshine business empire:

  • Chuckie resists, at first, “Look, you don’t get it. I don’t polish shoes. I use that gag to get into the places and size ‘em up. I polish your shoes, you turn around or leave the room like yesterday and I cop your five bucks.”
  • Susie finally convinces Chuckie to try the legitimate business route, “Shine, Caesar, shine.” Chuckie is not impressed, “You think you’re so smart.” Susie smirks, “I know I’m smart. You’d be smart too if you’d wise up.”
  • Chuckie eventually appreciates Susie, “You know sumthin’, for  a dame, you’re a pretty nice dame.”

When Chuckie starts earnestly building his new shoeshine empire, Susie asks him how it feels:

  • “You know it’s the kind of feeling I ain’t never had before. When I walk down the street, I ain’t lookin’ for alleys to duck into, I just walk, you know what I mean? Yeah, it feels good.”

Too bad for Susie and Chuckie and his shoeshine empire that the sun shiny feelings do not last. All too soon, a diamond ring that belonged to Susie’s grandmother turns up missing.

Will Chuckie end up in the pokey?

Will Susie get her ring back?

Will Sergeant O’Halloran ever get a date with Susie?

To find out what happens, click the link and go to The Internet Archive and watch Private Secretary episode #84 “The Little Caesar of Bleaker Street.” It’s FREE in the Public Domain.

One last little tidbit for movie fans:
The young actor playing Chuckie aka Little Caesar is, in real life, Harry Shearer. Harry Shearer was born December 23, 1942 and is an “American actor, comedian, writer, voice artist, musician, author, radio host, and director.” Harry Shearer is best known as the co-creator, co-writer, and co-star of the 1984 movie This is Spinal Tap. Harry played the bassist Derek Smalls. Harry has also been a voice actor on the TV show The Simpsons since 1989. Harry is the voice of Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Principal Skinner, and several other characters. Harry Shearer is currently a professor in New Orleans, Louisiana, at Loyola University.

Click the link and enjoy “The Little Caesar of Bleaker Street.” It is FREE in the Public Domain and you can watch and enjoy it at The Internet Archive.

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