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Honey west / Single girls on TV in the 1950sSingle girls on TV in the 1950sOur Miss Brooks / single working women on TV prior to 1970

ALL THE SINGLE LADIES:
THE GIRLS BEFORE “THAT GIRL”

by Cary O'Dell

That Girl star Marlo ThomasThis fall marks the 45th anniversary of the debut of “That Girl” on American television. The milestone has not gone unnoticed. Marlo Thomas—“That Girl” herself--memorialized the show and its birthday with an article for “The Huffington Post” a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, the blogosphere has also been ripe with tributes and remembrances. And why shouldn’t it be? After all, we all know that Thomas’s “That Girl” was the first TV show devoted to a single woman pursuing a career (instead of a husband); the first to depict a young woman living on her own in a “big city” and making her own decisions; and that she was (is) the symbolic birth mother of Mary, Liz Lemmon, and the “Sex and the City” ladies.

Except for the notable fact that she isn't and it wasn’t.

“That Girl” premiered on September 8, 1966. That’s almost a full 20 years after television emerged as a mass medium and the three (at one time four, including Dumont) networks began the airing of hundreds of programs. It would seem odd then to think that it took TV programmers nearly two decades to discover the genre of “single girl in the city” or to come across a young and talented comedic actress ready for her primetime.

Bette Davis TV ShowCertainly in the movies, Doris Day, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Ginger Rogers often played independent “working girls.” And even if they end up betrothed or in the arms of a beau at fade out, it seldom did anything to undermine their original spunk and pluck.

On TV, as early as January 1950, CBS aired the interestingly titled “The Girls” (also known under the equally interesting title “Young and Gay”). It starred Bethel Leslie (later replaced by Gloria Strook) and Mary Malone and was based on the book “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. After first being a film with Gail Russell and Diana Lynn in 1944, the property came to TV and the series followed these two well-to-do young, unmarried women as they embarked on their post-college lives in New York. Like Ann Marie in “That Girl,” one dreamed of being an actress. (The other, wanted to be a writer.)

Similarly, the TV version of “My Sister Eileen,” which debuted in 1960, followed two young women, sisters, eager to make names for themselves in New York. One as an actress, the other, you guessed it, as a writer. “Eileen,” too, had first been a book, then a play and then a movie. On TV, it starred Broadway baby Elaine Stritch (as Ruth, the would-be writer) and Shirley Bonne, as Eileen (the wannabe actress).

Earlier, in 1951, and also set in New York, Peggy French and Peggy Ann Garner starred on ABC as “Two Girls Named Smith.” They were both young and pretty and were pursing their careers as fashion models in a sitcom that also featured Nina Foch.

Single girls on TV in the 1950sOver on the other coast, in 1955, former child star Mitzi Green and actress Virginia Gibson were the stars of “So This Is Hollywood.” These two unmarried young women, like Ann Marie later, also bore show biz aspirations; they hoped to break into the movies.

Also in 1955, and produced under the auspices of Desilu Productions, “Those Whiting Girls” aired on CBS. It starred famous songstress Margaret Whiting and her sister Barbara who, in a “Seinfeld”-esque twist, both played themselves. They lived in an ultra modern house in California and pursed their careers—Margaret obviously as a singer, Barbara as an actress. Though they shared living space with their mother (played by TV perennial Mabel Albertson), the ladies were of age and conducted themselves as free of any chaperone meddling. Which was good as the show was written by renowned “I Love Lucy” scribes Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll, Jr. and often embroiled young duo getting into odd escapades.

Single girls on TV in the 1950sUnlike Ann Marie and many of her predecessors, show biz--or some form thereof--was not always the sole focus of early single women on TV. Imported from radio, CBS’s “Meet Millie” starred Elena Verdugo as the eponymous character, a secretary who lived in a New York brownstone. “Millie” ran on TV for four years but is nearly forgotten today. Like Ann Marie later, Millie had a beau but he was easily droppable when the plot called for Millie to go it alone, which was often.

Love That Bob / Single girls on TV in the 1950sLike the Whiting sisters, Millie also lived with her mother. But such co-habitation was typical of the time—at least on TV. Whether it was due to plotting needs, social decorum at the time or a nod to the post-war housing shortage, almost no one on early TV lived alone; even TV’s resident playboy, Bob Cummings in “Love That Bob,” shared a house with his sister and nephew!

Finally, “Hey, Jeannie” starred English-born singing star Jeanne Carson as a Scottish lass who had come to America. It debuted in 1956. Jeannie had no resident boyfriend or any family underfoot. She spent most of her time trying to understand some of the odder customs of America. In her second but one season incarnation, however, she began training to be a flight attendant.

Single girls on TV in the 1950sThis litany of single ladies, all predating Ann Marie and airing prior to Mary Richards moving to Minneapolis, doesn’t even include TV’s two most notable early working women: Eve Arden in “Our Miss Brooks” and Ann Sothern in “Private Secretary” (and, later, “The Ann Sothern Show). If their respective ages (both actresses were 40 or over when they began their TV careers), distance them from the milieu of “That Girl,” then their mutual performances as confident, competent women established in their careers confirms them as Ann Marie 2.0.

This list also doesn’t consider the dramatic programs of the 1950s and early ‘60s which featured single, female careerists. Consider: Ella Raines in “Janet Dean, Registered Nurse,” Beverly Garland in “Policewoman: Decoy,” Mercedes McCambridge, as a reporter, in “Wire Service,” and Anne Francis as a PI in “Honey West.” These women were always depicted as just too busy working to worry about boyfriends.

That GirlIf “That Girl,” then, wasn’t the great programming breakthrough it is sometimes considered as, then why has it so strongly endured as such (and why does it so resonate even today)?

First, “That Girl” is a worthy and well-executed series with likeable characters and engaging performances. Second, being a sitcom and in color (as opposed to the black and white-ness of “Meet Millie,” et.al.) means it’s rerun friendly and hence has been rediscovered by generations of viewers who weren’t around the first time it ran. Thank you TVLand.

Demographics also has something (big) to do with it. Marlo Thomas’s classic has the distinction of being the right show at the right time. When, for example, “The Girls” originally aired, only about half of the nation owned a television. By the time “That Girl” came along in the mid-60s, nearly the whole country was antennaed. Furthermore, by the mid-1960s when “That Girl” hit the air, an increasing number of young women were going to college and/or delaying marriage to pursue careers. According to statistics, in 1950, 82% of all American women were married. But by 1970, “That Girl’s” penultimate season, only 61% were hitched.

That GirlHence, with the arrival on the air of “That Girl,” a growing number of career-minded girls and young working women saw themselves mirrored, or represented, on TV in a way that was more pertinent and had more mass appeal than it had been back in the days of “Meet Millie” or “Two Girls Named Smith.”

All of this is not to take away from Marlo Thomas’s small screen achievement. Every generation needs its role models, its heroes. What it does do is give some other pioneering women—both in front of and behind the camera—their due and shows that the independent woman of America did not first appear in 1966, either onscreen or off.


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