In Loving Memory: Ann Sothern

(1909 - 2001)

Throughout the 1930s and '40s, Ann Sothern and Lucille Ball, like many performers in Hollywood, had not one but two careers -- one in motion pictures and one on radio. Ann had started in radio as early as 1935, appearing on such variety shows as Rudy Vallee's "The Fleishman Hour" and Bing Crosby's "Kraft Music Hall." She also did dramatic parts on "Woodbury Playhouse," "Screen Guild Theatre," and the biggest anthology of them all, "Lux Radio Theatre."

In July, 1945, Ann started her own weekly radio series based on (what else?) Maisie. Famed radio actor Elliott Lewis (later the producer of The Lucy Show) co-starred as boyfriend Bill, with other parts going to such seasoned radio players as John Brown and Lurene Tuttle. The series ran two seasons, and was revived in 1949 as a syndicated program, now called The Adventures of Maisie. Included in the repertory cast were Hans Conreid, Sheldon Leonard, Joan Banks, Elvia Allman, Bea Benadaret, and Sandra Gould.

The big talk along Hollywood's radio-row by then was the coming of the new medium of television. No one knew if "radio with pictures" would become popular or not. Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan had already started hour long programs out of New York, but people in Hollywood were a little nervous about the idea. The major studios had always embraced the idea of their stars appearing on radio -- but considered this new device "the competition," and forbade their contractees from appearing.

Lucy, of course, threw caution to the wind and launched I Love Lucy in the fall of 1951. Ann followed suit the following year with Private Secretary, a sitcom in which she appeared as Susie MacNamara, private secretary to one Peter Sands of International Artists theatrical agency. Don Porter co-starred as Sands, and Ann Tyrrell appeared as Susie's best friend, the agency's receptionist, Vi Praskins. The show premiered on CBS Sunday, February 1, 1953, sponsored by Lucky Strike. (As an odd coincidence, I Love Lucy at that time was sponsored by rival Philip Morris!) Private Secretary shared its Sunday-at-7:30PM slot with The Jack Benny Program, which had not yet become a weekly entry.

To say that the show was a hit would be an understatement. Almost overnight the stardom that had long eluded Sothern now came her way. Ratings sizzled, tie-in merchandise was launched, and a longterm deal was struck with CBS.

Private Secretary lasted four seasons -- and although it was renewed for a fifth, Ann walked out in a contact dispute with producer Jack Chertok.

No one appreciated Ann's talent more than Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Two months after Private Secretary ended, the Arnazes booked Ann to be the first guest star on their new Lucy-Desi long-form specials, "Lucy Takes a Cruise to Havana," in which she again played Susie MacNamara. Desi was so impressed with the audience response that he asked Ann to consider a new series that would be co-produced by Desilu. When she said yes, Arnaz hired Lucy writers Bob Weiskopf and Bob Schiller to create a new concept for her. They came up with Career Girl (quickly retitled The Ann Sothern Show) in which she played Katy O'Connor, assistant manager of the Bartley House, a luxurious New York hotel. Ann Tyrrell was again cast as her buddy, now Olive Smith. Ernest Truex co-starred as the hotel manager -- but audiences clearly missed Don Porter, who was brought in to replace Truex after the first batch of shows. The Ann Sothern Show ran on CBS for three seasons.

In the years that followed, Ann returned to the big screen in films like "Lady in a Cage" and "The Best Man," and subsequently to TV as the voice of Jerry Van Dyke's deceased mother in My Mother, the Car. Her character had, so the story goes, come back to life as an antique flivver. "It's like acting on radio for a TV star's pay," she said at the time.

But Lucy wanted her back on television -- body as well as voice, and discovered an opportunity for the two of them to work together when Vivian Vance decided to leave The Lucy Show. Ann appeared in three episodes of the show during the 1964-65 season as Rosie Harrigan, one of Lucy Carmichael's old school chums who is now a destitute heiress. The chemistry worked so well that Lucy invited her back for four more episodes in 1965-66.

Although the powers-that-be at Desilu considered adding Ann to the show full time, Lucy was not crazy about "officially" replacing Viv (whom she still hoped would come back), and Ann was not sure she wanted to be tied down to a regular weekly series. She considered the prospect again a few months later when Desi Arnaz called and asked her to appear opposite Eve Arden in a new project he was developing, The Mothers-in-Law, but again she demurred.

"I'd been playing these dames like Rosie, and Katy, and Susie and Maisie for over 25 years," she later explained. "I thought it was time for me to go back to being Annie." She accepted roles now and then in various television programs and motion pictures, and spent many summers doing live theatre in little out-of-the way places. In 1973, while she was appearing in a production of "Everybody Loves Opal," a piece of scenery fell on Ann, fracturing a lumbar vertebra and shattering the nerves in her legs. She never fully recovered, and walked with a cane for the rest of her life.

Ann returned to television in 1985 in a TV-movie remake of "A Letter to Three Wives." The producers originally asked her to play the Thelma Ritter maid's role, but she did not think she was mobile enough for that, and asked, instead for the Connie Gilchrist mother role. Her performance led to her being cast in what would be her final big-screen effort, "The Whales of August."

Filmed off the coast of Maine in 1986, "Whales" brought together screen legends Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, and Vincent Price. Davis and Gish often sparred off-screen as well as on, but Ann refused to get caught in the middle. "When Ann appeared on the set," said director Lindsay Anderson, "the whole atmosphere lightened up. She brought her own poker chips and played cards with the crew." She also walked away with an Oscar nomination as Best Actress in a Supporting Role (the first such nomination of her career).

Since 1984, Ann resided primarily in her home in Ketchum, Idaho, only occasionally visiting New York or Hollywood. She is pictured below with daughter Tisha and granddaughter Heidi Baum.

In closing, we are reminded of the way she often ended episodes of The Ann Sothern Show: after doing the final commercial, she would look directly into the camera and say, "Good night... and stay happy."


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