What does the first sitcom in TV history have to do with a bank you may have heard of recently?
Ask many people what the first sitcom in TV history was and odds are they’ll say I Love Lucy. Unfortunately, that answer, as many quizmasters would say, is only a “good attempt”. Indeed from 1951 to 1957, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were the most famous couple on television. Five decades after the show’s demise, I Love Lucy continues to top charts for the best TV shows of all time. But it was not the first sitcom.
And there is yet another less popular factoid about that show. In January 1953, Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky in the episode “Lucy Goes to the Hospital”. Many people believe that this was the first pregnancy to be shown on television. Wrong again.
The credit for both firsts, and for the central theme of this week’s column, goes to the 1947 show Mary Kay and Johnny — a show that has quite a few firsts to its name but is not remotely as well known as I Love Lucy. Just like that show, Mary Kay and Johnny was based on real-life married couple Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns and their life in an apartment in Greenwich Village, New York. When it was first aired on 18 November 1947 on the short-lived DuMont Television Network, the show became the first television sitcom to be broadcast.
And there’s more. It was the first to show a couple sharing a bed on screen (Lucy and Desi used separate beds, remember? It was a time when several shows, in public interest, ignored the concept of bathrooms, toilets and household hygiene altogether). And, in 1948, when Mary became pregnant, the producers simply wrote it into the show, notching up another first. When he was one-month-old, their son Christopher became a member of the cast.
Even though the show would eventually move to rival networks CBS and then NBC, it owed its genesis to the DuMont Television Network, one of the four great names that created network television in America. Today, three of that quartet remain — ABC, CBS and NBC — while DuMont, like Mary Kay and Johnny, was quickly forgotten.
In 1931, engineer Allen DuMont had started DuMont Laboratories, the predecessor of the network, with just $1,000 (Rs 46,585). An ex-employee of Westinghouse, DuMont had been hoping to manufacture high-quality picture tubes but hardly had the means to succeed. If it hadn’t been for a successful IPO that followed, DuMont might never have made reliable cathode-ray tubes, the tubes would never have revolutionized TV sets, and TV sets would never have become ubiquitous enough to make network television boom.
So, who helped DuMont take its business to the big league and, perhaps, helped kick-start the TV business? That key IPO was underwritten by a firm by the name of Lehman Brothers. You may have heard of them. In August 1956, DuMont TV shut shop. Fifty-two years later, so did their banker.
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