Thursday, April 26, 2012

"Private Secretary" Actress Ann Sothern Comes to Washington

From 1953-1957, the character of Susie McNamara in the sitcom "Private Secretary" had become to secretaries what Lucy Ricardo had become to housewives: an icon. This was especially true for thousands of clerical workers in the nation's capital.

"The National Secretaries Association turned out enmasse Tuesday to honor Ann Sothern, currently appearing at the Casino Royal...and present her with a special ambassadorial citation for her promotion of the art of secretaries," reported The Washington Post on July 29, 1954.

"The delegation (85 women and 3 mere men) representing the Capital, Executive and presidential Chapters, dashed from their offices to the Casino at 6:30 p.m. for pre-citation cocktails with the platinum-haired actress. Her current avocation outside of nightclubbing, is appearing in a series of filmed TV shows entitled 'Private Secretary.'"

Ms. Sothern was in town performing a song and dance act. In the year following the debut of 'Private Secretary,' the character of Susie McNamara represented beauty, efficiency and "cool" working for a high-strung talent agent, Peter Sands, played by actor Don Porter.

"It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon and even in the Casino Royale I sort of expected to find TV's 'Private Secretary' slaving her fingers to the bone over a hot typewriter," wrote columnist Lawrence Laurent in The Post on July 29, 1954.

"Instead, I found Private Secretary Ann Sothern dancing and singing her way through a boogie beat number called 'It's Too Darn Hot.' There wasn't a typewriter or a shorthand pad in sight and Miss Sothern looked as strange without this equipment as Liberace without a smile."

Another reporter asked Ms. Sothern if she knew shorthand.

"That always embarrasses me," she said, laughing. "No, I can't take shorthand and my best typing speed is about 15 words per minute."

A celebrated stage and screen actress, Ms. Sothern did her due diligence in preparing for the role according to reporter Dorothy Roe in The Post:

"'Since the program started, I've worn only clothes that a secretary could afford. That's what I'm buying now. I won't pay more than $25 to $50 for any office outfit. For real bang-up glamor for after-office wear I'll stretch the budget maybe to $75 to $100.'

"Ann checked with all her secretary friends in and around the studio before she took on the TV role to find out just how a private secretary is supposed to act. Occasionally she still hits the wrong gadget on an adding  machine, or doesn't hit the space bar on the typewriter at the right time -- and then the mail pours in from girls pointing out her mistake.

"It's really quite a responsibility, playing this part just right," she says. "because there are so many secretaries, and so many wives whose husbands have secretaries. I have to be careful never to get too familiar with the boss, so as not to alarm the wives looking in."

"Private Secretary" was produced by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Balls' production company, Desilu.

In my final installment tomorrow celebrating the 60th Anniversary of National Secretaries Day in the nation's capital, I'll share a rags-to-riches story of a secretary in the 1950s who became a millionaire after inventing what would become a Washington secretary's favorite tool until the debut of the personal computer 30 years later.

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