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'When Women Invented Television' Gives 1940s, '50s Creative Powerhouses Their Due

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Before Mary Tyler Moore, Oprah and Ellen, there were Gertrude, Betty, Hazel and Irna Phillips' "The Guiding Light."

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE GUIDING LIGHT" OPENING ORGAN)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hello, Mrs. Goldberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HAZEL SCOTT SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How's the piano, Hazel?

HAZEL SCOTT: I guess it'll hold up.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

SIMON: Women were not only the stars in the 1940s and 1950s but creative forces of their own shows and franchises. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong brings this company of four talents back from the black-and-white kinescope of history in her book, "When Women Invented Television: The Untold Story Of The Female Powerhouses Who Pioneered The Way We Watch Today." Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, who's written popular histories about "Seinfeld," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and other cultural touchstones joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

JENNIFER KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let me just put this out there. Was their success in part enabled because few male executives were willing to take a risk on this new medium of television?

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: That is exactly correct. What I like to say is that if you see a lot of women doing something, it is probably because the men have either not gotten there yet, or they've already left. And in this case, they were still in radio. That was where the power and the money really was still. And so the field was kind of wide open. If you think of it more like the early Internet, you can kind of understand. Like, no one knew what to do yet.

SIMON: Let me try to take each of these remarkable people in turn. Gertrude Berg played Molly Goldberg. Berg was a real powerhouse, wasn't she?

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: It's just incredible that everyone doesn't know her name the way that everyone knows Lucille Ball's name. She is a legend, too, and she deserves it, but Gertrude was there before her even. And what an incredible force. She created her show. She wrote most of the scripts. She starred in them all. And she was tireless. Even during her kind of time off from the show, she would be out promoting the show, promoting her line of house dresses, promoting her cookbook. You know, she was always up to something to kind of further her career and her ambition.

SIMON: Irna Phillips, in many ways, the inventor of the American soap opera, wasn't she?

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: Absolutely. She was working in Chicago radio and was asked by her boss at the time to create something for women so that they could sell them stuff. You know, this was always the game in the end, was advertising. And women were great consumers. And so she created the daytime soap opera. And the idea was to focus on these domestic dramas that would relate to real women's lives. And she is also responsible for things that we still know as tropes today, like the organ cues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORGAN)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And now "The Guiding Light," created by Irna Phillips.

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: So a lot of the stuff that we still kind of recognize as stereotypically the soap opera came directly from her. And she was sorry about the organ music, just so you know.

SIMON: OK. Well, I love it.

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: (Laughter).

SIMON: Let me ask you about Hazel Scott - great concert performer, singer, began her own variety show.

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: Yes, exactly. In 1950, she was at the peak of her popularity, and the DuMont Network offered her the chance to have her own variety show in primetime.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HAZEL SCOTT SHOW")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Just a minute. Who do you want to see?

SCOTT: (As self) I'm Hazel Scott. We're here for the audition.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Oh, Ms. Scott. Yes. They're waiting for you. Go right in.

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: And so she started out in New York City one night a week and actually was such a success that she quickly got promoted to several nights a week and then got promoted to national. And it actually makes her the first Black person to have a national primetime show that they're hosting. So that is a really big deal and has often been sort of lost to history.

SIMON: Betty White - 2021, we don't need to explain who she was. She's still out there.

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: Unbelievable. She, you know, has had so many lifetimes, particularly in show business, that it's easy - each generation kind of knows her for one thing. Like, I grew up knowing her for "The Golden Girls." There's a generation who grew up just knowing her for kind of her 2010 stuff, you know, being on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

BETTY WHITE: You know, I'm not new to live TV. In 1952, I starred in my first live sitcom, which was "Life Of Elizabeth." And, of course, back then, we didn't want to do it live. We just didn't know how to tape things.

(LAUGHTER)

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: My favorite fact is that she was on the air in Los Angeles on one of the first daytime talk shows for five and a half hours a day, six days a week, improvising with no - I mean, obviously, there's no script. How could you write scripts in time for that?

SIMON: Right.

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: I think this explains so much about her longevity and the way she is still quick-witted in front of a camera. You know, I think she had this incredible training where she was constantly thinking on her feet and was really Los Angeles's answer to, what the heck are we supposed to do all day on television right now? No one really knew, and this was their answer.

SIMON: We must note - we speak in a week in which more women directors have been nominated for Oscars during awards season. Are more women able to enter the business in creative positions today because of the widening of platforms and, I like to think, progress in society as a whole?

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: I think so. We're talking about a time when there were limited channels and limited time slots on them. So it was all very scarce. Whereas like now, there's all the different streaming platforms, TV, movies, everything. You know, it's like, there's so much more. We're all very aware. There's so much more, period. And I do think that that has widened out the opportunities. And I think we're seeing not only more women but different kinds of women, which is very, very important. There isn't, like, the one women's movie or the one women's show that has to represent all women. And that is very important and huge progress.

SIMON: Jennifer Keishin Armstrong - her book, "When Women Invented Television" - thank you so much for being with us.

KEISHIN ARMSTRONG: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That was wonderful. Didn't that make you tingle all over? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.