“There’s nothing like a quiet, pleasant dinner at home…”
On this date in 1957, listeners who had not completely abandoned radio for television received a nice surprise when the Piper family—better known as The Couple Next Door—put down stakes in the neighborhood for a three-year run over CBS Radio. Couple was a quarter-hour domestic sitcom—but it didn’t have to resort to gimmicks like opening a closet stuffed with various bric-a-brac. It presented simple, amusing situations in the lives of a husband and wife, showcasing natural, realistic (and very funny) dialogue. The show was created by a woman—Margaret “Peg” Lynch—and while female radio comedy writers weren’t exactly an endangered species in the medium, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that their number could be seated in a Volkswagen…with plenty of leg room.
Peg Lynch broke into radio almost immediately after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1937 (she majored in English, with an interest in writing and drama). However, she had been a broadcasting veteran since the age of 15 when, while living in Rochester, she wrote copy and interviewed celebrities for Rochester’s KROC. Her first big job in the broadcasting industry was at KATE in Albert Lea, Minnesota, where Peg scripted a daily half-hour woman’s show, a weekly farm news program, and a half-hour theater show. It was at KATE that Lynch developed the idea for a comedy program featuring a married couple who answered to “Ethel and Albert”; she used the characters as “filler” during the segments on the daily woman’s show, in addition to local commercials that aired over the station.
Subsequent employment at stations in Charlottesville, VA and Cumberland, MD would also find Peg utilizing her comic creations, and in February of 1944 she was hired by ABC to work in New York and script a serial for her new employers. Lynch suggested that Ethel and Albert be that serial, and while she wasn’t particularly enthused about signing over the rights to her characters to the fledgling network, Peg decided to give it a whirl. (In addition, ABC asked her to play “Ethel” when auditions failed to yield a suitable actress for the role.) The Private Lives of Ethel and Albert premiered over NBC Blue/ABC on May 29, 1944. From that moment on Goodman and Jane Ace, Vic & Sade Gook, and other comic examples of domestic tranquility had new neighbors in their neck of the woods. In the role of Albert Arbuckle, Ethel’s better half, was Richard Widmark—a radio veteran whose resume included appearances on Gang Busters and The Shadow.
Widmark’s stint with the show lasted only six months. He would go on to bigger things—including Broadway and a movie career that began with his unforgettable turn as a giggling psychopath in 1947’s Kiss of Death. Peg Lynch tabbed actor Alan Bunce as Richard’s replacement, and the two of them displayed such a wonderful chemistry as husband and wife that listeners wouldn’t be blamed if they thought the couple were married in real-life. Ethel and Albert (the show’s title was eventually shortened) continued a healthy run as a weekday quarter-hour (usually heard around 6:15pm), and was expanded to a half-hour on Monday nights at 8pm on January 16, 1949 before it was cancelled on August 28, 1950.
Despite its status as a modest radio hit, Ethel and Albert would make a successful transition to the small screen beginning as a fifteen-minute segment on Kate Smith’s TV show in 1952. From April 25, 1953 to July 6, 1956, Lynch’s show would bounce around from NBC to CBS to ABC in various time slots. (Its run on CBS was as a summer replacement for the network’s hit sitcom December Bride.) Yet Peg Lynch was never really happy with the Arbuckles’ television career. In an interview with Gerald Nachman, author of Raised on Radio, she recalled: “I was not a stage person who was accustomed to performing in front of an audience, as comedians are. And I always felt it spoiled my timing. I would have to hold up for the laugh.”
And that brings us to The Couple Next Door. CBS asked Peg to resurrect Ethel and Albert…without using her famous characters, since Lynch had relinquished the rights some time back. (She would eventually welcome “Ethel and Albert” back with open arms when she and Bunce reprised their roles in a series of television laundry detergent commercials…and in five-minute segments on NBC’s Monitor in 1963.) The couple now answered to “Mr. and Mrs. Piper,” and though they never addressed each other by their first names (preferring to rely on “darling” and “sweetheart”) you somehow suspected that they really were Ethel and Albert, functioning in some bizarre radio witness protection program.
Author Nachman has praised Peg Lynch’s writing, noting that she never had to resort to “female stereotypes, insults, running gags, funny voices or goofy plots.” The situations in the Piper household were frighteningly realistic (only slightly exaggerated—after all, The Couple Next Door was a comedy) and the dialogue so natural it was like you were eavesdropping on your neighbors from the house next door. Also residing at Casa del Piper was crotchety Aunt Effie Sorenson, played to perfection by Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film classic The Wizard of Oz). In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Piper had a young daughter in Betsy (portrayed by Francie Myers) and an infant named Bobby (Madeleine Pearce). (Pearce had performed the gurgling of Suzy, the infant Arbuckle daughter on the previous Ethel and Albert.) Fans delighted in the Piper’s homespun escapades until November 25, 1960, when CBS cancelled the series (along with daytime drama stalwarts like Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent).
Radio Spirits will be rolling out a new collection of The Couple Next Door soon in Moving On, which will contain thirty-two consecutive broadcasts from 1958. We urge you to keep an eye out for it, and in the meantime you can enjoy Peg Lynch’s fine comedy writing on The Couple Next Door (which contains the series’ premiere broadcast) and Merry Mix-Ups (I wrote the liner notes for this one!). You’ll also find The Couple Next Door on our potpourri collection Great Radio Comedy, and some Yuletide Piper fun on Radio’s Christmas Celebrations. You’re going to love The Couple Next Door—it’s the original “show about nothing” (take that, Seinfeld!).