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Happy Birthday, Peg Lynch!

The domestic comedy The Private Lives of Ethel and Albert had its official network radio premiere on May 29, 1944 over NBC Blue, but the idea for the program had been germinating in the mind of Peg Lynch for years…during her days of working at KATE in Albert Lea, Minnesota.  Ethel and Albert was a sitcom in the mold of such successes as Easy Aces and Vic & Sade, but what set the show apart from these cousins was that Ethel and Albert was created, as stated, by a woman…at a time when males dominated radio comedy writing.  Margaret Frances “Peg” Lynch was born in Lincoln, Nebraska on this date in 1916…and fans of not only Ethel and Albert but The Couple Next Door, should all be thankful (even though this comes a little late, Thanksgiving-wise).

Peg Lynch didn’t stay long in the Cornhusker State.  Her father died when she was only two years old, prompting her mother to relocate to Kasson, Minnesota…and allowing Mother Lynch to resume her career as an orthopedic nurse at the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester.  At fifteen, young Peg was helping at the clinic as a part-time receptionist when she was asked by a classmate’s father if she’d be interested in working at Rochester’s KROC.  Peg’s job was writing copy and interviewing sports figures like Lou Gehrig and Knute Rockne…pretty much anyone who was visiting the Mayo Clinic at that time.

Lynch would graduate from the University of Minnesota with a degree in English (with an emphasis on drama and writing), and her experience at KROC inspired her to seek work in broadcasting.  That brought her to KATE, where she was hired to write commercials and other radio copy.  Soon, however, she was pressed into service to script a daily half-hour show for women, as well as a weekly farm news program and a half-hour theater show.  As a three-minute “filler” during the woman’s program, Peg started writing the skits that would later blossom into Ethel and Albert.  Her fictional couple were also utilized in many of KATE’s commercials.

Subsequent jobs at stations in Charlottesville, Virginia and Cumberland, Maryland followed for Peg Lynch…and of course wherever she went she took Ethel and Albert with her.  She was hired in February of 1944 to script an ABC network serial in New York, and while doing that she pitched Ethel and Albert to her superiors.  The suits liked the idea for the series, and agreed to put it on the air.  While Lynch was a little hesitant to turn over her creation, she jumped in with enthusiasm—particularly since ABC insisted that she portray Ethel (an audition for actresses yielded no suitable candidates).

In the early months of Ethel and Albert, actor Richard Widmark portrayed Albert…but once he departed, he was replaced by Alan Bunce.  Bunce and Lynch had such an amazing chemistry that it was difficult to believe they weren’t married in real life.  Ethel and Albert ran as a five-day-a-week quarter hour for most of its radio history, and in January of 1949 it expanded to a half-hour, heard on Monday nights at 8pm until its cancellation on August 28, 1950.  Like so many of its radio brethren and sistren, Ethel and Albert transitioned to television—first as a fifteen-minute segment on The Kate Smith Hour in 1952, and then in a half-hour format that was eventually telecast over all three networks (NBC, CBS, ABC) from April 25, 1953 to July 6, 1956.

Ethel and Albert would be reunited for a CBS radio series that began December 30, 1957…but because Peg Lynch no longer owned the rights to her creation, she wasn’t allowed to call the show Ethel and Albert.  Instead, the series went by The Couple Next Door, and Peg and Alan’s couple the Arbuckles were now known as the Pipers.  (The Pipers’ first names were never mentioned on the program…unless they were “dear,” “darling,” or “sweetheart.”)  The show was a success for CBS, and ran until November 25, 1960 when the network issued pink slips to several other long-running radio favorites, including Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent.

The rights to Peg’s famous characters were eventually returned to her, and she resurrected the couple on five-minute segments of NBC’s Monitor in 1963, as well as a series of fondly remembered TV commercials.  Her “Albert,” Alan Bunce, passed away in 1965, so when Lynch brought the couple back for another go-round in the 1970s—on NPR’s Earplay—the creator of that award-winning radio series, Karl Schmidt, stepped in to fill Bunce’s shoes.  Robert Dryden would play Albert on Peg’s creation “The Little Things in Life” for Radio Playhouse, heard from 1975 to 1976.  Peg Lynch continued to write sketches about her famed couple (some featured Ethel and Albert Arbuckle in their nineties!) until her passing in 2015 at the age of 98.

Not many of the original Ethel and Albert radio broadcasts have survived the ravages of time and neglect…but fortunately for old-time radio fans, nearly the entire run of The Couple Next Door was preserved and is around for new generations of fans.  Radio Spirits offers up several collections of this classic show, starting with The Couple Next Door (which contains the inaugural broadcast) and continuing with Merry Mix-Ups (which would be perfect for the holidays) and Moving On.  There’s even an episode (from April 15, 1958) on our all-star mirthmaking compendium, Great Radio Comedy.  Happy birthday to Peg Lynch—a special lady and exemplary talent who created “a show about nothing” long before the plans for TV’s Seinfeld were set in motion.

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