The Couple Next Door (Ethel & Albert)

By Bob Stepno

Program samples once linked here as available at the Internet Archive were taken offline while authorized recorded programs were being prepared for commercial re-release. For the latest on recordings, see PegLynch.com.

Educating newspaper readers
Readers as well as reporters need to know the difference between “off the cuff” and “off the record,” which I guess depends on whose cuff we’re talking about. In his film tribute to 1890s newspapering, “Park Row”, Samuel Fuller has a senior reporter literally hand in a story written on his shirt-cuffs, neatly explaining the origin of the expression.
Radio star Peg Lynch (November 25, 1916 – July 24, 2015), had an approach that was funnier, and perhaps more educational for newspaper-naive listeners: Her character, being interviewed by a reporter for the first time, makes an unfortunate mistake with those “off the…” phrases, leading to an unintentionally hilarious article in the paper.
My point: Old-time radio made newspaper readers “journalism heroes” too — heroically coping with mistakes and misunderstandings in their relations with reporters and editors at the local paper.
While they may not present the “best practices” of professional journalism, at least these situation comedies can remind 21st century listeners of the role printed newspapers played in American life throughout the golden age of broadcast drama.
From the late 1930s to the last days of American radio drama in the 1960s, few did it as well as Peg Lynch. She not only wrote pioneer “couple sitcom” programs, but starred in them herself, on radio and early TV. With co-star Alan Bunce, her shows included “The Private Lives of Ethel & Albert” and “The Couple Next Door.”
This 1947 radio episode, posted on YouTube by a fan, opens in a living room scene with the husband reading “the paper.” There’s not much journalism in the sketch about wrapping a Christmas present, but a slice of daily life before TV. (I kept expecting the couple to use the newspaper as wrapping paper.)

There was a short run of “Ethel & Albert” on television in the early 1950s. (This clip at YouTube shows just the opening titles and sponsor spots.)

Lynch was back on radio briefly in 1963 with short sketches within NBC’s “Monitor” radio program.

Like other slice-of-life married couple sitcoms “Vic & Sade” and “Easy Aces,” Lynch’s stories often included references to the newspaper, and even a few episodes where “the couple” suffered at the hands of local newspaper reporters and editors — or vice versa.

The husband’s catching a record fish (muskie) made it into the local paper in both a 1948 episode of “Ethel & Albert” and in a 1960 “The Couple Next Door” sequence, with the same unfortunate result… although the joke took several days’ telling the second time around. Both versions gave newspaper readers an amusing “mistakes happen” lesson in coping with then power of the press in its less perfect moments.

Kill the Editor
In the 21-pound-fish story, both editions, newspaper publicity brings the fisherman’s out-of-season catch to the attention of a local game warden. The cub reporter covering the tale doesn’t see that one coming. And he has a theory about doing interviews without taking notes, which starts his interviewee’s apprehension early — and reminds listeners that not all journalists are seasoned professionals.

Lynch capped the multi-part muskie sequence with a new “Newspaper Photo Mistake” episode — in which the local paper swaps the caption and photo of the happy fisherman.
There he is, holding his prize fish, above a caption about a newly arrived baboon at the zoo. And there is his name in the caption beneath the smiling babboon holding a bunch of celery.
Lynch’s character, of course, very carefully explains to her husband that the coincidence of the fisherman and the baboon each holding something makes the parallel pictures even funnier. (“Tears just came to my eyes…” she says.)

Their daughter innocently adds to her father’s torture, and Bunce’s voice shifts between amused disbelief and menacing anger as he reads the photo captions:

“I know what kind of baboon I am. It says so right here in the paper. It says I am a ‘long-muzzled, medium-tailed Egyptian monkey, found in Africa and in Arabia, exceedingly fierce and dangerous to approach.’ However, I am ‘easy to care for in captivity’ because I will eat anything I can capture or kill. And my first victim is going to be the editor of this newspaper!

The classic Lynch and Bunce teasing-and-angry-meltdown scene has Francine Meyers as their daughter Betsy, who adds an appreciative audience for the baboon picture, plus some words of wisdom at the end. Her father finally admits to the (still more bad publicity) futility of suing the paper or trying to get the error corrected, and goes along with the humor of the situation, perhaps another “Power of the Press” lesson for the era’s newspaper readers.

Laundering the Press
Not coincidentally, a 1970s attempt to revive radio comedy, “Radio Playhouse” and its comedy segment, “The Little Things in Life,” also included Peg Lynch. An episode titled “The Missing Newspaper Section” shows that, while newspapers might have been losing ground to television news, a small news item could still turn into a domestic crisis — or comedy.

In Lynch’s story, the husband becomes obsessed with finding an item he read in a now-missing section of the morning paper. He can’t even find a duplicate copy for sale. The women of the house eventually realize they had already wrapped garbage in that section of the paper, so they wash and iron it for him — only to be less than impressed with the story all the fuss was about. (See the OTRRPedia entry on “The Little Things in Life”.)

Off the Cuff
Two 1958 and 1960 stories actually brought reporters in to the plot. In the first, Peg’s character is interviewed about a club event and (of course) the young reporter gets things wrong. (So does Peg, when she makes a comment and tells the reporter she is speaking “off the cuff,” when she means “off the record.”)

The 1960 multi-part version of the fishing story might be called a multiple-situation comedy, including an unfortunate encounter with a novice reporter on one day and a copy editing disaster later in the week. The other 1960 story below — about conflict between the couple and the local school — has their daughter being interviewed by a somewhat unethical reporter, who really should have had their permission to talk to a child — not to mention double-checking the things she told him. It’s remarkable that his story doesn’t come out worse.

Peg Lynch Archives
See PegLynch.com for sample programs, authorized releases, articles, links, and more.

The Internet Archive once had collections of dozens of Lynch’s programs, presumably under the impression that they were not copyright protected. Released as authorized high-quality audio CDs instead of compressed downloadable MP3s, they could cost hundreds of dollars. By spring 2014, most of these links went nowhere:

With luck, the revival of interest in these programs will let media history libraries acquire authorized copies so that students and fans can hear them with a clear conscience — and with Lynch and her family receiving some remuneration.

For a start, the first 24 episodes of the December 1957 and January 1958 “The Couple Next Door” series have been released on CD by Radio Spirits.

When they extensive sets of the broadcasts were online at the Internet Archive, Ethel and Albert (E&A) or Couple Next Door (CND) episodes that had newspaper-journalism themes included these dates:

E&A 1948-05-05 Muskie
CND 1958-09-09 #182 Local Newspaper Interviews Her
CND 1958-09-10 #183 Father Told of Name Situation
CND 1958-09-11 #184 The Photographer Arrives At A Bad Time
CND 1958-09-12 #185 The Newspaper Runs The Photograph
CND 1958-11-21 #235 Publicity
CND 1960-04-18 #599 The History Lesson
CND 1960-04-19 #600 Mrs Piper to See Teacher
CND 1960-04-20 #601 Taking Betsy out of School
CND 1960-04-21 #602 Who Discovered America
CND 1960-04-22 #603 Newspaper Interviews Betsy
CND 1960-05-19 #622 Pile of Old Newspapers
CND 1960-07-12 #660 Newspaper & the Musky
CND 1960-07-13 #661 Newspaper Photo Mistake
CND 1960-07-14 #662 Game Warden Problems

Background:

From the “Guide to the Peg Lynch papers, 1944-1976″ 

(http://nwda.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv37635)
scripts and other papers at the University of Oregon library:

“Margaret Frances “Peg” Lynch was born on November 25, 1916 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her father died when she was two years old, and the family moved to Kasson, Minnesota. Lynch graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1937 after majoring in English with an emphasis on writing and dramatics.

“She got her start in radio shortly after graduation, landing a job at station KATE in Albert Lea, Minnesota about 100 miles southwest of Rochester. To earn her $65 per month salary as a copy writer, Lynch wrote commercials, a daily half-hour woman’s show, a weekly half hour little theater show, a weekly farm news program, three 10-minute plays, and two 5-minute sketches. It was at KATE that Lynch first introduced, as a 3-minute “filler” sketch in the woman’s show, the husband and wife characters of Ethel and Albert. Lynch portrayed Ethel and a station announcer played Albert. She got the idea from her commercial writing for the station. Challenged by the lack of personnel and other resources at the small station, she discovered that a husband-wife format could be used to sell a variety of products.

“After four months at KATE, Lynch moved on to WCHV in Charlottesville, Virginia and then to WTBO in Cumberland, Maryland. At each station she continued to develop “Ethel and Albert,” expanding it at WTBO into a five-times-per-week, 15-minute evening feature.

“In February 1944, Lynch moved to New York where she got a job as a writer for a network serial. While writing scripts for the serial, she submitted some “Ethel and Albert” scripts to the Blue Network, which later became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). The network not only accepted the show and signed her to write it, but after auditioning actresses for the Ethel role, insisted she do it herself. The Albert character in the show was played by Richard Widmark who quit after six month. He was replaced by Alan Bunce, who co-starred with Lynch in “Ethel and Albert” and later “The Couple Next Door.” Their partnership lasted 20 years to the time of his death in 1965.

“‘Ethel and Albert’ went on the air on April 17, 1944 as a 15-minute daily show. It continued in that format until 1949 when it was expanded to a half hour. The show moved into commercial television in 1950 as a 10-minute segment on the “Kate Smith Hour,” and in April 1953, “Ethel and Albert” became a half hour program on the NBC network.

“The show was well received by the public and the critics. Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News wrote that “Ethel and Albert” was “generally regarded as the top domestic comedy on T.V. The warm, realistic characterizations and situations of this stanza reflect the personality of its creator. Peg is completely down to earth and so are her scripts.” Jack Gould of the New York Times gave credit to the show and its creator-writer when he wrote, “The author of ‘Ethel and Albert,’ of course, is Miss Lynch herself. She has lost none of her uncanny knack for catching the small situation in married life and developing it into a gem of quiet humor. The charm of ‘Ethel and Albert’ is that they could be man and wife off the screen.”

“Lynch, however, in real life was married to Odd Knut Ronning, an engineering consultant, whom she married in 1948. The couple have a daughter, Elise Astrid Ronning.

“NBC cancelled “Ethel and Albert” in December 1954, but the show found new life when it was picked up by CBS as a 1955 summer replacement for “December Bride.” In the fall of 1955, the show switched networks again, this time to ABC where it would remain until May 1956. Lynch owned the rights to the show and so was not limited to a single network. Despite a vocal and loyal support among the public and the critics, “Ethel and Albert” aired for the final time on television on May 25, 1956. However the show continued on CBS radio, starting in 1957, with the title changed to “The Couple Next Door.” Lynch and Alan Bunce continued in the title roles and Lynch remained as the shows writer. “The Couple Next Door” had a 3-year run in a 15-minute format, ending in 1960.

“‘Ethel and Albert’ enjoyed revivals in 1963-1964 on NBC “Monitor” and on National Public Radio’s “Earplay” in 1973. In 1975-1976, Lynch wrote and starred in “Little Things in Life” for Radio Playhouse.

“Peg Lynch lives in Becket, Massachusetts with her husband and continues to write, most recently adapting “Ethel and Albert” for a limited run on British television in 1982.” (Copied verbatim from “Historical note” at library archive page.)

Alas, Peg Lynch passed away in the summer of 2015, a few months before her 99th birthday.

Sources:

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