The Lucky Strike Papers: Journeys Through My Mother’s Television Past
By Andrew Lee Fielding
First Published 2007
Published by Bear Manor Media
If the name Sue Bennett doesn’t sound familiar to you don’t despair, you’re not alone. Like countless other stars of television’s early days, Bennett — a talented singer, television hostess and occasional actress — has slipped into oblivion in the decades following her time on the small screen. Thanks to Andrew Lee Fielding, her son, and his 2007 book The Lucky Strike Papers: Journeys Through My Mother’s Television Past, Bennett’s television career need no longer be forgotten. Fielding was kind enough to send me a review copy of the book (in actuality, it is a regular copy with one minor flaw: two or three of the black and white photographs bleed through from the text on the opposite page).
I had no expectations prior to starting it, and no real idea of who Sue Bennett was, but after finishing it in late March I can say without hyperbole it was one of the best works on early television I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Fielding has done a remarkable job capturing a time period when television was new, broadcasts were live and those working in the medium were learning on their feet.
Sue Bennett was born Suzanne Benjamin in 1928. During her earliest television appearances in late 1948 and early 1949 she went by the name Sue Benjamin. In 1949 she married and took the name Suzanne Fielding. When she joined Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge she became Sue Bennett. Many of the programs she appeared on during her career — Places, Please (CBS), The Stan Shaw Show (DuMont), Teen Time Tunes (DuMont), Inside U.S.A. with Chevrolet (CBS), John Conte’s Little Show (NBC) — are truly obscure. Even Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge and Your Hit Parade, arguably the most well-known of the programs she sang on, are hardly remembered today. Fielding touches upon all of them, focusing heavily first on Kay Kyser and later Your Hit Parade, which Sue Bennett appeared on from 1951 to 1952.
The Lucky Strike Papers follows a rough chronology of Sue Bennet’s career, with the occasional jump forward in time for interview excerpts with those who worked alongside her. The number of people Fielding was able to interview — from Merv Griffin to Snooky Lanson, Russell Arms to John Conte, Kay Kyser to Dorothy Collins — is astounding. He weaves these interviews together with detailed information on the programs his mother sang on, in the process providing readers the context necessary to understand the how and why of live television in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Fielding’s writing style can take some getting used to. He has a tendency to shift topics with brusque sentences, often introduced through an object, a kinescope, a television magazine, something connected to his mother’s past.
The Lucky Strike Papers is not a biography of Sue Bennett. At times, her name may not be mentioned for dozens of pages as Fielding delves into the production of Your Hit Parade. While this might seem somewhat curious, recall that the subtitle to Fielding’s work is not “Journeys Through My Mother’s Past” but “Journeys Through My Mother’s Television Past.” What he has accomplished with The Lucky Strike Papers is something more than a biography. Fielding has crafted a narrative unlike any other I have read, one that uses his mother’s television career as a focal point for a fascinating examination of the medium that relies on first-hand accounts, reviews, photographs and viewings of kinescopes.