Ruthie on the Telephone

This five-minute CBS comedy series starred Ruth Gilbert and Phillip Reed. It initially aired six nights a week, but the network later reduced it to airing five nights each week.

The concept behind Ruthie on the Telephone originated as a recurring routine on The Little Show, a 15-minute comedy program heard over CBS radio on Saturday evenings. The program debuted in May 1947 and featured comic Robert Q. Lewis. Goodman Ace, who at the time was in charge of comedy for CBS radio, oversaw production. The routine involved Lewis being called on the telephone by a woman named Ruthie who was madly in love with him despite the fact that the two had never met.

In early April 1949, The Billboard reported that Ace was working on a deal to bring the telephone gag to television with actress Ruth Gilbert. It would become part of The Admiral Broadway Revue, a variety series simulcast on NBC and DuMont, when that series returned in the fall [1]. The following month, The New York Times reported that Ace would be writing a five-minute television show called Ruthie on the Telephone — starring Ruth Gilbert — that would air on CBS six nights a week from 7:55-8PM starting in August. The only day it wouldn’t be broadcast was Wednesday. Philip Morris would sponsor the series via its advertising agency the Biow Company [2].

(The Admiral Broadway Revue went off the air in June 1949. Its demise no doubt forced Ace to look elsewhere for a television home.)

Phillip Reed was soon cast to play Richard, the object of Ruthie’s affection. Ace would write and produce the series with Fred Rickey directing. Ruthie on the Television debuted on Sunday, August 7th, 1949. The premiere episode was reviewed in the August 20th issue of The Billboard:

The result, predicated on the opening gambit, still is funny and probably will prove more so as it is developed further. The initial outing used virtually intact some material from the radio days, and as such was pretty familiar. A split screen effect, accomplished by, of all things, use of mirrors, was the outstanding technical effect. This was employed on occasion to show both Ruthie and the object of her blandishments, ad agency man Richard, engaged in making telephone talk. [3]

The review noted that Ruth Gilbert used “a rather typical Brooklynese delivery” while Phillip Reed “was a mite uncertain on the first outing, but he should fit into the role of the scournful [sic] yet bewildered quarry” [4]. The program was bookended by commercials for Philip Morris Cigarettes; the closing commercial featured Phillip Morris pitchman Johnny Roventini.

Another review, from The Long Island Star-Journal, referred to the series as “television’s answer to the newspaper comic strip” and suggested it needed time to prove itself more than “a noble experiment” [5]. Jack Gould of The New York Times reviewed the series briefly, writing “if in theory it is an entertainment program, in fact it is a five-minute commercial. Oh, NAB code, where is thy sting?” [6].

Other than the basic premise, little is known about the content of individual episodes. Ruthie would phone Richard each night and the two would talk. That soon proved too restrictive. The New York Times reported on August 29th that Goodman Ace had decided to alter the format to allow for the occasional guest star. Tennis player Sarah Palfrey Cooke would be the first guest star, appearing on the September 8th and 9th episodes [7].

Black and white image of Goodman Ace and Ruth Gilbert at work on 'Ruthie on the Telephone'

Goodman Ace and Ruth Gilbert
Copyright © Television Forecast, 1949 [1]

According to The Billboard, Ruthie would take tennis lessons from Cooke. The addition of guest stars was made due to concerns that the original format of the series was “too static” [8]. Other guests — potentially some celebrities — reportedly appeared in later episodes.

The Sunday broadcasts of Ruthie on the Telephone were dropped in October to make room for This Is Show Business (formerly This Is Broadway) which moved to the Sunday 7:30-8PM time slot beginning October 2nd. By mid-October, Philip Morris was exploring potential replacements for Ruthie on the Telephone, which would end in November. At one point, Victor Borge was in talks with the sponsor to take over the time slot [9]. Another possibility was a show starring Herb Shriner [10].

On November 3rd, The New York Times reported that Herb Shriner had been selected to replace Ruthie on the Telephone, which aired its final episode on Saturday, November 5th. The Herb Shriner Show premiered two days later on Monday, November 7th.

The following month, Goodman Ace filed a lawsuit against Philip Morris and the Biow Company, claiming he was owed $4,000, money he spent hiring additional talent for Ruthie on the Telephone. Philip Morris, however, claimed that its contract with Ace did not allow for the hiring of additional cast and that neither it nor the Biow Company asked Goodman to alter the format of the series, which led to the hiring of additional people [11]. The outcome of the lawsuit is unknown.

The Herb Shriner Show was cancelled in January 1950, with the final episode airing on Saturday, February 4th. According to The Billboard, the Biow Company had thought multiple five-minute episodes a week would “constantly hammer home the sales message” but eventually Philip Morris realized that five minutes a night wasn’t long enough and that by the time an episode got started, it was over [12].

A total of 73 episodes of Ruthie on the Telephone were broadcast during its 13 weeks on the air. No episodes are known to survive today. The series was filmed, not broadcast live.

Works Cited:
1 “Ace Deal in Works for Admiral Show.” The Billboard. 9 Apr. 1949: 11.
2 “Radio and Television: Goodman Ace Working on Video Program–Anniversary of Telegram to Be Marked.” New York Times. 19 May 1949: 58.
3 Chase, Sam. “Radio and Television Program Review: Ruthie on the Telephone.” The Billboard. 20 Aug. 1949: 13.
4 Ibid.
5 Lester, John. “Radio and Television: ‘Amateur Hour’ Revival to Mark Anniversary.” Long Island Star-Journal. 9 Aug. 1949: 9.
6 Gould, Jack. “Programs in Review.” New York Times. 18 Sep. 1949: X9.
7 “Radio and Television: ‘Voice of Firestone’ to Assume Dual Role as Broadcast-Telecast Show Sept. 5.” New York Times. 29 Aug. 1949: 32.
8 “Radio and Television: 3 Major Networks Sign a 5-Year Contract with A.S.C.A.P. for Use of Music on Video.” New York Times. 18 Oct. 1949: 54.
9 “Brief and Important: Last-Minute Digest of AM-TV News.” The Billboard. 22 Oct. 1949: 5.
10 “Radio and Television: ‘Theatre Guild on the Air’ to Star Helen Hayes and David Niven in Nov. 13 Program.” New York Times. 3 Nov. 1949: 58.
11 “Ace in 4G Biow, Morris Cig Suit On ‘Ruthie’ Pay.” The Billboard. 17 Dec. 1949: 5.
12 “Shriner Out; PM Saying Nix to 5 Minute TV.” The Billboard. 14 Jan. 1950: 7.

Image Credits:
1 From Television Forecast (Chicago), August 20th, 1949, Page 6.

Originally Published January 19th, 2014
Last Updated May 18th, 2018

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3 Replies to “Ruthie on the Telephone”

  1. …and I don’t think any of the five minute “HERB SHRINER SHOW” segments for Philip Morris exist, either.

  2. Thank you for all of this information about “Ruthie on the Telephone.” It sounds like an interesting experiment that just didn’t work out in the end. One thought I had about it was that it would probably play just as well as a radio segment as a TV segment. This is because it showed two people talking, which can be just as effective on radio. (Of course, you don’t get the facial expressions and body language that you get when actually seeing the people, but that didn’t stop a lot of fantastic radio programs from running for years.) Obviously the powers-that-be became aware of the concept’s limitations early on. However, I would think that bringing in guest stars on a five minute program would certainly not provide a lot of time for Ruthie, Richard, and the guest star to build much momentum.

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