The following guest post by Cary O’Dell examines Meet Millie, a CBS sitcom that aired from 1952 to 1956. The title character is a young woman named Millie Bronson (played by Elena Verdugo). In many ways, Millie made Mary Richards possible. Ironic, then, that so many television histories pinpoint Mary Tyler Moore’s spunky 1970s heroine as television’s very first “independent career gal” when, in actuality, Ms. Bronson was, long before Mary decamped for Minneapolis, a young single working woman, anxious to take on the world.
Meet Elena Verdugo
Introduced in the fall of 1952, Meet Millie told the story of twenty-something Millie Bronson, a New York City secretary who shared a Manhattan brownstone with her doting mother. The series, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show later, divided its time pretty much evenly between Millie’s home life (with her mom and her eccentric, geeky downstairs neighbor, the wonderfully named Alfred Prinzmetal) and her work life (where she put up with her cranky boss Mr. Boone and casually dated Mr. Boone’s son, Johnny).
Like much early TV product, Meet Millie began as a radio series. Beginning over the CBS radio airwaves in July of 1951, “Millie Milie” was a solid, if not spectacular success, often finding itself unflatteringly lumped in with other sitcoms featuring single women, like “My Friend Irma,” or simply dismissed as a “Maisie” rip-off.
On radio, actress Audrey Totter, famous for her roles in various film noirs, starred as Millie. But when the series transitioned to the small screen in late 1952, MGM, the film studio Totter was under contract to, wouldn’t release her to do television and a new Millie had to be found.
Actress Elena Verdugo, television’s eventual Millie Bronson, had up until that time been best known for playing in various Universal-produced “B” movies. As a Latina working in the film industry in the 1940s, Verdugo often found herself cast as miscellaneous exotics in movies with titles like Rainbow Island, “The Big Sombrero and The Lost Volcano playing characters with names like Carmelita and Moana. But she was also able, from time to time, to perform in some of that studio’s top-tier horror films, including House of Frankenstein where she was featured among that film’s monster trifecta of Dracula, the Wolfman and the Frankenstein monster. Verdugo also appeared opposite Lon Chaney, Jr. in 1945’s The Frozen Ghost.
Verdugo was allegedly recommended for the role of Millie by Eddie Bracken’s secretary after she saw her in the film Thief of Damascus . She would eventually assume the role of Millie on the show’s radio version as well .
With her casting as the lead in Meet Millie, Verdugo became the first Hispanic actress to ever helm her own network television series. Just as importantly, she also left behind the spitfire and “B” movie roles of her big screen career, emerging on television as a highly-skilled comedienne. Pert and possessing a bouncy cadence, and with her (naturally) blonde hair worn in an up-do, she bears a bit of a resemblance to Lucille Ball in both appearance and demeanor.
(Photo Courtesy of Cary O’Dell)
Playing Millie’s live-in mother on the series, was actress Florence Halop. And though, in real life, Verdugo and Halop were only three years apart in age, Verdugo’s natural, youthful zest and Halop’s studied performance as a woman much older than herself, complimented each other perfectly . (Halop would later have a career renaissance playing the role of Florence the bailiff on the hit sitcom Night Court in the 1980s.) Halop’s portrayal of Mother Bronson, a character neither dotty nor a burden to anyone — in fact quite sharp-witted — makes her a sort of early “Golden Girl.”
Alone But Not Alone
To many, the fact that Millie still lived “at home,” with her mother, might undercut the character’s independence, seemingly infantilizing her and placing her squarely underneath her mother’s largess and thumb. But, it bears pointing out that at that time on television few (if any) characters ever lived alone. During that era, even if you weren’t part of a traditional nuclear family, like the Nelsons or the Andersons, or one-half of a cohabitating married couple, like Lucy and Ricky or Ralph and Alice, you still probably had a roommate of some sort. Consider Millie’s fellow “working girls” on My Friend Irma and Two Girls Named Smith. Or Mr. Peepers, who shared living quarters, just as Margie Albright of television’s My Little Margie did. Even television’s preeminent playboy of the era, Bob Cummings, of Love That Bob, shared a house with his widowed sister and young nephew.
Whether all this togetherness was a nod to real-life economic necessity (how could Millie have afforded her own apartment?), or a passing reference to the still-lingering post-war housing shortage, or simply a narrative device (television characters had to have someone to talk to), or a type of mid-century morality that would not have yet tolerated a young woman living alone, is open to debate. Nevertheless, it doesn’t seem as if Millie’s cohabitating status, based upon her and her mother’s in-series interaction, undermines her status as an independent career woman.
Similarly, it is also not undermined by the presence of Millie’s semi-steady boyfriend, Johnny, in the series. While many might view Meet Millie as just a precursor to Marlo Thomas’s later That Girl series, with Johnny as the Donald to Millie’s Ann Marie, on Meet Millie, there seems to be a very different tone, dynamic, between these two “love birds” than there was among that later 1960s sitcom couple. Perhaps because, unlike Ann Marie who was still struggling in her career, taking odd jobs while waiting for her big break in show business, Millie was already employed in a professional position; Millie’s pre-existing, steady employment and stable home life establishes her as her own woman, one who was therefore on a more equal footing with her suitor, even if he was her boss’s son.
A Battle of the Sexes
Actually, from the surviving episodes of Meet Millie, the most reoccurring theme in the series is not “When are Millie and Johnny going to get married?” but rather who is going to win the latest skirmish in the age-old battle of the sexes. Consider the plot, dialogue and details of one episode. In it, Millie and her beau Johnny are having a tiff over where to take a joint vacation. Johnny wants to go fishing but Millie and her mother are set on going to a nearby lodge.
(Photo Courtesy of Cary O’Dell)
The next morning at the office, Johnny gets some largely unsolicited advice from his old man who lectures him on how to “handle a woman.” It seems that the elder Boone has had a disagreement with his own wife just the night before because she wants to spend a week in the country and he wants to go golfing. In order to ultimately get his way, the elder Mr. Boone is planning to apply a little sucking up and reverse psychology –the old “soft soap” as he calls it–on his wife to get her to relent. He’s already purchased some flowers (in the scene he points out a bouquet that’s resting on the desk) to butter her up. He has also planned a fancy dinner for later that night. Then, as Mr. Boone explains, when she’s feeling most content (“purring and off her guard,” as dear old dad puts it), he will hit her with his plans for the golf trip. In theory at least, she’ll immediately feel guilty for her earlier “selfishness” and will quickly change her mind about the golfing.
Mr. Boone tells his son that this sort of plan works every time, stating, “Women are so gullible that they’ll swallow baloney all day long if you slice it right. When P.T. Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute, he was referring to women.” At that moment, in the scene, Millie (still mad from the night before) walks in, sees Johnny and, in a huff, hangs up her coat without saying a word. Johnny, on the advice of his dad, launches into his own “soft soap” routine telling Millie of the sleepless night he had the night before, of his tossing and turning, and that he wants to apologize. Finally he says:
Johnny: (about to go in for the kill) If you really want me to go to the mountains with you and your mother, I’ll forget my fishing and go.
Millie: Really, Johnny? Oh, gee, you’re being so sweet about it and now knowing how you really feel, I’ll tell you what, Mom and I would love for you to go with us.
Johnny: WHAT?! You were supposed to say I could go fishing!
Johnny: Sure, Dad said if I soft-soaped you–
Millie: Oh, he did?! So that’s why you were so sweet! And I suppose these flowers were part of the soft soaping act too. (Millie picks up the flowers.) Well, you can soft soap the janitor with them! I won’t even smell them! (She tosses the flowers out the door.)
Mr. Boone: B-b-but, Miss Bronson, those were my flowers. I bought them for my wife.
Millie’s throw of the flowers unfortunately lands all over Mr. Boone’s wife who just happened to have had been walking up the hallway at the time. Covered in blooms, Mrs. Boone enters the office. After Millie’s quick apology and explanation of the flower throwing, Mr. Boone attempts a little spin control:
Mrs. Boone: John, what is the meaning of this?
Mr. Boone: I got them for you.
Mrs. Boone: For me?… Well, it’s no use, you’re not going golfing.
Millie’s innate independence and spunk shines through in this very well-crafted short scene.
She doesn’t think twice about standing up to her boyfriend…or his father/her boss. Her skill and success in her job is also on display; even dousing the boss’ wife with flowers isn’t enough to get her fired.
More Than Just A Secretary
Ironically, despite Johnny’s existence in the series, and the interplay of the characters like that just noted above, most written recaps of the series today state that the main premise of Meet Millie was that Millie’s mom was always on the lookout for a man for her daughter. But this summation isn’t borne out by the surviving episodes of the series. And such labeling of a single female lead as little more than a “husband-hunter” — as both Eve Arden in Our Miss Brooks and Ann Sothern in Private Secretary are both often uniformly, erroneously deemed — is usually based more on conjecture and convenience than anything in the series itself. Actually, the very presence of Johnny in her life marks Millie as a woman not on the hunt for a suitor.
Rather than as a puppet, pawn or passive victim of either her mother’s meddling or her beau’s marital interest or indifference, Verdugo remembers her character as more often than not being the “the peace keeper” of the show. Hence, like so many other TV females of the era (and after), she often enacted the role of the voice of reason and the calm center in the middle of the big comedic storm swirling around her.
Certainly she was a secretary on par with Ann Sothern’s Susie McNamara and Nancy Kulp’s Jane Hathaway (and later America Ferrera’s Ugly Betty) who often had to save their pompous bosses from bad business deals or even from themselves. And she was also the one who frequently had to shoulder the burden of refining and educating well-meaning but nerdish neighbor Alfred, played by nerdish character actor Marvin Kaplan.
Various aspect of the Meet Millie series are interesting and worth noting. For instance, from time to time, in episodes, we see Millie boldly break the fourth wall of her own series and give a knowing wink to the viewing audience; it’s a signal of both sly omniscience and intelligence which distances her character from any “ditsy” or “zany” like stereotypes that might be foisted upon her.
Though never in the Top 20, Meet Millie, which has the distinction of being one of the first series produced and broadcast from CBS’s Television City facility in Hollywood, nevertheless enjoyed a solid four-year run, airing from 1952 until 1956.
Today A Forgotten Gem
After the show’s final episode, all the show’s principals would go onto other roles and great small screen longevity. As mentioned, Florence Halop would gain a second life on Night Court and Marvin Kaplan would become a memorable, long-running presence as Henry, the telephone repairman, always sitting at the counter of Mel’s Diner on Alice.
Verdugo too would enjoy post-Meet Millie success, in various series and guest spots, interestingly, almost always playing working women. In her next series, the Western Redigo from 1963, she managed an old west hotel; in the sitcom Many Happy Returns (1964-1965), she was one of the overworked souls tolling away in a giant department store. Most famously, she gained TV immorality when she took on the role of Dr. Welby’s trusty, respected assistant/nurse, Consuelo, on ABC’s megahit Marcus Welby, MD. She played the role from 1969 to 1976 and reunited with star Robert Young in the reunion movie The Return of Marcus Welby, MD. in 1984.
Tragically, few episodes of Meet Millie seemed to have survived to the present day; there only seems to be the same two episodes (one of them referenced and quoted above) floating around among TV hobbyists and traders. According to Verdugo, most of the original films were burned by CBS for a reason long since forgotten . It’s an action that has, sadly, forever robbed future TV generations the chance to meet Millie for themselves. Had more episodes survived, at least enough to syndicate, “Millie” and Verdugo would no doubt get more of their due today and the history of single, working women on TV would be more accurately, consistently reported as predating Mary Richards. For as empowering an image as Mary was, in her opening credits, alone in her car, driving herself to her new life in Minneapolis, she probably would not have made it that far had Millie Bronson not already paved some of that road for her.
Cary O’Dell works for the motion picture, broadcast and recorded sound division of the Library of Congress. He is the author of the just-published book June Cleaver Was a Feminist! Reconsidering the Female Characters of Early Television. He lives in Culpeper, VA.
2 Verdugo took over for Audrey Totter beginning January 1st, 1953 due to Totter’s film committments, according to Walter Ames in The Los Angeles Times (December 11th, 1953, “SC Rooters Toss Hirsch for Song Loss; Elena Verdugo Set for Millie Radio Role,” Page 34).
3 A December 5th, 1954 article in The Chicago Daily Tribune by Wayne Oliver explained that it took 45 minutes to “age” Florence Halop for her role in Meet Millie. Padding took her from a size 10 to a size 16, facial makeup added wrinkles to her face, and powder turned her hair gray (“Padding Hides Mama’s Figure On Meet Millie,” Page N14).
4 Verdugo, Elena. Telephone interview. 20 Feb. 2004.
© 2009 Cary O’Dell