Kyle MacDonnell: TV’s Forgotten Star – Part 2

NOTE: The full version of this article was published in December 2014 and can be found here.

In the late 1940s, stage actress and singer Kyle MacDonnell became one of television’s very first stars, earning the nickname Miss Television and wide praise from critics. Between 1948 and 1951 she hosted a number of shows and made guest appearances on many others. She took a break from show business in 1951 to have a baby and her television career never recovered. When she died in 2004, her role as a television pioneer had been all but forgotten.

The second part of this article chronicles Kyle’s second NBC television series, Girl About Town, which was sponsored by Bates Fabrics and on the air from September 1948 to June 1949. Part 1 can be found here.

Girl About Town I: A Sponsor Comes Calling

The success of For Your Pleasure and Kyle MacDonnell’s popularity did not go unnoticed by the advertising community. In mid-August 1948, The New York Times reported that Kyle would soon be appearing in a new television series produced for and airing on the NBC television network. Unlike For Your Pleasure, which was broadcast on a sustaining basis, the new show would have a sponsor: Bates Fabrics, Inc. Bates signed a 52-week contract with NBC for the series, through advertising agency James P. Sawyer, Inc.

The new show would be called Girl About Town. Rather than give viewers the impression that Kyle was performing at a nightclub, as For Your Pleasure had done, Girl About Town would utilize film footage shot around New York City to suggest Kyle was visiting, chatting and singing all over the city. Film actor Johnny Downs would play Kyle’s press agent in charge of booking her appearances.

Newspaper advertisement for the premiere of Girl About Town (September 1948)

The series would mark the television debut for Downs. As a child, he co-starred in more than 20 of Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” shorts between 1925 and 1927 before transitioning to adult roles in the mid-1930s, primarily in movie musicals. Like For Your Pleasure, Girl About Town would also feature the Norman Paris Trio.

Did For Your Pleasure transition to Girl About Town in September 1948? Was there an announcement during the final episode of For Your Pleasure, informing viewers that a new series would debut the following week? Or was the change ignored entirely? In any event, the first episode of Girl About Town aired on Wednesday, September 8th and ran from 8-8:20PM, five minutes longer than For Your Pleasure the previous week. Perhaps the extra five minutes was used to fit in commercials for Bates products.

Kyle was on the cover of the November 1948 issue of Bates Magazine, the employee publication for Bates Manufacturing Co. Included was a two-page feature about the show and the use of Bates products on television:

Bates new television program, “Girl About Town,” features the event of the week in Manhattan, has itself become the event of the week over the entire NBC television network! Bates fine made-in-Maine products are an integral pat of the show; each week television audiences see Bates fashion fabrics, bedspreads and matching draperies, and Comb-Percale sheets and pillowcases presented in sparkling settings. Leading stores in seven cities are tying in their own advertising with “Girl About Town”…are making television an even more powerful medium for selling Bates! [34].

The magazine also claimed that Bates was the first company from Maine and the “first important textile concern” to advertise on television.

According to Ira Skutch, who served as WNBT’s producer-director on Girl About Town, the advertising manager for Bates made production of the show difficult. “Fancying himself a great impresario,” Skutch recalled, “he involved himself in every detail of the production, insisting on themes for the show that were impossible to produce. Dissension developed between us which I confess I handled in a less than felicitous manner.” Skutch was fired from the show after about ten weeks when he misread the clock and the closing commercial wasn’t aired.

Guests Girl About Town during the fall of 1948 included bandleader Tommy Dorsey, Russell Swan, Randall Weeks, Ellsworth and Fairchild (dancers), Rosario and Antonio (dancers) and Pancho and Diane (dancers). Johnny Downs left the show at some point in October or November 1948, replaced by singer Earl Wrightson. Exactly when or why is unknown.

Kyle rehearses with the Norman Paris Trio (Circa November 1948)

As she had with For Your Pleasure, Kyle juggled Girl About Town with her commitment to Make That Manhattan on Broadway. Radio and Television Mirror published an overview of her hectic schedule during the fall of 1948: she started every Wednesday with a fitting for Girl About Town, followed by three hours of rehearsals at WNBT and a quick lunch; then she left for a Make Mine Manhattan matinee at the Broadhurst Theatre before returning to WNBT prepare for Girl About Town live broadcast at 8PM; afterwards, she went back to the Broadhurst for the evening Make Mine Manhattan show.

Make Mine Manhattan closed in January 1949, making Kyle’s life — or at least her Wednesdays — a little easier.

Girl About Town II: A Murky End

1948 was both television’s year and Kyle’s. As it came to a close, Jack Gould issued his annual Honor Roll in The New York Times, recognizing top performers and programs on radio and television. Milton Berle was declared Outstanding Personality: Male for his television work on NBC’s Texaco Star Theatre. Television had yet to develop a female equivalent to Berle, said Gould, “though for friendliness and informality on the screen Kyle MacDonnell, with both voice and looks, easily headed the list of contenders.” Instead, she had to settle for simply Personality: Female.

Kyle, Johnny Downs and Louis Laun (Circa November 1948)

The new year brought with it big changes for television. On Tuesday, January 11th, 1949 the separate Eastern and Midwest networks were linked by AT&T coaxial cable. Initially limited to one circuit in each direction, time on the connected networks was shared by the four networks. Girl About Town was not immediately impacted by the expansion of network television. According to Broadcasting, the show would continue to air live on NBC’s Eastern network with repeats via kinescope broadcast from Chicago over Midwest network two weeks later [40].

(It is unclear whether Girl About Town was seen on NBC’s Midwest network via kinescope prior to January 1949. Certainly, it could not have aired live in that part of the country. But even before the two regional networks were linked, kinescopes of NBC programming aired live on its Eastern network were shipped nationwide for rebroadcast. It’s possible that Girl About Town, and before it For Your Pleasure, were broadcast on a delayed basis via kinescope in the Midwest and perhaps even the West Coast.)

On February 19th, The New York Times reported that Girl About Town would move to Sundays at 10:10PM beginning February 27th. This would allow the show to be aired live on both the Eastern and Midwest networks [41]. The first Sunday episode featured the Bates 1949 College Board, a group of college students who worked with Bates to promote its fabrics on college campuses.

Four months later, The New York Times reported that Girl About Town would move again, this time to Thursdays at 9PM starting July 7th. It would run for 15 minutes and be called Kyle MacDonnell Sings. The final Sunday broadcast of Girl About Town took place on June 26th. But the move to Thursday never materialized, for reasons unknown.

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What is very clear is that Girl About Town was cancelled, either by NBC or by Bates, before its 52-week run was completed. The cancellation likely happened abruptly, leaving NBC scrambling to figure out what do with Kyle. The network either wanted or needed to keep her on the air, perhaps due to contractual obligations or simply because it supported her.

Plans for the Thursday Kyle MacDonnell Sings show were firm enough that the July 7th debut was included in the weekly television listings published in The New York Times on July 3rd (although referred to as The Kyle MacDonnell Show). The daily listings for July 7th, however, had Candid Camera airing Thursdays at 9PM. Billboard also included The Kyle MacDonnell Show in a chart of network programming for August published on July 25th.

Kyle did eventually return to NBC, under a familiar title, but not until late July. A total of 43 episodes of Girl About Town aired between September 1948 and June 1949. Some sources indicate that the name of the show was changed to Around the Town during the last months it was on the air.

For Your Pleasure (Again)

On July 28th, some five weeks after Girl About Town went off the air, The New York Times reported that Kyle would debut a new NBC show on Saturday, July 30th. It would replace Television Screen Magazine, an early NBC series that had premiered in November 1946. The show would be called For Your Pleasure, reusing the name of her first NBC show.

The new For Your Pleasure would run a full half-hour from 8:30-9PM, unlike the first which was only 15 minutes long. Like the original incarnation and Girl About Town, it would feature the Norman Paris Trio. Additional music would be provided by the Earl Shelton Orchestra. Richard Goode served as director.

It is not clear if the second incarnation of For Your Pleasure was sponsored. It may have been sustaining, like the first. It definitely was not sponsored by Bates. Each week Kyle would entertain guests. In the first episode, she hosted Mata and Hari, a dance team. Burl Ives was the guest for the August 20th episode.

Just seven episodes of the second version For Your Pleasure were aired, the last of which was broadcast on September 10th, almost exactly a year after Girl About Town premiered. The series was also referred to as Kyle MacDonnell Sings or The Kyle MacDonnell Show, perhaps due to the leftover confusion stemming from the cancellation of Girl About Town.

It would be more than eight months after For Your Pleasure left the air before Kyle returned to weekly television.

Check back soon for Part 3, which will cover Kyle’s involvement in Celebrity Time (CBS) and Hold That Camera (DuMont) as well as some of her other television work.

Update: Part 3 can be found here.

1 Comment

  • David says:

    This is such a great series. Thank you so much for all your research into Ms. MacDonnell’s career. It is amazing how murky information is in regards to the very early days of television. Not only are most of the actual episodes lost from that period, but so are the details about them. As discussed in other posts on this site, today a show can be yanked after a few episodes, but it will live on online forever. And DVD sets of one season series are common. Ah, if only that technology existed back in the late-1940s!