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Kim’s Top 5: Women Behind the Camera in Classic TV

I grew up during the peak of Nick-at-Night. In fact, I would guess that my love of classic TV started way before my appreciation of the golden age of Hollywood. These were the days when the network played a host of interesting and varied classics… not Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends on a loop. I remember watching shows like F-Troop, Mr. Ed and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis as often as I did the network fair of the time, and these series certainly stuck with me.

Plenty is written about the fierce women on-screen during the early days of television. Names like Lucille Ball, Betty White, Imogene Coca and Carol Burnett have been preserved for posterity as legends of the early days of the medium. However, the space behind the camera is described as much more of a boys club. This is true. However, as I dove into my research, I learned that in reality there were a number women not only writing and directing, but even producing and creating shows in the early days of television. More needs to be written about these legendary women.

5.) Irma Kalish (1924- Present)

Irma Kalish is a name which should be familiar to fans of classic television. Chances are, if you watched a show on Nick-at-Night, she worked on it for at least a little while.

Kalish began in literary and magazine short stories before moving into radio and television where she partnered with her husband Austin to write for the legendary comedy duo, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. As the years continued, they wrote on some of the biggest television shows of the 1960s and 1970s: The Patty Duke Show, Gilligan’s Island, F-Troop, Family Affair and My Three Sons to name a few.

As the industry developed into the 1970s, the duo soon found themselves pulled into the Norman Lear universe. They penned a number of episodes of Lear’s heralded sitcom All in the Family, before eventually jumping to Maude, starring Bea Arthur. The writers received credit on “Maude’s Delimma”. The ground breaking 30 minutes of television is most notable as the episode Maude decides to have an abortion.

Kalish and her husband kept working throughout the 1980s on shows like Good Times, The Facts of Life and 227.

Irma Kalish’s last writing credit came in 1998. She is still with us today at the age of 96.

F-Troop is available on DVD, here. Maude is also available on DVD, here.


4.) Lucille Kallen (1922-1999)

Much has been written about the lauded writers room supporting Sid Caesar on his ground-breaking comedy series’ Your Show of Shows. The names are formidable, and still remembered today: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner and Neil Simon are just a handful of these celebrated creatives.

Lucille Kallen was a name I wasn’t familiar with until I really started to deep-dive into this research and to be perfectly honest, it made me sad.

Kallen took a different route to television than many of the creatives on this list, making her name in night clubs where her work soon gained the attention of producer Max Liebman.

She was quuckly recruited to join the team at Camp Tamiment, a Pocono mountain resort with a legendary show business history. It was at Tamiment that she teamed with her longtime writing partner Mel Tolkin and the two were brought onto The Admiral Broadway Review, their first pairing with Caesar.

Much of Kallen’s television work that didn’t involve Caesar was tragically short-lived, including Stanley a 1956, single season show starring a pre-most things Buddy Hackett and Carol Burnett, as well as The Imogene Coca Show. However, Kallen was able to expand and develop her craft, writing not only for the stage, but also a number of mystery novels throughout her lengthy career.

Kallen’s last television writing credit came in 1967.

A collection of Your Show of Shows is available on DVD, here.

3.) Jean Holloway (1917-1989)

It was this particular entry on this list– and the woman below– whose work first excited me enough to dive into this area of research. I stumbled onto Jean Holloway’s work during a quest to learn about women creators during this era and I was lucky enough to find her work on The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. She developed the romantic two season show for its small-screen remake in 1968.

Holloway took a long road to television. After starting on radio, she soon ended up writing for the big screen. Her filmography shows writing credits on a handful of MGM musicals like: Till the Clouds Roll By and Words and Music.

By this point, it was the early fifties and she made the leap to the burgeoning medium of television. She’s billed as the creator of Mayor of the Town, an early situation comedy starring Thomas Mitchell and Kathleen Freeman. While she’s probably best known for her long-running work on Wagon Train (she’s the second most credited writer on the series), Holloway moved easily between genres, working on Doctor Kildare, Matt Lincoln, The Nanny and the Professor and Marcus Welby M.D. (among others). A 1961 profile in the Los Angeles Times writes about here,

If an Emmy were awarded for the most versatile, protean writer of the craft, Miss. Holloway would win hands down…

Holloway’s last writing credit came in 1983. 

Wagon Train is available on DVD, here. The Ghost & Mrs. Muir is available to stream on YouTube.

2.) Kathleen Hite (1917-1989)

I’ve been familiar with Kathleen Hite’s work long before I knew her name. Her best remembered writing credit came on the ground-breaking western Gunsmoke. Even if you haven’t seen an episode, you likely still know this giant of a series.

The popular western ran for twenty years, raking in more than 600 episodes. A look over the Gunsmoke writing staff shows Hite one of the series’ most prolific writers, with credits on 43 episodes. (She is the third highest behind the creators).

The Kansas born and bred Hite, like many of her generation got her start in radio just out of college. A delightful quote is attributed to her early years:

CBS had a policy against hiring women writers, so I hired on as a secretary. I figured once I got inside the building, I could destroy them from within…

By the middle of the 1950s, Hite transitioned from radio into the early days of television. Throughout her almost thirty year tenure writing for the small screen, Hite wrote on shows like Gunsmoke, Laramie, Wagon Train and The Waltons. She is also listed as one of the creators on the 1960 western series The Texan

Hite’s last writing credit came in 1982.

Gunsmoke is available on DVD, here.

1.) Madelyn Pugh Davis (1921-2011)

Of these women, Madelyn Pugh Davis is probably the most celebrated in her tenure writing for I Love Lucy. Even a Google search of her name yields this picture of Davis in her chair (enblazoned with the term ‘Girl Writer’) as legendary stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz stand behind, saluting her.

While Lucille Ball is heralded as a pioneer in the early days of television, it was Davis breaking ground behind the camera. Like many from that era, her initial work came in radio before she quickly relocated to Los Angeles and began working for CBS. According to her Los Angeles Times obituary, she was the second woman writer hired at the network after Kathleen Hite (number 2 on this list).

It was at this point she teamed with her longtime writing partner Bob Carroll and after a brief stint writing for a pre-most-things Steve Allen, they began writing for My Favorite Husband starring Lucille Ball. The show would serve as the unofficial predecessor for I Love Lucy.

Davis and Carroll would stick with Ball for the long run, working not only on I Love Lucy, but The Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy. They are also billed as creators on The Mothers-In-Law and The Tom Ewell Show.

Her last official writing credits came in 1986.

I Love Lucy is available on DVD, here.

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The history of television spans more than 80 years since it’s commonly accepted debut in 1939. And since then, some truly legendary creators have grown to prominence in the industry. While we’re celebrating these legends, let’s take some time to spotlight the women working along side them behind the camera and in the writers rooms. Their names are on some of the biggest shows in the history of TV and their contributions are just as important.

Kimberly Pierce View All

Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.

You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!

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