Mary Kay Stearns, one of TV’s earliest, if now largely forgotten, sitcom stars who beat Lucille Ball to on-air pregnancy by at least four years, died Nov. 17 in Newport Beach, California. She was 93.
Her death was reported by her son Jonathan to The New York Times for an obituary this week; it had not been previously reported. A cause of death was not listed.
Stearns, along with her husband Johnny Stearns (who died at 85 in 2001), starred in a late-1940s domestic comedy called Mary Kay and Johnny. The sitcom debuted in 1947 as a live, 15-minute program on the DuMont Network, then moved to NBC, CBS and back to NBC, where it ended in 1950 as a 30-minute program. The production was based in New York City.
Though the series is remembered now mostly, if at all, by TV trivia buffs (there are no YouTube clips, for starters), Mary Kay and Johnny can lay claim to at least one achievement often credited to the vastly better known I Love Lucy: Mary Kay Stearns’ real-life pregnancy in 1948 was written into the show, and the episode about the birth aired the night the couple’s real son, Christopher, was born, pre-dating the 1953 births of Desi Arnaz Jr. and Little Ricky Ricardo.
In a 1999 interview with The Television Academy, the Stearnses recalled scriptwriter Johnny’s decision to incorporate real life into fiction. “I decided, well, Mary Kay and Johnny is about us, and Mary Kay is pregnant, so I just wrote it into the script.” (Watch the interview below.)
Little wonder the fictional Mary Kay and Johnny got a head start on the Ricardos: It’s believed that, unlike the more famous duo, the Stearns’ characters actually slept in the same bed, an intimacy that would become an early TV taboo once audiences began paying attention.
Mary Kay Stearns had been acting on Broadway when her agent recommended she audition for a new TV show showcasing fashion designs, but, as Johnny Stearns describes in the Academy interview, the couple weren’t impressed and so Johnny suggested the sponsor get behind a fictional series based on the young couple.
“The main thing was to remain truthful,” Mary Kay said in the Academy oral history. “And you know, in comedy, especially in farce, but even in light comedy, there is a danger of overdoing in order to get the reaction from the audience. Of course, in television there’s no audience, but anyway, there is a thought process of overdoing because you want to draw something from them. So the main thing is to remain truthful so that to heck with the audience, you’re doing it for yourself.”
Though she took a couple TV jobs after the series ended (including the role of Cinderella in a 1952 Kraft Theatre episode opposite Leslie Nielsen’s Prince Charming), Mary Kay Stearns mostly retired from performing after Mary Kay and Johnny, when the family moved to California. She is survived by her children -Jonathan, Christopher and Melinda – and a grandson.