EMERSON, FAYE

U.S. Television Personality

Faye Emerson was one of the most visible individuals in the early days of U.S. television. A "television personality" (meaning talk show and more), her omnipresence during the infant days of TV made her one of the most famous faces in the nation and earned her the unofficial titles of "Television's First Lady" and "Mrs. Television."

Before television settled into stricter genre forms, when prime time was dominated by more presentational types of programming, "personalities" prospered. Variety shows abounded, as did low cost, low key talk shows which took advantage of TV's intimate nature. While the hosts of some of these shows were men--Ed Sullivan, Garry Moore, and Arthur Godfrey are among the better known "personalities"--the majority were female: Ilka Chase, Wendy Barrie, Arlene Francis, and others.

Faye Emerson had been a marginally successful film and stage actress before she embarked on her second career in television. A talent scout offered her a contract with Warner Brothers, when she was noticed in a local theater production, and she starred or co-starred in various "A" and "B" movies. Her career took an up-swing in 1944 when she married a second time, to Elliot Roosevelt, son of the President. The studio's publicity machine used this union to bring her greater fame and expanded Emerson's non-acting opportunities. As a "first daughter-in-law" she took part in presidential ceremonies and, with her husband, staged a successful trip to the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. She also acted on Broadway and on radio.

Emerson made her first television appearance of note in 1949 as a panelist, with her husband, on a game show. Her quick wit and breadth of knowledge---which upstaged her husband to such a degree she apologized on his behalf on air---made her something of a sensation. Later that year, actress Diana Barrymore was forced by illness to drop out of her soon to premiere local New York talk show. The producers phoned Emerson to take over and she accepted.

The Faye Emerson Show premiered in October 1949 and went national over CBS the following March. It quickly gained a following, snagging an average 22 rating. One month later, Emerson began a second talk show this time on NBC. This made her one of the first people to have two shows simultaneously on two networks.

The late night talk show of its day, Emerson frequently welcomed celebrity guests (actors, authors, other personalities). Sometimes the show was more free form. Sometimes it was simply Faye talking about her life and goings on about town.

In retrospect, Emerson seemed a natural for early television, a medium which had to bridge the gap between the art of live drama and the appeal of wrestling. Emerson's combination of Hollywood good looks and social connections, along with her old-fashioned common sense and pleasant personality and friendly conversations about peoples, places and parties made audiences want to welcome her into their homes. Adding to her appeal were her much talked about designer gowns featuring plunging necklines. It was believed this helped her attain much of her male viewership. (One wit would later say Faye Emerson put the "V" in TV.) The topic was such hot copy for a time that it inspired fashion/photo spreads in Life and other magazines. Finally, to move past it, Emerson brought it to a vote on her show. She asked viewers what she should wear. Ballots ran 95% in favor of Emerson's style staying as it was.

But Emerson was more than just window dressing. During the height of her fame she was a frequent substitute host for Edward R. Murrow on Person to Person and for Garry Moore on his show. She took part in so many game shows that a magazine once labeled her "TV's peripatetic panelist."

Emerson's omnipresence as a television performer should not be under emphasized. Before cable and satellites the average household was lucky to receive a handful of channels. Hosting various shows on various networks for much of the 1950s meant that even the most infrequent of audiences had to be aware of her as one of TV's first citizens. A viewing of Emerson's work today reveals a pleasant, largely unflappable but somewhat stiff talent. Still she radiates glamour and remarkable camera presence.

In 1950, after divorcing Roosevelt, Emerson announced on her evening program her plans to marry musician Lyle C. "Skitch" Henderson. (It is believed she was the first person ever to make such an announcement on television.) In 1953, the two teamed for the show, Faye & Skitch. Earlier in 1951, Emerson began hosting one of the medium's most expensive programs, Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town, in which she traveled the country and profiled different cities.

As the 1950s came to a close "TV personalities" found themselves with fewer opportunities. Some, like Arlene Francis, brilliantly reinvented themselves; others found themselves relegated to guest appearances before moving into retirement. Emerson was in this latter group. She continued to make TV appearances until 1963 when, rich and weary of show business, she sailed off for a year in Europe. Finding it to her liking she seldom returned to the U.S. and died abroad in 1993.

Why Faye Emerson, "Mrs. Television," did not endure on the small screen while her masculine counterpart, "Mr. Television" Milton Berle did can be ascribed to several factors. Perhaps most important was the fact that the TV personality never had a single marketable trait: neither comic nor singer, they were more like the good host or hostess at a private, intimate party and by the late 1950s, as talk shows left prime time, the party was over. TV production moved out of New York and left their kind of glamour behind.

Today, the lack of a clear lineage for the TV personality makes a full understanding of Emerson's appeal hard to grasp. Who today does exactly what Emerson did--Joan Rivers, Kathie Lee Gifford, the women of MTV? But as TV was beginning, it needed a friendly, unifying factor, a symbol to initiate audiences into its technology--and for millions of viewers that envoy was Faye Emerson.

-Cary O'Dell


Faye Emerson

FAYE EMERSON. Born 8 July 1917 in Elizabeth, Louisiana, U.S.A. Married 2) Elliot Roosevelt, 1944; 3) Lyle C. "Skitch" Henderson, 1951. In films from 1930s; in television from 1949 as host, guest performer, panelist. Died in Majorca, Spain on 9 March 1983.

TELEVISION SERIES

1949-52 With Faye
1950     The Faye Emerson Show
1951-52 Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town
1953-54 Faye and Skitch

FILMS

Bad Men of Missouri, 1941; Juke Girl, 1942; The Hard Way, 1942; Find the Blackmailer, 1943; Destination Tokyo, 1943; Air Force, 1943; The Mask of Dimitrios, 1944; Crime by Night, 1944; Danger Signal, 1945; Nobody Lives Forever, 1946; A Face in the Crowd, 1957.

FURTHER READING

O'Dell, Cary. Women Pioneers in Television. Jefferson, Norh Carolina: McFarland, 1996.