My Friend Irma

Dave Tysver

My Friend Irma is now available at at web address


The synopsis of the series is:

My Friend Irma was developed in-house by CBS staff who were charged with creating new programming that could subsequently be pitched and sold to prospective sponsors. This was a new trend that departed from the prevailing model of the previous decade and a half in which advertising agencies would package a show – create the concept, hire the talent, and produce the broadcast – and find potential sponsors. Under the old model networks such as CBS made money by selling time on their coast-to-coast network of stations, or a regional group of the network’s stations.

While an extremely profitable system by the mid-1940s, network executives recognized even more money could be made by creating and selling their own shows to sponsors in addition to selling airtime to those same sponsors. The idea was in full swing in 1946 when CBS was pitching a number of such shows, among them The Bill Goodwin Show, The Robert Q. Lewis Little Show, Theater of Romance (Romance), Diamond as Big as the Ritz, and CBS staff writer Cy Howard’s My Friend Irma.

CBS thought highly of Howard’s scripts and really pushed it with their sales force. Despite the big push by the network to land a sponsor early, finally getting one to ink a deal took longer than expected and raised a few eyebrows in the trade publications. The Borden company initially showed interest but wouldn’t commit allowing Lever Brothers to swoop in and nab the sponsorship via the Young & Rubicam Agency beginning with the series’ first full season in the fall of 1947. Lever Bros. was looking to replace The Joan Davis Show in their sponsorship portfolio since its costs had ballooned to $18,000 per episode. The new My Friend Irma was going to set the company back only $7,000 per episode, well under half the cost of Davis.

My Friend Irma debuted over CBS on April 11, 1947 in a late Friday night timeslot. Marie Wilson was cast as the lovable but not-too-bright Irma Peterson and Cathy Lewis as her roommate Jane Stacy, whose friendship waxed and waned depending on the problems Irma had most recently caused. John Brown was cast as Peterson’s boyfriend Al who was loveable and harmless but adverse to even thinking about working. Hans Conreid appeared regularly as neighbor Professor Kropotkin, Lief Erickson as Jane’s boss and sometimes love interest Richard Rhinelander III, and Alan Reed as Irma’s exasperated attorney boss Mr. Clyde.

Within months of its debut there was already talk of adapting the program to the big screen by Hal Roach’s studio. Talks ultimately fell apart and it would be two years before Irma hit the motion pictures for Paramount in a film that most famously introduced Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Almost from its inception My Friend Irma became a regular in the Hooper and Neilson top-15 ratings. During its first full season, 1947-48, sponsor Lever Brothers placed the show with Lux Radio Theater and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (also regular top-15 shows) to form a two-hour Monday night juggernaut that raked in listeners. Network executives claimed that Irma, combined with Talent Scouts (another show that was developed in-house by CBS) ended up costing Lever Brothers a paltry $1 for every 400 homes reached during that 1947-48 season.

Marie Wilson as Irma Peterson was the core around which the rest of the cast was built. Irma’s best friend Jane was played by Cathy Wilson during the first season before taking an unexplained rest from the show during the second season, in which the part was taken over by Joan Banks. Wilson returned for season 3 (1949-1950) and stayed until late in the 1952-1953 season when Mary Shipp replaced Lewis as Irma’s new roommate, this time named Kay Foster.

Irma’s boyfriend Al was played by John Brown for the first years of the show’s run but scripts from 1952 and 1953 indicate Sid Tomack assumed the part after several weeks of no appearances by the character. This overlaps his time playing Al on the televised version of My Friend Irma so it seems he took over the radio role as well though other reference works don’t reflect this information. The versatile Hans Conreid played eccentric neighbor Professor Kropotkin until March 10, 1953 when Wanderkin, played by Kenny Delmar, was introduced. Kropotkin subsequently disappeared from the series but Delmar’s Wanderkin stepped in and essentially played the same part just with a slightly altered name and accent.

Gloria Gordon was the supporting staple, playing the battle-axe landlord (and foil to Professor Kropotkin and Wanderkin) Mrs. O’Reilly for nearly the entire length of the series. Later in the show’s run the Martins move in next door and become the focus of some episode plots. In December 1949 it was announced that Hans Conreid and Gloria Gordon had cut an audition disc reprising their roles as Professor Kropotkin and Mrs. O’Reilly in a spin-off called The Professor and Mrs. O’Reilly. Created by Cy Howard and Parke Levy, the masterminds behind My Friend Irma, the new program was embraced by CBS but never made it past the audition phase. My Friend Irma did nothing groundbreaking but what it did, it did well and did consistently. The show ran until 1955 and spawned two films (1949, 1950), a television series (1952-1954), a comic strip, a comic book written by the now legendary Stan Lee (1950-1955), and a stage play (1951).


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