Written by Joanne Lau

Voices

Awesome Old Lady of the Week: Peg Lynch

This week’s awesome old lady, American radio and television legend, Peg Lynch, still gets fan mail from around the world. She created, wrote, owned and starred in the popular husband and wife comedy, Ethel and Albert, which ran for decades on national radio and TV. This funny and charming lady, who celebrates her 98th birthday this month, sat down for a video chat with Joanne Lau.

Peg and Astrid

Peg, with her daughter Astrid King.

What is your name?

Peg, which is a nickname for Margaret. My full name is Margaret Frances Lynch.

Where were you born and where do you currently live?

I currently live in Becket, Massachusetts, but I was born in Lincoln, Nebraska on November 25, 1916. My father died of the Spanish flu before I was two. I remember he taught me Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in Latin, and when I went to school, I took Latin for five years. That was his influence.

After his death, my mother and I moved back to her family home in the small town of Kasson, Minnesota. Mother worked as a nurse in the Mayo Clinic, 15 miles away in Rochester, and my grandfather and various teenage aunts and uncles looked after me during the week.

I learned to speak at a very early age – and often! One day Dr Mayo noticed I was tongue-tied (medical name: ankyloglossia) and my mother said: “Yes, I know. I just thought if I left it she wouldn’t talk as much.” He operated on my tongue and, well, I guess she was sorry!

What is/was your profession?
Writer and actor, though my writing teacher always said I should stick to acting and my acting teacher always said I should stick to writing! I think the actors get all the credit. Name five TV writers on TV right now and I’ll bet you can’t. Writers are the unsung heroes!

I got my start at the age of 14 working for a schoolfriend’s father at his radio station doing copywriting and interviews. After I graduated from university, I went back to work at a small radio station, KATE, in Albert Lea, Minnesota, and it was during this time I created Ethel and Albert.

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Alan Bunce and Peg, with, centre, actress Margaret Hamilton of The Wizard of Oz fame, playing the character of Aunt Eva

Tell me about Ethel and Albert.

Ethel and Albert started as a three-minute filler sketch/commercial in 1938. It then became a 15-minute show on local radio, then national radio, then a 10 minute segment on TV as part of another show, and by 1953 it became a full half hour sitcom that aired on NBC, and later CBS, and ABC.

It was definitely not a soap opera. It wasn’t at all melodramatic. I’d describe Ethel and Albert as a comedy about the little day-to-day things that happen in ordinary life, like not being able to find a pencil when you need one. I used to say: “Give me a word and I’ll make a script out of it!” and I did.

Like a prototype Seinfeld?

(Mock outrage) Seinfeld certainly got his idea from me! (laughs) I’m joking of course! As for modern sitcoms, I’m really enjoying The Middle at the moment. It’s my favourite. You should give it a try.

What was the entertainment industry like then?
I still have the contract from when I first went to New York. I didn’t know what I was doing and the man who signed me, my agent, had a bit in the contract where I’d have to give his girlfriend half of what I earned. A few years ago, Mickey Rooney spoke to the Senate and he said that without question, every single movie he made and job he had, he’d been screwed on the business end of it. That’s quite true of this profession.

I had been chatting to a nice man for a few minutes on the train and near the end he introduced himself and said: “I’m Charles Lindbergh.” Well, I stared at him for a few seconds speechless and all I could think to say was: “Was the flight good?”

Ethel and Albert 1953

What was it like being a female writer back then?

Ethel and Albert was filmed live. I was putting in 18-hour days, getting up at 4am, writing one week’s show, rehearsing the second week’s, and planning the script, cast and sets for the third. I’d say during my career I’ve written nearly 11,000 scripts for radio and television.

There were practically no female writers in those days and even if there were, I doubt we’d hang out. Writers don’t like to know each other. They’re all scared that if one of them says something funny, the others will use it. We had a group of us writers together one time and you’d think we’d have this hilarious, witty banter – we discussed the tea.

I met a lot of other celebrities though. Ethel and Albert started on TV as part of The Kate Smith Hour and there were six other acts a night. They’d be in the green room and we’d get to chatting, so I met all sorts of people.

Who were the nicest celebrities?
I once got a letter that said: “I’m writing because my mother’s just died, and she was a great fan of yours and watched your show for years and years and I thought you might like to know. My name is Herman Hupfeld. By the way, I wrote As Time Goes By.” We met the next day down at Hurley’s. That’s where you’d meet someone in those days. It was a little bar on the corner of the RCA Building. It was the only place that didn’t get knocked down when they were building the Rockefeller Centre because the owners refused to give up their lease. Anyway, we met and he gave me a little music box that played As Time Goes By. Humphrey Bogart had given it to him. Isn’t that sweet? Years later, someone stole it at a party. Saw him put it right in his pocket. Fun, huh?

Another time, I had been chatting to a nice man for a few minutes on the train and near the end he introduced himself and said: “I’m Charles Lindbergh.” Well, I stared at him for a few seconds speechless and all I could think to say was: “Was the flight good?” He said: “Yes, very good.” We both laughed and shook hands. Then we started talking about peanut butter sandwiches!

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
Well, I’m always moving furniture around. I’m a furniture mover. I change it every week. It helps me think. See, it’s these normal things we do in life that inspire me. I guess that comes across in Ethel and Albert.

What is your favourite hobby or pastime?
It’s always been reading and books. I grew up in a small town and when someone would pass away, they would donate their books to the local library. I read them all. By the time I was 10, I’d read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Chaucer, Fielding, and many more. It got me interested in English, which is eventually what I went on to study at the University of Minnesota.

The last book I read was Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. He has things in there like why we have front halls in our homes and how that started. It’s just wonderful.

What is your secret talent?
I don’t really have one. This doesn’t count as my secret talent, but one time one of the guys who worked in the sports section of the radio station I was at, insisted I go to a bowling alley across the street with a group of them. I kept telling him I’d never bowled before, but he kept asking and so I went. Having never bowled in my life, I somehow managed to bowl five strikes in a row.

What are you most proud of?
My daughter, Astrid. I’m very proud of her.

Would you like to be a young woman in the 21st century?
No. I don’t like the length of the skirts! They’re either too short, or too long, or there’s nothing. Plus, women these days on TV are too giggly. You get these commercials on TV where you have a woman smiling and giggling next to a talking pillow or whatever and getting so excited about it. Why can’t they just say: “Here is a product and you’ll get better because of it”?

What is your favourite indulgence?
Butter!

What is your daily beauty regime?
Oh, I don’t have one. (Writer’s note: Her daughter Astrid, once she had stopped laughing, said: “We’re talking about a woman who has, quite possibly, gone to bed with her make-up, not to mention jewellery, on for 70 years!”.)

What advice would you give your 30-year old-self?
I have no idea. I wouldn’t do anything different I don’t think. Someone once said to me: “Always be nice to the people on your way up because on the way down, you may meet the same ones.”

You can read more about Peg on her website www.peglynch.com. You can also get some of the surviving episodes of Peg’s daytime radio comedy The Couple Next Door on Radio Spirits and on Amazon.

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Written by Joanne Lau

Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.