Mary Ellen Agnes Kelly (1926-2005?) was an American television researcher, talent coordinator, and associate producer with the pioneering early morning television program Today on NBC. She was also a special assignments reporter, traveling far and wide to film feature segments. Kelly crisscrossed the United States many times and covered stories from Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. Newspaper articles from the period compared her to Nellie Bly, the intrepid 19th-century reporter known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days. Kelly traveled around the world – on the first commercial flight over the North Pole in 1957 – in 71 hours and six minutes. Unfortunately, her remarkable career is little known today.
A remarkable collection of photographs and clippings from her career are now part of Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture. The journey of these materials to our collections is typical in how it was nearly discarded but later adopted by an appreciative collector. In the 1960s, Kelly sublet her New York City apartment to a man who subsequently discovered several boxes she left behind. He contacted her to offer to return the boxes, but she declined. However, he thought that the contents were fascinating and kept the boxes for over 50 years. When he passed away, his widow – realizing that Kelly must have been important as one of the few women working in early television – donated the material to the UMD libraries.
Kelly grew up in Connecticut, attended the Hartford Junior Business College, and briefly worked as a typist for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. She moved to New York City at the age of 19 and landed a job as a “copy girl” at the New York Times. After four months at the Times, she quit to take a better paying job as a secretary in a lawyer’s office, worked for a theatrical press agent, took night classes in journalism at Columbia, then joined the sales promotion department of King Features, a newspaper syndicate. This led to her first job in television: secretary to the producer of the Ted Mack Amateur Hour – a program similar to today’s America’s Got Talent. She subsequently became a script writer and auditioned talent for the show.[i]
She began at NBC as assistant to the producer of Broadway Open House, the network’s first venture into late-night programming. Kelly joined the Today show staff six months before the program premiered as producer’s assistant. Her duties involved finding guests for the show, doing preliminary interviews by phone, and meeting their train, plane or boat when they arrived in New York. Then, on the day of broadcast, Kelly would get up before dawn, make wakeup calls, pick up the guests by 6 a.m., see that they had some breakfast, and made sure they arrived at the studio on time.[ii]
One such morning, around 5:30 a.m., Kelly was sitting in a hotel lobby waiting for a Today show guess to come down. She sat there so long that she attracted the attention of the hotel detective, who asked what she was doing there. Kelly replied, “Trying to pick up a guest.” Only a phone call to NBC confirmed her actual employment.[iii]
An Unusual Partnership
Although most of her early duties were backstage, Kelly was also part of the on-air staff of the Today show when it debuted in January 1952. In a surviving clip from the first broadcast (seen here), host Dave Garroway introduces her at the 7:30 mark. Kelly became Garroway’s “Gal Helper,” writing copy for him and eventually presented “human interest” feature stories herself. Kelly’s first such assignment came after the Today show acquired a mascot in 1953: a chimpanzee – named J. Fred Muggs – who quickly became a ratings booster and a marketing bonanza.
“I was late for a program meeting one morning,” Kelly told a columnist. “By the time I arrived, the idea of sending Muggs around the world on a good-will trip had largely been decided upon. When I entered the room the only question remaining was who was to go along. As I came in all heads and their owners seems to be unanimous – I was IT.”[iv]
Kelly, the chimp’s two owners, and a small staff made a global tour of a dozen cities – Paris, Rome, Nairobi, Cairo, Beirut, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Havana and San Juan. She supervised filmed segments that were sent back to the network, wrote and distributed press releases, and babysat the chimp.
“The owners wanted to go out one evening, and they asked me to look after the chimp,” Kelly told a reporter. “Muggs was brought to my suite and placed in a crib. He was wearing a harness, but while I was in the next room, he escaped. He knocked a telephone from its cradle, and a bellhop came up to investigate.
“When he knocked on the door, I told him to come in. As he came in, Muggs went out. I heard the chimp scream as he ran down the hall with the bellhop after him. I was in my slip, but I ran out into the hall, too. After a while, we persuaded Muggs to come back. I never want to babysit for a chimpanzee again.”[v]
After successfully completing that tour, Kelly did more conventional reporting: donning a hard hat and boots to do a live remote from a skyscraper under construction, visiting the training camp of boxers Bobo Olson and Archie Moore, taking lessons from a Japanese judo expert. Frank Blair, who became the on-air newscaster for Today in 1953, described Kelly as “eager, boisterous, a hard worker.” He added, “I don’t think her position had any real job classification. Mary was a doer, and when anything needed doing the cry went out, ‘Mary!'”[vi]
Mary Kelly interviewed Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in Rome, flew to Monaco for Princess Grace’s wedding, to Mexico to explore the newly-discovered ruins of Uxmal, on the Yucatan peninsula, and covered the sinking of the Andrea Doria. She later reported the demonstration flight of a new jetliner from Rio de Janeiro to New York City. She once estimated that she traveled some 50,000 miles a year. A contemporary newspaper profile called Kelly “the only woman who does straight news reporting for TV, and one of the most traveled reporters of our time.”[vii]
By 1956, Kelly’s job title had become “producer-writer of special features,” and in 1957, she was promoted to associate producer of Today. “My work has taken me around the world,” Kelly commented in a newspaper interview. “My passport is a curiosity, has visas to almost unheard of places in it. Last year I went to the North Pole and had to have a special visa to get there. Dave Garraway showed my passport to the television audience and quipped ‘When the first visa permitting outer space travel is granted, Mary will have it.'”[viii]
However, after nine years, Kelly left Today and NBC in November 1958. “One of the best-liked personalities in TV,” the New York Daily News reported, “Mary resigned because of her displeasure over the recent changes in the format of the show.” Kelly eventually relocated to Nassau in the Bahamas. In 1962, she created and hosted a weekly radio talk show, “Mary’s Notebook,” which became one of the longest-running programs in local radio on the islands. Kelly was posthumously honored as one of “43 Cultural Legends” during the Bahama’s 43rd Independence Anniversary Celebrations in 2016.
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Jim Baxter is a Graduate Assistant for Special Collections in Mass Media and Culture. He is pursuing a doctorate in Journalism Studies.
[i] Zeitlin, Arnold. “Early Morning Guest-Getter.” Hartford (CT) Courant, Jan 19, 1958.
[ii] Hackett, Rita. “Celebrities Smile Even After Being Awakened at Dawn.” Cincinnati Post, Feb 6, 1953
[iii] Boyle, Hal. “Guest Finder Has One of Oddest Jobs in Dizzy World of Television.” San Bernardino Sun, June 2, 1955.
[iv] Jablons, Josephine. “Chaperon to a Chimp.” Louisville (KY) Courier-Journal, Jan 15, 1956.
[v] Shanley, John P. “Interesting Work: Mary Kelly’s Job for ‘Today’ Program Takes Her to Far Corners of the World.” New York Times, Jul 6, 1958.
[vi] Blair, Frank, and Jack Smith. 1979. Let’s Be Frank About It. Garden City, NY: Doubleday: 263.
[vii] TV Reporter Mary Kelly Finds Work Hectic Fun.” Caracas (Venezuela) Daily Journal, Apr 30, 1957.
[viii] “TV Reporter Mary Kelly Finds Work Hectic Fun.” Caracas (Venezuela) Daily Journal, Apr 30, 1957.