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Museum of Television & Radio recognizes women pioneers

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When Marlo Thomas looks back at her start as a television producer - the show was "That Girl," and she wasn't only the star, she was the boss - she remembers it as "hard to be the only woman when you're the only woman."

"It was 1966," said Thomas in a phone interview earlier this month. "There was only Lucille Ball, and she owned the studio. In fact, she was my landlady."

Ball, she said, was great: On the day after the show's Sept. 8, 1966, debut, she came onto the soundstage "and gave me a big hug, and said, `You're going to make it, kid.' "

But for a little while, Thomas, who said she'd "hired and gone after some of the best people in television, and they were all men," felt alone.

"I was the only expert on girl lore," she said, on a show about a young woman who, like Thomas, was more interested in pursuing an acting career than she was in getting married.

Then, in the show's second season, she hired writer Ruth Brooks Flippen as a story editor.

"She was desperate to find me," she said, laughing.

"We were both people walking across a desert."

Or so they thought.

What Thomas knows now - and what the New York- and Los Angeles-based Museum of Television & Radio would like more people to know - is that women have been making waves behind the airwaves since the early days of TV and radio.

Wednesday, the museum will announce the names of 50 women pioneers in broadcasting as it launches "She Made It: Women Creating Television & Radio" (, which a spokeswoman describes as "a three-year and 2,000-hour collection dedicated to the achievements of creative and business women in the television and radio industries."

Thomas, a longtime member of the museum's board, is on the steering committee for "She Made It."

Though she wasn't part of the selection process, "it is kind of exciting to realize that there were many, many who came before us," she said.

"You don't think of Fanny Brice. My God, Fanny Brice produced her own radio show."

And then there's Gertrude Berg, who created, wrote and starred in the family comedy "The Goldbergs," first on radio and later on TV.

"There are wonderful women who started in radio who nobody's ever recognized," Thomas said.

"I've always believed there's safety in numbers, and it's important for young women to see ... that there's a great trail out there for them to follow, that they aren't just plunging into the wilderness."

Yet Thomas, who's still producing and acting nearly four decades after the launch of "That Girl," said that while she grew up on studio lots, working summers for her actor/comedian father, Danny Thomas, "I'd never dreamt about being a producer, quite frankly. ... I dreamt about becoming Bette Davis, not David O. Selznick."

Necessity dictated otherwise.

"If I hadn't come up with `That Girl,' there wouldn't have been one," she said.

Now, if she doesn't help produce projects - including one in the works with Sarah Jessica Parker - Thomas, who would appear to be plenty busy with fund-raising for St. Jude's Children Research Hospital and with her latest book/CD, "Thanks & Giving All Year Long," figures she might not get to act at all.

"A lot of the stuff, especially as you get older, it's just not there for you.

"There's a lot of actresses in my age group, and most of them are not working," she said.

"Helpless is such a bad place to be."


Ellen Gray:


(c) 2005, Philadelphia Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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