Loretta was committed to one final movie, It Happens Every Thursday, with John Forsythe at Universal Studios. "A bit of a nothing," was Loretta's assessment of that film.
In the Spring of 1953 Loretta and Tom produced a half-hour pilot, a sample first episode of a television series they hoped to make together. As coincidence would have it, a huge consumer products company, Procter and Gamble, was looking for a series to sponsor.
P&G was the first to view the pilot, and bought it the following day for $30,000 per week. Plus, they wanted Loretta to star in 39 half-hour episodes each year, the equivalent of thirteen full-length movies. The series would be called Letters To Loretta.
The couple's salary would be only $1,500 per week, a steep reduction from Loretta's lucrative movie contracts, but once the programs were broadcast, the Lewis' would own them for syndication - a potentially profitable deal.
Loretta and Tom plunged into work, to get a backlog of programs filmed before fall. "It was a new medium, and we all felt like pioneers," Loretta said. "But I had worked with the best, and I knew where to start".
First, she went to Norbert Brodine, one of the top photographers in the business. She told him they didn't have much money, maybe $2,000 a week tops, but he took it.
The program's original set director came right from M.G.M. Later in the series, Gladys would decorate the sets with her antiques, and furniture stored in rental garages all over Hollywood. Twentieth Century's costume director told Loretta to borrow anything she needed until she could afford to hire some designers.
In one show, "The Portrait," she rented Deborah Kerr's dance dress from The King and I.
Loretta's brother-in-law, director Norman Foster, came on board and her sister Sally came out of retirement to play a few roles.
By the time filming started, about fifty people were involved — actors, wardrobe, publicity, stand-in, hairdresser....
And Loretta ran a tight ship. "Time was money", she said, "so we rehearsed on Monday and Tuesday, and filmed every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. People were amazed at how efficient the set was."
"I felt that an anthology series would give me the chance to play characters young and old, pretty and ugly," she said. "But, I wanted to be at my very best at the beginning of each show, wearing beautiful clothes on a beautiful set, then introduce the story in which I played the leading character."
Ratings for the first few episodes were passable, but Loretta wasn't comfortable with the show.
She and Tom met with the Procter and Gamble board, and decided to change the title to The Loretta Young Show. The opening would be revamped too, so that Loretta would glide through a door on her 'living room' set wearing a glamorous dress in order to introduce each episode.
She would then play the lead role, and return to her 'living room' at the end of the show to deliver a "thought for the evening," something patriotic, character-building or spiritual. Each show would end with Loretta smiling into the camera, tilting her head and asking, "See you next week?"
The glamourous gowns she wore on the series - especially in the early days - were always 'loaned' to her by their designers because there was no money in the budget to buy them.
During the filming of the very first "new" sequence, Loretta's gown was loaned to her by a young Hungarian designer named Marusia, who was happy to be on the set as her beautiful creation was being filmed.
As Loretta emerged through the door as planned, she noticed that Marusia began to pout. "What's the matter?" Loretta asked. Marusia explained that the back of this dress featured a beautiful bow, and was actually as dazzling as the front, yet no viewer would see it because of the way Loretta had entered the set.
Loretta, the enduring clothes-lover, understood. She came through the door again, but this time swirled in an almost-complete pirouette - as the skirts flew out around her. Marusia smiled in delight — people would now see her entire creation.
Loretta didn't know it just then, but her airy entrance would soon become her legacy trademark, every bit as memorable as Carol Burnett tugging on her ear, or Dinah Shore's famous sign-off kiss.
In March, 1954, shooting for the first season ended. Loretta was beginning to get migraine headaches from the long hours and stress of the series, and looked forward to a two-month vacation at a second home Tom had just built on a golf course in Ojai, California. To the Lewis' joy, the show was not only picked up for a second season but it collected awards for directing and clothes design as well.
Loretta was television's First Lady, and her popularity now exceeded anything she had known in the movie industry.
Next: Health Crisis
Excerpts © copyright 2000 Joan Wester Anderson. All rights reserved.