Comedy of the Commonplace: The Sitcom Genius of Peg Lynch

Midwestern Roots

Margaret Frances “Peg” Lynch was born on November 25, 1916, in Lincoln, Nebraska. At age two, when her father suddenly died, she moved with her mother back to Kasson, Minnesota, not far from Rochester. There, her mother resumed her job as an orthopedic nurse for Dr. Charles Mayo at the Mayo Clinic and Peg attended school. Her introduction to radio came at age 15, when she agreed to help out at KROC, a radio station in Rochester owned by a classmate’s father. Working simultaneously as a part-time receptionist or “desk girl” at the Mayo Clinic, she wrote copy for the station and contributed interviews with celebrities who were visiting the renowned Clinic—for example, Lou Gehrig and Ernest Hemingway.

After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1937 as an English major with an emphasis in writing and dramatics, Peg Lynch landed a job as a copywriter at KATE, a small radio station in Albert Lea, about forty miles from Rochester. Energetic, hardworking, and creative, she also wrote commercials, a daily half-hour woman’s show, a weekly half-hour theater show, a weekly farm news program, and three 10-minute plays and two five-minute sketches each week. She earned $65.00 a month. Here too, she introduced the fictional husband-and-wife duo Ethel and Albert in three-minute filler sketches on her woman’s show, playing the role of Ethel herself. The show also provided a venue for marketing commercial products. After four months at KATE, she moved to WCHV radio in Charlottesville, Virginia, and in 1941 to WTBO radio in Cumberland, Maryland, where Ethel and Albert evolved into a fifteen-minute, regular evening show airing five days a week.

In 1944, Peg Lynch made a bold move to New York City with just $500.00 in hand and took an apartment overlooking fashionable Gramercy Park, in a building where several other actors lived. Within a month she had an offer from NBC radio to produce Ethel and Albert at a 50-50 ownership split. She refused, wanting to retain full ownership and control, and was soon picked up by the Blue Network (later to become ABC) as a Monday through Friday fifteen-minute show on national radio. After a failed audition of several actresses, Peg consented to play again the role of Ethel. Actor Richard Widmark was hired as Albert but was soon replaced by Alan Bunce, who played that character for twenty years. The show was expanded in 1949 to a half hour.

Ethel and Albert were embraced by fans, not as the perfect couple but as a husband-and-wife team who mirrored the lives—and little grievances—of couples like themselves, and did so with intelligence and tender humor. People often believed that Peg and Alan were actually married; in fact, in 1948 Peg Lynch married Odd Knut Ronning, a Norwegian pulp and paper engineer whom she declared was quite unlike the fictional Albert she had created.