by Thomas Watson
For six years, between 1971 and 1977, I had the privilege of working with Dorothy S. Boyle in the New York-based Research Department of the CBS Television Network. She and I had known each other – or at least “of each other” -- since 1962, when I first wrote to CBS from my home in the Midwest, seeking information about Lucille Ball. My subsequent correspondence over the years (almost always concerning Lucy or one of her CBS projects) had grown voluminous, so when I applied for a job, Dorothy felt she at least had to meet me. She hired me a short time later.
Our offices were on the 28th floor of the CBS headquarters building, an edifice known in the trade as “Black Rock,” thanks to its dark gray (almost black) granite exterior. Our files contained program data – titles, casts, broadcast dates, etc. – for virtually every CBS radio and television broadcast of the previous 40+ years. There was also huge amount of data collected for the legal department, breaking out the number of hours devoted each week by the CBS-owned stations to entertainment, news, sports, and public affairs programming.
Across town at the CBS Broadcast Center was something of a sister-department, a huge reference library managed by a lady named May Dowell.
“The two departments started out as one,” Dorothy explained one day. “We were all part of Agnes Law’s reference facility in the old building on Madison Avenue. When television came along, we started to outgrow our space and the company ultimately split us up. May’s unit was made an adjunct of the news department, and we stayed with the network. We moved into the new building in 1965.”
Both ladies, I later learned, had spent virtually their entire careers at CBS. May had joined the company in 1935 as a research assistant to Miss Law, the head librarian. Dorothy, who had a masters degree in music from Columbia University, came on board in September, 1942.
Never one to wax nostaligic about 'the good old days,' Dorothy did express a fondness for the CBS of the 1940s. The 'old building' was 485 Madison Avenue, which thanks to countless mentions on-the-air was one of the most famous addresses in the world. "The company was more like one big extended family in those days," she said. "We were all in that one location, and sooner or later everyone knew everyone else. There was a coffee shop down on the ground floor -- Colbee's -- where you could buy lunch for less than a dollar. Many CBS-ers (office workers and on-air talent alike) ate there. It was very easy to stay in contact with people throughout the company."
One day I asked Dorothy if she and May had been members of “The Desk Set.” She smiled and said, “Yes, I was the ink well!”
My question, as Dorothy well knew, had not been referring to desk-top accessories, but to a 1955 Broadway comedy, “The Desk Set,” starring Shirley Booth. (The play was later turned into a motion picture starring Katharine Hepburn.) The title referred to the staff of the Research and Reference Department of a major television network. Miss Booth (and later, Miss Hepburn) starred as head librarian, Bunny Watson, who suddenly finds her happy existence threatened by the computer age.
While the storyline itself was fictional, everyone in 1950s broadcasting knew that the character of “Bunny Watson” was based on Agnes Law. “Beginning in the early 1950s,” Dorothy recalled, “a young man from Philadelphia kept coming to the library, asking to use our research facilities. Agnes allowed him to come in – and was later a little surprised to learn that it was our staff and Agnes herself that he was researching.” The young man turned out to be William Marchant, author of “The Desk Set.” “When Agnes found out, she was thrilled. Shirley Booth even inscribed a Playbill for her, ‘To my alter ego.’ It was quite an experience!”
As for my interest in Lucille Ball, Dorothy told me, “Agnes was a Lucy fan, too… They both grew up in the same part of western New York: Lucy was from Jamestown, and Agnes was from Ellicottville, just a few miles away. Many of Agnes’ closest friends were from Jamestown, so whenever Lucy mentioned the town in her shows, Agnes was very pleased.”
Miss Law, I later learned, had joined CBS in 1927 as a secretary to the Program Manager. The network in those days employed 18 people and broadcast over 16 stations for 10 hours a week. The programming schedule consisted mainly of live music, often originating from a rather primitive studio in Steinway Hall on New York’s 57th Street. Because Agnes had a degree in music from Syracuse University, she was also expected to select the musical selections for a male quartet, two women soloists, a symphony orchestra, and a band. When necessary, she even played piano for rehearsals.
In September, 1928, the company was purchased by William S. Paley, and almost overnight the network started to grow. Paley purchased station WABC (later renamed WCBS), and Agnes helped with the expansion and organization of the station’s program department. She supervised the typists and stenographers, prepared all on-air continuity, and later trained girls in writing.
In 1934, the Federal Communications Commission came into being, and a year later asked the networks to give accounts of their past 5 years of programming. Agnes came to the rescue, drawing on her remarkable memory and on an elaborate – though unofficial – set of file cards. Once the network could see a real benefit to having such information on hand, Agnes was asked to create an area that collected program information and statistics. She also established a transcription library to house a sound file for all CBS programs. Finally, in 1941, an official CBS reference library was established, designed to serve the network staff, its clients, advertisers and the general public.
During the war, Agnes and the real-life "desk set" reportedly worked around the clock many days – serving the New York staff by day and Edward R. Murrow’s London staff by night. The department grew appreciably, at times including nearly two dozen staff members.
Agnes was the head of the department until she retired in 1956. “Of course, she never really retired,” Dorothy explained. “She now lives in Los Angeles, but still stays in touch, letting us all know that she’s ‘out there’ watching… She even sends us newspaper clippings of stories about the network.”
Sadly, much of the Agnes Law/Desk Set era ended in 1977: Dorothy Boyle died suddenly in April of that year, and May Dowell retired in June. “These ladies,” said one CBS executive at the time, “were successful in our industry long before it became fashionable for women to play prominent roles in the business world. They hold a special place in our hearts and will be sorely missed.” Agnes Law herself died in 1986 at the age of 93.
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Original material © 2005 Lucyfan Enterprises.
I Love Lucy is copyrighted by and a registered trademark of CBS Worldwide, Inc.
Images of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz used by permission of Desilu, too, LLC.
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