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Thelma Prescott, Television’s First Female Producer/Director

This post is by Cary O’Dell, of the Library of Congress, and Jane Klain, of the Paley Center for Media

Among the thousands of books, periodicals, and reference works in the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Research Centers is a bound set of every press release issued by the National Broadcasting Company from its founding in 1926 through 1950. The releases—tens of thousands of them—tout upcoming productions, guest stars, and various activities modern consumers have come to think of as “media events.” Since most of the radio and television broadcasts mentioned in the press releases no longer exist, these volumes offer a unique window into the emerging role of mass media.

Prescott on the job at NBC in 1939

They also help to give a few long forgotten people their rightful due.

For example, on January 19, 1939, NBC issued a press release announcing the hiring of their first female television producer/director, Thelma A. Prescott. The particular timing of this announcement is notable, for it occurred several months before TV had its much-heralded “official” debut when NBC broadcast the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which occurred on April 30.

Yet, despite (or maybe because of) TV’s novelty, news of Prescott’s hiring was widely reported with articles appearing in newspapers from Brooklyn to St. Louis to Ogden, Utah. Quoting liberally from the press release, these articles hailed “Miss Prescott’s breakthrough” which had been announced by Thomas H. Hutchinson, NBC’s director of television programs. Hutchinson also noted that “when NBC television goes on the air regularly next spring [of 1939], we shall appeal to as wide an audience as possible.”

NBC clearly hoped a significant part of the audience would be female and noted that the American-born Prescott’s ten years of residency in France made her ideal for her new job. According to the release, “Miss Prescott has directed and produced many experimental and commercial television broadcasts…. She says that the 67 advertising agencies which have experimented in television are for the most part interested in women’s programs.”

Thelma Prescott in an early portrait

How Prescott acquired her television job is not known. Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1902, she was a graduate of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (now known as the Parsons School of Design) and worked as a fashion journalist in Paris before establishing a publicity firm in 1932. It’s also unclear how many programs Prescott oversaw at NBC, but one had the intriguing title “Girl About Town—Bathing Suit Story.” It aired on the afternoon of March 29, 1939, and the New York Public Library has a copy of the shooting script bearing her credit on the cover.

“Girl About Town” is interesting not only because it was directed by TV’s first female producer/director but also because its production and airing predates the World’s Fair broadcast by a  full month. “Girl About Town” even predates the NBC-TV programming file, a fascinating set of 3” x 5” cards NBC employed to track and document their programing as it was broadcast over radio and TV. Now housed in our Recorded Sound Research Center, the NBC programming file has proved to be a boon to media researchers interested in the earliest days of TV.

Still, for all the fanfare that attended Prescott’s hiring, her NBC career was short-lived. Only eight months after her hiring, an industry magazine announced that she would soon be departing the network, stating that her exit was part of a mass firing undertaken by the network as they worked to trim their “experimental” television personnel. Prescott returned to NBC in 1948 as co-producer (with her husband Edward Padula) of a show called “Girl of the Week” that profiled glamorous fashion models; it lasted a few months.

Prescott’s career was soon eclipsed by her husband’s, especially after he met with great success in shepherding Bye Bye Birdie to Broadway in 1960. The couple divorced in 1968 and Prescott ultimately settled in Florence, Italy, passing away there in the mid-1980s.

 

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