Even 70 years since it aired, and even after the extraordinary, exponential development of television programming during those seven decades, the 1951 drama “Miss Susan” is one of the most remarkable shows ever put on the small screen.
“Miss Susan” was a 15-minute (as most programs were at that time) daily soap opera carried over the NBC network. It aired from March 12, 1951 until December 28, 1951. As a daytime drama, “Miss Susan” focused on a variety of characters, but as the title suggests, its main focus was its central character: Susan Martin.
Susan was a lawyer who had just recently moved back to her hometown of Martinsville, Ohio. There, she became involved not only with a variety of criminal cases but also, as often happens in daytime drama, with a local beau.
Along with being a single, working woman—and an attorney—on TV at a time when women, generally, were not depicted in professional roles, Susan was also something else: she was also a wheelchair user. The character, according to the story, had been injured in an auto accident, leading to her infirmity. Due to this fact, “Miss Susan,” thereby, becomes the first TV show to regularly feature a disabled person, and in the lead role no less.
If making the main character of a daily TV series a person with a disability was a groundbreaking choice, it was, no doubt, inspired by the remarkable story of the show’s leading lady.
“Miss Susan” was played by actress Susan Peters.
Born in Spokane but raised in Los Angeles, Susan graduated from Hollywood High School in June of 1939. Under her real name, Susan Carnahan, she screen tested for Warner Bros. in 1940 and they signed her to a contract that same year. She made her big screen debut in 1941. Later, after adopting the screen name of “Susan Peters,” the actress was eventually dropped by Warners but was quickly signed by MGM. At that studio, Peters quickly moved up from forgettable “B” movies to more weighty fare. She appeared, alongside Greer Garson and Ronald Colman, in “Random Harvest” in 1942 and was Oscar nominated for her supporting role. After that, Peters went onto lead roles in 1943’s “Young Ideas” and 1944’s “Song of Russia.” Peters was also doing quite well in her personal life: she married actor/director Richard Quine in 1943 and later became the mother of a young son, Timothy.
But Peters’ life took a devastating turn on New Year’s Day 1945. That day, Peters, with her husband and two of his cousins, went on a hunting excursion. At some point during the trip, she reached for a rifle and it accidentally discharged. She was shot through the abdomen with pellets damaging her spinal cord. Peters became paralyzed from the waist down and would use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
As can be imagined, nothing was ever the same after Peters’ accident. The film she was making was scuttled. Three years later, she and Quine dissolved their marriage.
Still Peters was eventually able to resume her career. In 1948, she appeared in the noir “Sign of the Ram.” In that film, she played a woman who uses in a wheelchair. Later, she toured in various stage plays, like “The Glass Menagerie,” where her condition was considered suitable to the play’s plot and character.
Then, in March of 1951, it was announced that Peters would be coming to television in her very own starring daytime series.
Along with building a daily serial around the life of a disabled character, “Miss Susan” also has the distinction of being produced out of, not any the of three major TV epicenters (NY, Chicago, LA) of that time, but out of Philadelphia, specifically Philly’s WPTZ.
Originally, “Miss Susan” was set to debut in early March of 1951, but Peters caught a severe case of laryngitis and the debut had to be delayed until the middle of the month.
Along with Peters, the cast of “Miss Susan” included Marks Roberts and Helen Ray. The program was narrated by Earl Gill and, as might be suspected, it was sponsored by the Fab brand of laundry detergent.
As mentioned, “Miss Susan” was not on the air for very long—only a few months. Additionally, as a daytime drama it was, no doubt, viewed as rather unimportant in terms of recording it for posterity. And, further adding to its ephemeralness, it was done live; often live shows disappeared as soon as they got beamed out of the studio. But at least two installments of the program have survived to present day, and they are housed at the Library of Congress.
Viewed today, “Miss Susan” is surprising, well-produced, well-acted and, yes, even courageous in its way. One episode (aired 7/3/51) features a ping-pong game and a rather large role for a child actor—two elements that one would think could easily go rogue during a live broadcast.
As for Peters, she looks as lovely as she did during her film career. Meanwhile, her being a wheelchair user is treated as a complete non-issue. Susan Martin is not portrayed as a character to be pitied or one in need of help or one whose life is restricted in some fashion. Her career, love life, and even table tennis skills are as vigorous as anyone else’s.
The Library’s second episode (aired: 8/24/51) is more work focused for Miss Susan. It takes place almost entirely in the DA’s office where Susan jousts with the (male) DA in defense of her client who is currently behind bars. (The episode is also interesting for Peters having to, on air, correct her co-star’s misuse of another character’s name; this was live TV, after all.)
For whatever reason—and some reports hint at other health issues for Peters—“Miss Susan” did not last long on the afternoon air. The program broadcast its last episode on December 28, 1951. It would also be Peters’ final acting role. She died, reportedly from kidney failure, just 10 months after “Miss Susan” left the air. At the time of her death, Susan Peters was 31 years old.
Today, TV programs, of any type, in any part of the day, centered on or featuring a character who happens to be disabled are still pretty much countable on one’s fingers. Fascinating then that in 1951, without condescension, and, remarkably, without extraordinary fanfare, television gave us our first. And one portrayed with respect, understanding and great dignity.
For more information about the items in this blog or any sports history, Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.