Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Party's Over

Here's an obit of someone you probably never heard of, though she had a substantial influence upon one of the big musical hits of the 1950s. Mary Printz was a telephone operator working for a prestigious answering service whose clients included many theatrical celebrities. In the days before home answering machines, these services were essential for important people on the go. Mary took her work seriously, and in fact, offered services above and beyond the call of duty. Now don't get dirty. I mean she would sometimes walk your dog or water your plants or run other important errands. She became a bit of a celebrity at her job, and after being charmed by her personality, sparked the creative interest of lyricist Adolph Green, one of her clients. With his writing partners Betty Comden and Jule Styne, he created Ella Peterson, the switchboard operator with a penchant for fixing her clients' personal problems (as well as creating a few). Ella is the central character in the musical Bells Are Ringing, which had a healthy run on Broadway in the late 50s. Portrayed on stage and on film by Judy Holliday, the kookily endearing heroine ended up falling for one of her clients, after the usual hijinks. Mary Printz herself opened her own agency the year the musical based on her life opened on stage, with a celebrity clientele which eventually included Candice Bergen, Shirley MacLaine, Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Brooke Shields, Liz Smith, Spencer Tracy, Kathleen Turner, Tennessee Williams and members of the rock band Kiss. (Her very first message taken, according to her husband, was for Hermione Gingold.) Belles Celebrity Answering Service took clients only on referral ("no doctors and no TV repairmen," Printz was proud to say, "too much trouble for the girls.") The agency is still in existence today, hanging onto about 90 die hard clients including Stephen Sondheim and Woody Allen.

The show based on the character of Mary Printz yielded several hit songs, two of which became standards still played today, "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over."

Printz continued to run her celebrity answering service until her death last week at the age of 85.