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Peg Lynch dies at 98; broadcast pioneer created early sitcom ‘Ethel and Albert’

 Peg Lynch
Peg Lynch, who wrote, owned and starred in what started on radio and then became one of television’s first sitcoms, “Ethel and Albert,” with Alan Bunce, who played Albert on TV.

Peg Lynch, a trailblazer for women in broadcast entertainment who wrote, owned and starred in one of television’s first sitcoms, “Ethel and Albert,” has died. She was 98.

The writer of more than 11,000 scripts for television and radio, Lynch died Friday at her home in Becket, Mass., her daughter, Astrid King, told The Times. Lynch’s health had declined rapidly after recent hip surgery, King said.

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For the record

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11:07 a.m.: The headline with an earlier version of this story misstated Peg Lynch’s age as 91. She was 98.

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Decades before “Seinfeld” became known as the sitcom about nothing, and Tina Fey wrote and starred in “30 Rock,” Lynch’s presciently modern sitcom — which aired on radio and all three major networks — celebrated the understated humor of average married life.

Lynch’s original characters, Ethel and Albert Arbuckle, were unremarkable, their story lines revolving around toothaches, filing taxes and hosting dinner parties in the little town of Sandy Harbor. One radio plot was about Ethel repeatedly questioning her husband in the middle of the night about whether he had locked the garage door.

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“I wrote about what I knew,” Lynch told the Berkshire Eagle in Massachusetts last year. “I wrote about real life.”

Lynch created the husband and wife duo Ethel and Albert in the late 1930s at the small radio station KATE in Albert Lea, Minn. The fictional couple, voiced by Lynch and a male radio announcer, appeared in three-minute filler sketches that aired during other programming, according to Lynch’s website.

“‘Ethel and Albert’ was initially a sort of commercial, Peg having discovered that a husband-wife format could be adapted to sell a variety of products,” King wrote on Lynch’s website. “Try writing 15 minutes of snappy dialogue every week for 12 weeks in which a wife tries to persuade her husband to buy an Allis Chalmers tractor and you’ll get the picture.”

Lynch took her characters with her when she moved to radio station WCHV in Charlottesville, Va., and then to WTBO in Cumberland, Md., where “Ethel and Albert” became a 15-minute feature.

In 1944, Lynch moved to New York City, where she turned down an offer for “Ethel and Albert” from NBC Radio, which wanted to co-own the show. She refused to sell it.

“She said, ‘It’s the only thing I’ve got, and if I give that away, I won’t have anything,’” King told The Times.

“The Private Lives of Ethel and Albert” went national that year with a 15-minute, weekday slot on Blue Network, which later became ABC. The network persuaded Lynch, with her high-pitched voice, to play Ethel.

In 1950, Ethel and Albert (by then played by Alan Bunce) moved to television, first as a segment on NBC’s “The Kate Smith Hour” variety show and later as a half-hour weekly stand-alone series.

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The show later moved to CBS and then ABC before going off the air in 1956. All of the shows were written by Lynch, and most were performed live.

“This was a woman who would be plotting the third week’s show, writing the second-week show, rehearsing that week’s show and then broadcasting that night’s show,” her daughter said in an interview.

The Ethel and Albert characters later reappeared on radio in a show called “The Couple Next Door” and in various commercials.

She was born Margaret Frances Lynch on Nov. 25, 1916, in Lincoln, Neb. Her father died of the Spanish flu when she was 2. Lynch and her mother moved to Minnesota, where her mother was a nurse at the Mayo Clinic.

At 14, Lynch started working for a radio station in Rochester, Minn., owned by a friend’s father. There, according to her website, she found sponsors and interviewed celebrities who were in town to visit the Mayo Clinic, including Lou Gehrig and Ernest Hemingway. Described by her daughter as someone who always knew she wanted to be a writer, Lynch graduated from the University of Minnesota.

In 1948, Lynch married Odd Knut Ronning, a distant Norwegian cousin, with whom she had one daughter, King. The marriage lasted until his death last year. In addition to her daughter, Lynch is survived by her son-in-law, Denis King, and one grandson, Alexander.

Lynch maintained ownership of “Ethel and Albert” throughout her life. She even owned the set pieces from the show, and her house was filled with furniture and props from the production, her daughter said.

The television show was largely forgotten after it went off the air, the episodes confined to kinescope copies she owned. The University of Oregon now has the kinescopes, as well as scripts and audiotapes, in an archive.

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“Because it wasn’t on film, it never went into syndication,” Astrid King said. “It just wasn’t out there. But the episodes are gems. They’re absolute gems.”

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