Mary Ritts and Puppets
WCAU-TV Publicity Photo
Former WCAU-TV personality Mary Ritts has passed away at a Pasadena, California, retirement home on Sunday, May 14, 2006, a month before her 96th birthday. She was an artist, musician, and familiar television performer throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.
After graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, she became a fashion illustrator for Bonwit Teller, John Wanamaker, and Stetson Hats. Her work appeared frequently in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She also played organ and piano on a series of radio programs in Philadelphia and Dallas, Texas, in the 1940’s.
In the early 1950’s, she and her husband, Paul Ritts, created The Ritts Puppets for “In the Park,” a weekly national television series on CBS broadcast live from WCAU-TV, which was owned by the Evening Bulletin at that time.
The show starred Bill Sears as a wise and witty gentleman who befriended a menagerie of animals in Central Park Zoo: Geoffrey the Giraffe, Albert Chipmunk, Calvin Crow, and Mrs. Ritts’ long-eyelashed ostrich, Magnolia. The puppets became frequent guests on the Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, Jimmy Dean, and the Mike Douglas Shows.
They were the hosts of NBC’s top-rated Saturday morning series, “The Pink Panther Show,” and also starred in two CBS children’s specials, “Albert the Magnificent” and “The Great Silence,” both shot at WCAU-TV and on location in the Philadelphia area. Other WCAU programs on which the puppets appeared included the locally televised “Dividends for Homemakers” in the mid-1950’s, with Marian Kemp.
Their one-hour NBC special, “For the Love of Fred,” about a caterpillar who forgets how to turn himself into a butterfly, won Christopher and Gabriel Awards and was seen around the world in many foreign language versions.
The Ritts Puppets appeared with Jerry Lewis in his motion picture, “The Errand Boy,” and were also featured performers on NBC’s science series for young people, “Exploring, and Me Too,” a daily program for pre-schoolers. Paul and Mary Ritts were the on-camera co-hosts of “Family,” a daily, live hour of celebrity interviews, satirical puppet vignettes, and music played by Mrs. Ritts, who surrounded herself with three keyboards: a piano, a Hammond organ, and a celeste. “Family” followed “The Today Show” on New York’s WNBC-TV for three years in the early 1960’s.
The couple’s original children’s songs were made into a Columbia record album, “Let’s Have a Puppet Show.” An accomplished singer both as herself and as Magnolia the Ostrich, Mrs. Ritts sang hundreds of songs on television with diverse and noteworthy accompanists like Lionel Hampton, Skitch Henderson, Mort Lindsey, George Shearing, Marian McPartland, and The Tonight Show Orchestra.
Mrs. Ritts was also a successful portrait painter. Her commissioned works won awards in national juried art shows, and she frequently sketched guests, live, on the Family television series. In her later years, she continued to paint and lectured on subjects like portraiture, decoupage, make-up, and “staying young.”
Mary’s husband, Paul passed away in October of 1980. Paul and Mary had a son, Mark, who lives in La Canada, California, and there’s three grandchildren.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
© 2006, All Rights Reserved
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