On June 7, 1938, as an experiment in the early days of television, scenes from the play Susan and God are telecast to a screen at Radio City in Manhattan and other locations around New York, marking "the first time in television history that a current Broadway hit with its original cast goes on air in New York City" ("Scenes From Play ..."). Among the play's leads is Nancy Coleman (1912-2000), a native of Everett, Snohomish County, who is just beginning a long career in radio, film, and television.
Dreaming Big, Working Hard
Born and raised in Everett, located on the Puget Sound shore north of Seattle, Nancy Coleman graduated from the University of Washington determined to become an actress. As a backup plan in the unsure times of the Great Depression, she enrolled at Columbia University in New York City, intending to work toward a master's degree in teaching literature. But she soon abandoned that safe plan and focused on becoming an actress.
In 1936 Coleman moved to San Francisco with her mother and sister and found work at the Emporium Department Store as an elevator operator. A chance conversation in that job led her to an audition with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), and Coleman worked in several radio dramas for two years, earning enough money and experience to return to New York City, where she roomed with other aspiring actresses and learned the ropes.
Susan and God, a comedy-drama written by Rachel Crothers, gave Coleman her big break. When actress Nancy Kelly (1921-1995) signed a Hollywood movie contract and left the play, Coleman auditioned for her part and was chosen for the role of Blossom Drexel, the adolescent daughter of Susan Drexel, played by Gertrude Lawrence (1898-1952). Lawrence praised Coleman for her stage presence and talent. Coleman received good reviews for her work in the play and when it closed on Broadway, the theater group took it on tour.
Scenes from Susan and God were televised on June 7, 1938, from the NBC studios at Radio City in an experiment that broadcast moving images of a Broadway hit with its original cast for the very first time. In preparing, NBC replicated the original stage settings. The New York Times described it this way:
"The tele-pictures flashed from the aerial rods on the Empire State Building with excellent fidelity in a half-hour show. Paul McGrath and Nancy Coleman, also members of the Broadway cast, participated. ... The curtain went up at 4 o'clock when David Sarnoff, president of Radio Corporation of America, sat before the radio cameras and introduced John Golden, producer of the play. Mr. Golden referred to television as 'a new and glorious era of the theater'" ("Scenes From Play ...").
The historic telecast was viewed by 35 guests at Radio City and by others seeing the broadcast at 70 locations within 50 miles of New York City.
Susan and God closed in New York City that summer and, in August, Coleman visited Seattle to promote a traveling performance of the play in San Francisco. The Seattle Times welcomed the University of Washington alumna home: "Miss Nancy Coleman, red-haired University of Washington graduate, who left last winter to try for 'fame and fortune' in New York, returned here today hailed as one of the outstanding discoveries of the legitimate stage this season" ("U. of W. Graduate ... ").
Coleman's trip to Seattle was promotional but also allowed her time to visit with family and old friends, many of whom hoped to attend one of the San Francisco performances. Letters saved by the Duryee family of Everett offer further insights. One of Coleman's close friends was Marjorie Duryee (1913-1991), who in 1938 was in Europe. Her grandmother Clotilde Duryee wrote to her on August 30, 1938:
"Did you enjoy the letter sent by Mary Hemphill Pinkham ... after her Tea for Nancy? ... Nancy's play is to remain in S.F. an extra week, so great is the demand. Did I already write you that the company may go to London in the Spring? ... then they close in Boston, after playing all over the U.S. They may be in Chicago the first week in December ... since they open there, for 14 weeks, about October" (Clotilde Duryee).
Coleman's success in Susan and God led to her being cast in more plays, including The Desperate Hours and Liberty Jones, performances that earned her an audition with Warner Brothers Studio. Warners cast her in King's Row, a film released in 1942 starring Coleman and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), and signed her to a seven-year contract.
In a career that lasted more than 40 years, Coleman performed in 16 movies and hundreds of plays, radio dramas, and television performances. It is significant that, with the 1938 history-making broadcast, it could be said that television played a very early and important part in Nancy Coleman's career.