Biographical / Historical
Mary Ellen Agnes Kelly (1926-2005?) was an American television researcher, talent coordinator, and associate producer with the pioneering early morning television program Today on NBC. She was part of the original staff of the Today show when it debuted in January 1952. A contemporary newspaper profile called Kelly "the only woman who does straight news reporting for TV, and one of the most traveled reporters of our time."
Kelly grew up in Connecticut, attended the Hartford Junior Business College, and briefly worked as a typist for the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. She moved to New York City at the age of 19 and landed a job as a "copy girl" at the New York Times. After four months at the Times, she quit to take a better paying job as a secretary in a lawyer's office, worked for a theatrical press agent, took night classes in journalism at Columbia, then joined the sales promotion department of King Features, a newspaper syndicate. This led to her first job in television: secretary to the producer of the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, then on the Dumont Network. She subsequently became a script writer and auditioned talent.
She began at NBC as assistant to the producer of Broadway Open House, the network's first venture into late-night programming. Kelly joined the Today show staff six months before the program premiered as producer's assistant and "human interest" reporter. Her main duties involved finding guests for the show, making contact, doing preliminary interviews, and then – on the day of broadcast – making the wakeup calls, picking guests up, seeing that they had some breakfast, and making sure they arrived at the studio on time. Eventually she became host Dave Garroway's "Gal Helper," writing copy for him and presenting feature stories herself.
One of her early assignments involved taking the program's mascot, a chimpanzee, on a global tour of a dozen cities – Paris, Rome, Nairobi, Cairo, Beirut, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Havana and San Juan. She supervised the filmed segments that would be send back to the network, wrote and sent out the press releases, and babysat the chimp.
After successfully completing that tour, Kelly did more conventional reporting: donning a hard hat and boots to do a live remote from a skyscraper under construction, visiting the training camp of boxers Bobo Olson and Archie Moore, taking lessons from a Japanese judo expert. She estimated that she travelled some 50,000 miles a year. She interviewed Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer in Rome, travelled to Monaco for Princess Grace's wedding, to Mexico to explore the newly-discovered ruins of Uxmal, on the Yucatan peninsula, and covered the sinking of the Andrea Doria.
When a Scandinavian airline started commercial flights over the North Pole to Tokyo, Kelly was on the first scheduled flight for a story called "Around the World in 80 Hours." She later reported the demonstration flight of a new jetliner from Rio de Janeiro to New York City. Kelly travelled extensively in the continental United States for stories as well and by 1956, her job title became "producer-writer of special features." In November 1957, she was promoted to associate producer of Today.
After nine years, Kelly left Today and NBC in November 1958. "One of the best liked personalities in TV," the New York Daily News reported, "Mary resigned because of her displeasure over the recent changes in the format of the show." Kelly eventually relocated to Nassau in the Bahamas. In 1962, she created and hosted a weekly radio talk show, Mary's Notebook, which became one of the longest running programs in local radio on the islands. Kelly was posthumously honored as one of "43 Cultural Legends" during the Bahama’s 43rd Independence Anniversary Celebrations in 2016.