In 1942 when Uncle Sam called on the Bell Telephone Company to recruit switchboard operators for highly classified jobs at the Philadelphia Naval Ship Yard, 18-year-old Sue Marella answered. After the F.B.I. interviewed Sue, her family, and even her neighbors in South Philly. Her station for the duration of the war was mysterious Building 83, where no one entered without a security clearance.
“Everyone was always on high alert and we carried our ID cards everywhere,” recalls Sue Marella Friedberg, now 89 (in 2013). “It was a very exciting, very high energy time, with mobs and mobs of people. You really felt like you were doing something important,” she says. When her job at the Navy Yard was eliminated with the reduction in force after the war (along with her weekly paycheck of $14.62), Sue went from a secured station in Building 83 to a very different kind of station in The Widener Building at 13th and Chestnut Streets. That station was WFIL, now WPVI-TV.
“I think I answered an ad in the paper,” she says. “Irene (Rene) Smith was in charge of the switchboard and reception desk and she did the hiring. She interviewed me and I guess she liked me because she told me I could start the following week.”
From 1947 to 1951, Sue Marella’s was the face that welcomed visitors, guests and talent to the WFIL offices and studios. Among them were publisher Walter Annenberg, the owner of station who became U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1969, and up-and-comers such as Dick Clark, Bobby Rydell, and Eddie Fisher. Local programming featured Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club, a forerunner of “American Bandstand,” and personalities Skipper Dawes and The Magic Lady.
“It was fun to see young talent coming in for auditions. Eddie Fisher was just a shy, skinny kid then and he kept his head down all the time,” Sue says. Sally Starr was another one who was just getting started,” she remembers. Sue appeared in some early TV commercials and recalls doing a remote spot for F.W. Woolworth, which was right across the street from the station. “I strolled through the store twirling an umbrella,” she says.
The smart, attractive brunette with an eye for fashion was in the right place at the right time to pursue a career of her own in broadcasting had she wanted to, but Sue declined additional opportunities to appear in front of the camera. “I never had the slightest interest in being on TV or performing, except when I was little and took tap dancing lessons because I wanted to dance like Eleanor Powell. She was my idol,” she says.
Among Sue’s fondest memories of her WFIL days are the annual staff outings in Medford Lakes, NJ, cocktail parties and holiday gatherings next door in bandleader Howard Lanin’s offices, and going to McGillin’s Old Ale House every day for lunch with her best friend, Grace Kenny. Grace then worked in the promotions department writing copy. Thirty years later she retired as head of WPVI’s traffic department. Sue and Grace have been lifelong friends and Grace is godmother to Sue’s son David.
In 1949, after working late one evening at the station, Sue and a girlfriend stopped at The Click, a restaurant and theater at 18th and Walnut Streets, to see a young singer named Tony Bennett perform. “Back in those days, we weren’t afraid to go out at night, it was safe, and we used public transportation,” she says. Her future husband Elmer sat down next to them and asked where they worked. “I must have given him my phone number and then didn’t think too much about it, but he called.”
When Sue left WFIL in 1951 to get married, the station gave her a farewell party and a complete set of Orrefors crystal as a wedding present. She still has it. “Roger Clipp, the general manager, gave me a beautiful handwritten letter wishing me well and telling me how much I’d be missed,” she remembers. “It was such a wonderful place to be and I was really sorry to leave all the friends I’d made.”
Sue moved to Pottstown, PA where the Camden, NJ born Elmer had opened his optometry practice. The slower pace of a small town was challenging for the city girl. “I had to get used to it. I didn’t like it at first,” she says. “I kept going back home to my parents’ every weekend.” Working in her husband’s office in the early years of their marriage helped Sue adjust. She became active in charitable and civic organizations, serving for many years as a volunteer for the American Red Cross and as a hospital aide at Pottstown Memorial Medical Center. In addition, she spent nearly 20 years on the board of the Pottstown Symphony Orchestra, contributing her time and creative talents to planning the annual Pops Concert held at the legendary Sunnybrook Ballroom. Along the way, she has made many, many friends. “All in all, I think Pottstown has been good to me,” she says.
Sue and Elmer raised three children: David (1953), Deborah (1955), and Linda (1959). Following Elmer’s retirement in the mid-1980s, the couple enjoyed travelling and spending time with grandchildren Alison, George, Bogart, and Jocelyn. When Elmer was no longer able to travel, Sue continued her travels with a close relative, visiting Alaska, Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji, and touring California, Vancouver, and British Columbia, Canada. Sue and Elmer celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 2001. In 2009, Elmer died at the age of 92.
In the early 2000s, Sue had both knees replaced. In 2007, as the result of a fall, she had a total right hip replacement, then total revision surgery six months later due to complications. “Someone said that getting old isn’t for sissies. Well, they’re right,” she jokes. Today, she walks with the help of a cane or walker, but it doesn’t stop her from getting out to go shopping at T.J. Maxx when she feels up to it or attending Metropolitan Opera simulcasts with daughter Deb.
Since 2010, Sue has spent winters with Deb and husband Ely in their Bradenton, Florida home, enjoying the warmth, the shopping, and attending screenings at the annual Sarasota Film Festival. Each spring, she returns to her comfortable and graciously appointed home of 55 years in Pottstown. An avid reader, Sue is never without her Kindle and can still complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle – in ink.
Sue Marella Friedberg is too modest to call herself a broadcast pioneer, but she is one indeed and there are pictures to prove it – lots of them. For over 60 years, the snapshots have slept in a green scrapbook that looks decidedly different from Sue’s other albums of family photos. She has contributed these photographs from her WFIL days to the Broadcast Pioneers photo archive to help preserve the rich heritage of Philadelphia broadcasting for future generations -- a legacy of airtime for all time.
Linda Penney is Sue’s youngest daughter, a copywriter and creative director with Philly ad agencies and independently for nearly 30 years. If you worked with Sue Marella at WFIL and would like to say hello, you may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She would love to hear from you.
From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
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