Called “The Fairy Godmother of Radio,” Nila Mack was a children’s programming pioneer who captivated the imagination of young America for almost a quarter of a century. After many years acting in vaudeville and on Broadway, Mack discovered her métier later in life. She was the much-beloved creator, writer, producer, and “directress” of the CBS children’s program Let’s Pretend, which ran from 1934 to 1954. This critically acclaimed radio show presented weekly adaptations of classic fairy tales, from Hans Christian Andersen to the Brothers Grimm. “We were deep in the depression when [Let’s Pretend] began…I remembered fairy stories that filled me with wonder when I was very young. I figured that if these lively pieces with a message at their hearts had meant so much to me, other children would like them, too.” Beyond the compelling stories, Mack made the unprecedented decision to cast the series with child actors rather than adults, allowing them to play both the young and mature characters. Former “Let’s Pretender” Arthur Anderson praised her talents: “Besides Nila Mack’s scripts, her genius for choosing and working with her juvenile cast was the main reason the show survived longer than any other dramatic program on American radio.” And popular culture critic Ross Care has cited the series as “one of the most enduring and highly lauded radio programs for children ever broadcast.”
Born Nila Mac in Arkansas City, Kansas, on October 24, 1891, she was an only child. Her mother, Margaret, was a dance instructor, while her father, Don Carlos, was a railroad engineer who died in a train accident when Nila was a little girl. In later years she recounted that her family always encouraged her “beyond endurance. In brief, spoiled me.” She displayed an early interest in the performing arts, appearing regularly in local talent shows throughout her childhood. After her father’s death, she went on to an Illinois finishing school, Ferry Hall in Lake Forest, and later supplemented her education with classes in both Arkansas City and Boston. To finance her tuition and expenses, Mac played piano at her mother’s dance studio. Her first “real” job in show business was acting in a traveling repertory company where she met and married fellow actor Roy Briant. During this time, she added the “k” to the end of her last name, reportedly because she thought “Mac” looked too much like a nickname. She continued to work steadily in vaudeville, eventually being employed for six years by the famed Nazimova company. With the troupe, she appeared on Broadway in Fair and Warmer and A Doll’s House, as well as the play and film versions of War Brides (1918). After her husband of thirteen years died, Mack remained in New York, taking acting jobs and writing for such other comediennes as Nydia Westman and Fanny Brice. Mack said in one interview, “Broadway prepared me for radio.” She was first cast on CBS’s Radio Guild of the Air, an experimental series that eventually became the renowned “highbrow radio” show Columbia Workshop. Mack also acted on a CBS comedy, Nit Wits, and scripted a series, Night Club Romances, that she also narrated.
In 1930 Nila Mack abruptly returned to Arkansas City to look after her ailing mother and took a job directing the local radio station. After only six months, CBS offered Mack the chance to take over its floundering children’s program, The Adventures of Helen and Mary. She was surprised by the network offer and thought, “You think I could? Me? A childless widow?”
Mack moved back to New York and began to thoughtfully retool the struggling program. Close friend and longtime cast member Gwen Davies reported that in the beginning, Mack “was terrified about working with children, because she never had any.” Despite this “handicap” Mack had a definite vision for the show and children’s programming in general. She immediately changed the casting policy; she realized, according to actor-turned-historian Anderson “how much better would be a cast of child actors, who could convey much more than grownups the openness, innocence and simplicity she wanted for the show.” She auditioned, trained, and nourished a quality company of child actors, some of whom would stay with the program for the most of its twenty-year run on CBS. After the initial cast changes, the show was retitled Let’s Pretend. The company of child actors, often called “the Let’s Pretenders,” became the trademark of the show, and some kids, including Gwen Davies and Sybil Trent, became leading players and fan favorites.
In addition to casting, Mack also changed the content of the series. She was responsible for bringing to air three hundred fairy tale adaptations along with some original stories, all filled with fantasy and mythical characters. Jon Swartz and Robert Reinehr noted in The Handbook of Old-Time Radio, “For years sponsorship was avoided, in the belief that 'radio’s outstanding children’s theater' should not be identified with a commercial product.” Later Cream of Wheat became the show’s sole sponsor. The program was so popular, as well as respected by parents and critics, that it was once broadcast by special request from a children’s hospital. On another occasion, Mack and the Let’s Pretenders received a police escort to Penn Station so they could make a train to Atlantic City for a special remote performance. The series received numerous awards during its long run, including two Peabody Awards, a Women’s National Radio Committee Award, and five Radio Daily Awards.
Because of the critical success of Let’s Pretend, CBS appointed Mack director of children’s programming. Anderson stated that as the director of CBS Children’s Programming, “Nila Mack was . . . a lone woman in a man’s world.” Her office on the fourteenth floor of the CBS building in New York was down the hall from such radio legends as Edward R. Murrow, Norman Corwin, and William S. Paley. Her skills as a “directress” were praised by many children who later became adult actors. Former cast member Larry Robinson declared that “Nila being a woman, was not doing the big nighttime shows that the men directors were doing, there were a couple of women in daytime radio directing soap operas and there was Nila Mack with this children’s program. I think today a director of this talent, man or woman, would have been involved in the biggest television shows, movies, stage and what have you. She was absolutely marvelous.”
In a 1952 interview an upbeat Mack observed, “These twenty two years have gone by awfully fast. I feel we’re just beginning. I hope I’ll be doing this for a long time, right down to the day I die.” In 1953, at the age of 62, Nila Mack suffered a heart attack and passed away in her Manhattan apartment. Let’s Pretend lasted one more season without her direction. Mack’s singular vision and commitment to the craft of children’s programming had, according to Anderson in the dedication of his chronicle Let’s Pretend: A History of Radio’s Best Loved Children’s Show, “brought joy to a generation of children and raised the standards of American radio broadcasting.”