The first Miss Kitty

Kathie Bell
Special to the Globe
Amanda Blake was the first Miss Kitty on television in the show "Gunsmoke." SUBMITTED PHOTO

For over five years there were two ”one and only" Miss Kitty's on the airwaves of America.

During the first few episodes of the "Gunsmoke" radio show in 1952, the saloon girl, played by Georgia Ellis and known as Miss Kitty, was only a small recurring role that soon evolved into a dramatic part of the show.

The radio show had no sponsors during its first year of production. Prospective sponsors insisted the creators "clean up" their story lines by having less violence, no saloon, and rewrite the part of Miss Kitty.

They felt Miss Kitty would be better received if she lived on a ranch with her parents instead of running a saloon. However, the creators stuck to their guns and sought out sponsorship on their own.

The radio version ended abruptly with its final episode airing in June 1961.

In the meantime, the television version of "Gunsmoke" began airing on September 10, 1955.

They cast Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty as a female addition to the male TV cast. Initially, Kitty was a saloon girl in the Long Branch Saloon. But the character evolved to owner as she became more important to the plot. With both radio and TV versions airing at the same time, there was an overlap of over five years during which different Miss Kitty's appeared in each version of Gunsmoke.

Blake's TV version of Miss Kitty lasted much longer - 19 years with Blake appearing in all but the final season of the TV show.

Amanda Blake was born to Jesse and Louise Neill in Buffalo, New York on Feb. 20, 1929, as Beverly Louis Neill and was an only child. She moved with her family to Claremont, California while she was in high school, graduating from Claremont High. Before beginning her acting career she served as a telephone operator.

"Stars in My Crown" (1950) and "Cattle Town" (1952) were among her first motion picture appearances. Her first lead in a movie was in "Miss Robin Crusoe" in 1954.

After appearing in movies such as “A Star is Born” and “The Glass Slipper,” Blake landed the role which made her famous, "Gunsmoke’s" Miss Kathleen “Kitty” Russell.

In 1968, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum inducted Blake into the Hall of Great Western Performers. She was the third performer after Tom Mix and Gary Cooper to receive this honor.

In addition to "Gunsmoke," she appeared in other TV shows, including in a regular comedic routine in "The Red Skelton Show."

She was a panelist in the game shows "Hollywood Squares," "Tattletales" and the "Match Game." She held roles in several TV dramas.

Amanda left "Gunsmoke" in 1974, a year before the series ended. But acting career was not over. In addition to games shows and made for TV "Gunsmoke" movies, she had guest roles in TV sitcoms such as “Hart to Hart” and “The Love Boat.”

Blake's personal life was turbulent. Her first three marriages ended in divorce and her fourth ended in 1985 after only about a year with the death of her husband of AIDS. Mark Spaeth was a City Councilman in Austin, Texas and was openly bi-sexual.

She passed four years later on August 16, 1989 from a form of hepatitis which is generally AIDS related. In the meantime, she had battled oral cancer in the early 1980s.

Blake performed in her last movie in 1988, "The Boost,” starring James Woods and Sean Young.

Blake was a noted animal rights activist. In 1971, she helped form the Arizona Animal Welfare League which is today Arizona's oldest and largest "no-kill" animal shelter.

Pictured here is Amanda Blake donating one of her "Gunsmoke" dresses to Boot Hill Museum.