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Soap Operas during the Golden Age of Radio

Vintage Radio
By 1930 the Networks and the Advertisers recognized the great potential of the Daytime market. It was reasoned that Men would be away from home working, and Children either at school or playing. That left the Housewife, by herself a powerful market force.

Clara Lu and EmWGN-AM, Chicago, is credited with the very first soap opera, Clara, Lu, and Em, premiering Jun 16, 1930.The act began as sorority sketch by three friends Louise Starkey (Clara), Isobel Carothers (Lu), and Helen King (Em),at Northwestern University; it was popular enough that friends suggested they take it to radio.The trio approached WGN and did the first shows without pay. Interest soon grew and Colgate-Palmolive soon took sponsorship. Originally broadcast in the evening, the show was moved to daytime on Feb 15, 1932.

Clara, Lu, and Em:

The Housewife was busy taking care of the home, and would have the radio on as company. Irna Phillips, an actress and staff writer for talk shows on WGN, Chicago, was given the assignment of creating a 15 minute daily show "about a family."The result was Painted Dreams, a story of Mother Moynihan and her unmarried daughter. Although originally unsponsored, Phillips would add an engagement and wedding to the plot in order to maximize product tie-ins.On their death bed...

Painted Dreams enjoyed a good deal of success, but Phillips couldn't talk WGN management into taking it national. While she was suing for the ownership of the show (CBS was eventually the rights to the program) she created Today's Children (available in the Rare Soap Operas Collection) for rival station WMAQ, which was an NBC affiliate. When Phillips' mother, the inspiration for the lead character, passed away, Irna insisted the show be discontinued. By now she was ready with Woman in White, the first daytime serial to be centered on a hospital (many have speculated about Irna Phillips' hypochondria in association with her fascination with hospitals.)

Defining the
Soap Opera

Many critics begin by defining the soap opera by its sponsors. Indeed the target audience was the housewife, so marketing household and cleaning products towards her seems a natural fit. What is missing is the Operatic tradition within the name. Stories of wealth and glamour appealed to the housebound wife, and the use of serialization held the interest of the audience from day to day.

1940s House WivesThe term "Soap Opera" has never been value-neutral. Especially in North America, soap opera has always been considered a "women's genre," and therefore easily devalued. The genre almost always has a reputation of tawdriness, deserved or not, which gives the term soap opera sexist and classist baggage. The radio soap is the most easily parodied of broadcast genres. There is a popular stereo type of the working class housewife allowing the dishes to stack in the sink as the kids run amuck, all the while she is lost to the world through her addiction to her Soaps.

This reputation of tawdriness ignores the fact the Soap Opera serials use some of the most complex forms of narrative in mass media, and that enjoyment of Soap Operas require a high degree of knowledge and sophistication on the part of the audience. Soap Opera is a form of escapism, but the high degree of knowledge needed on the part of the audience means that it isn't easy escapism.

Seriality is one of the keys to defining a soap opera. Other dramas have continuing characters, but usually the adventure in a single episode or series of episodes will be self contained. On the soap opera the story continues from day to day, and as a particular story line, or story arc, is worked through, another (or multiple) story line is being developed. There will be several storylines in various stages of development at any one time in a soap opera.

The Hummert
Radio Factory

Ma Perkins
Anne Hummert, along with her ad executive husband Frank, is credited with developing the formula of what would become the typical soap opera. Their first success, Just Plain Bill, is the story of a humble barber who marries well above his station.Many Hummert storylines would explore the gap between the wealthy and the aspiring middleclass, a notion that brought a good deal of comfort to their depression-era and WWII audiences. The Hummert's began Air Features Inc., which would become a kind of factory for radio drama, with the emphasis on the daytime serials. Other Hummert successes included Backstage Wife, and Ma Perkins, the story of a wise young matriarch who guides her family through troubled times.

Just Plain Bill:
Backstage Wife:
Ma Perkins:

The go-ahead for Ma Perkins' came when Proctor and Gamble's Oxydol account was moved to a new ad agency. Oxydol's previous vehicle, The Puddle Family, a serial domestic comedy, was dropped in favor of a 'serialized radio drama that would incorporate elements of the self-help genre. Ma Perkins, the story of a self-reliant widow whose family and friends were in constant need of her advice' went on the air over WLW, Cincinnati, during the summer of 1933.* Anxious to gauge the effectiveness of Ma Perkins as an advertising vehicle, in early 1934 P&G developed a "Mail-Hook" where listeners were offered a packet of flower seeds in exchange for ten cents and an Oxydol box top. More than a million seed requests were received.

The husband and wife team of Frank and Ann Hummert were in a unique position to capitalize on the growing popularity of day-time serials. Frank was inspired to develop a radio serial after following a serialized story in the Chicago Daily News. He hired the author of the print story to write The Stolen Husband, which aired locally in the Chicago market. The Stolen Husband appears to have been a closed narrative serial; that is the story line lead to a final single conclusion. Their next project, Betty and Bob, the story of a stenographer who marries the boss, was an open narrative with multiple story lines constantly in various stages of development. Betty and Bob first aired in Oct, 1932, and was sponsored by General Mills for 8 years before being syndicated until 1947.

Betty and Bob:

Julie Stevens is posed in the promotion photo for Romance of Helent TrentWith his successful advertising background, Frank realized that success could be found by servicing multiple accounts rather than pouring all of one's energy into a single project. Ann Hummert maintained a rigourous production level, typing up to two million words a year and supervising a large staff of "Dialoguers" who would fill in the stories she developed. During the McCarthy Era, Air Features Inc. was notable in that they refused to fire blacklisted writers, if they were any good.

In the fall of 1933 another Hummert soap was released;Hummert Soap Operas The Romance of Helen Trent. The show would run continuously on CBS radio until 1960, a total of 7,222 episodes. The story revolved around 35 year-old dress maker Helen, whom men found fascinating as she works her way up to becoming an important Hollywood costume designer. Through the entire series (and three different actresses) Helen remained 35 and single, although she continued to carry a torch for her long-running beau, Gil Whitney. "And now ... the real life drama of Helen Trent, who... fights back bravely... to prove what so many women long to prove... that romance, can begin at 35."

Romance of Helen Trent:

Irna Phillips and
The Guiding Light

Irna Phillips developed many of the conventions of the soap opera that remain with the form today: she introduced the use of organ music to transition from one scene to the next, she developed the "cliff hanger" ending which would cause the audience to remain in suspense until the next broadcast, and she developed a deliberately slow pacing to her shows, so that busy housewives could continue their housework without having to pay close attention to the radio in order to not miss anything crucial. The Hummerts contributed many conventions as well, including amnesia, blackmail, exotic diseases, murder trials, and reappearing long lost loves.

Ad for Guiding Light: Listen to the story of Dr Charles Matthews a minister who devotes his life to the needs of others.The Guiding Light, created by Irna Phillips, had its first broadcast 5 days after FDR's second inaugural. When the show was finally cancelled in Sept, 2009, it was the longest running broadcast drama, having been 15 years on the radio, and 57 years on television. The original The Guiding Light was based on Phillips' lifetime experiences. At the age of 19, unmarried, she had given birth to a still-born child. She found spiritual comfort listening to the broadcast sermons of Preston Bradley, founder of the People's Church in Chicago. The Guiding Light centered on the Rev. John Ruthledge and the people of the fictional Chicago suburb of Five Points. The Guiding Light eferred to a lamp that Rev Ruthledge kept burning in his study as a signal to residents of the community that he was available to help with their problems. Rev. Ruthledge's optimism was held up against the cynicism of townsman Ellis Smith. The Reverend's daughter, Mary, carried on a secret love affair with her foster brother, Ned Holden. The couple would eventually find happiness and the blessing of the Reverend, but not until Ned's parents return, and mother Frances would shoot her husband Paul dead after learning that he had plans to extort Ned. Ned would later marry and divorce lounge singer Torchy Reynolds who would later become embroiled in a relationship with Ellis Smith. There would also be much new and controversial ground broken in the early days of the show; for example character Rose Kransky would have radio's first out-of-wedlock baby.

The Guiding Light:

Irna Phillips' last great radio soap would be The Brighter Day, which would later become the first network television soap with an overtly religious theme (most of the religious elements were dropped from The Guiding Light by the time the show transitioned to television.) The Brighter Day centered on Rev Richard Dennis and his family, Althea, Patsy, Babby and Grayling. The show ran on radio from 1948 through 1956. It survived the transition into television, but continually suffered from low ratings.

The Brighter Day:

The Day the Radio
Soap Opera Died

Guiding Light The transition of the soap opera from a radio to a television form wasn't as direct as might be supposed.In a 1948 letter to Proctor and Gamble executive William Ramsey, soap opera pioneer Irna Phillips expressed both excitement of the advertising potential of the new medium, and doubts as to its appeal to home-makers. Phillips envisioned sponsors' products not only endorsed by her characters, but actually shown in use by them. However she feared that the housewife, who was able to enjoy radio drama without ignoring her household duties, would not have the same opportunity with the visual medium.

Exlax AdvertisementThe networks and sponsors were also slow to begin risking capital on daytime programming as the age of Television dawned, concentrating at first on Prime-time programming. When the networks began to experiment with daytime programming, they at first concentrated on news and variety-talk shows. The first television Soap would be The First Hundred Years, premiering in Dec, 1950, produced and sponsored by Proctor and Gamble. It was considered a risk at the time; much of the success of radio soap opera as an advertising vehicle was the high profitability compared with production costs. A radio serial, exclusive of the actors and writers, only required a sound man, a musical staff (usually a single organ player), and one or two technical personnel. The visual medium of television required sets, make-up and costuming staff, and a great number of technicians to operate the television broadcasting apparatus. In addition greater rehearsal time was required- a radio cast didn't need to memorize their dialog,it would be read from a script and the pages casually dropped on the carpeted floor of the studio.Television actors in the pre-teleprompter days did not have this luxury.

Nonetheless, Television was a force that could not be ignored. During the 1959-60 season CBS dropped three of its ten remaining daytime radio serials. NBC dropped its one remaining Soap, and ABC had cancelled all if its radio soaps the previous year. Most of the big sponsors had shifted their attention to television, feeling it was a better investment, and left their radio time to be sold as 'spot' advertising, much of which went unsold. In addition, as the national radio networks began to fade, local programming flourished. Station managers saw greater profits in spinning records and selling local advertising than providing air time for serials that weren't listened to. Many soap operas were played for a while on both radio and television, but the small screen eventually won the day. Shows that made the transition to television included Young Doctor Malone, The Guiding Light, The Road of Life, and The Brighter Day.

*Additional Reading:
Book: Speaking of Soaps Speaking of Soaps
by Robert Clyde Allen
Great Radio Soap Operas The Great Radio Soap Operas
by Jim Cox
Soap Operas Historical Dictionary of American Radio Soap Operas
by Jim Cox

On November 25, 1960, CBS cancelled Young Doctor Malone, Ma Perkins, The Second Mrs. Burton, and The Right to Happiness.Young Doctor Maloneby now was a presence on NBC Television. Many of the conventions of the radio soap opera made the move to the small screen, including the unseen announcer at the beginning and end of the broadcast, organ music providing theme and to punctuate the most dramatic of moments in the plot, the Friday cliffhanger endings, and at first, the 15 minute episodes. The power of the daytime television market peaked in 1976, when Time magazine reported that daytime television was "TV's richest market." The magazine noted the loyalty of the fan base. At a time when many primetime dramas lost money, soaps earned profits many times their production costs.

Ratings fell dramatically from the 90s through the first decade of this century. When As the World Turns was cancelled in 2010 after a 54 year run, it was the last daytime serial to be associated with Proctor and Gamble, the sponsor that had given the soap opera its name so many years before.

 

 

 

Favorite
Collections

 

Soapler
Just for laughs, see the compilation:
The Soapler: Soap Opera Spoofs, Satire and Silliness!

Rare Soaps
Rare Soap Opera Collection

Hummert Radio Factory
Hummert Radio Factory

Vic & Sade
Vic and Sade

Guiding Light
Guiding Light

One Mans Family
One Mans Family

Easy Aces
Easy Aces

Soap Opera
Quick Reference
Radio Show Title Date Creator Notes Sponsor Theme Song
Abie's Irish Rose 42-44 Irish/Jewish couple, inspired by Broadway play Drene Shampoo "My Wild Irish Rose"
Affairs of Dr Gentry 57-59 Sandra Michael Story of Dr. Ann Gentry, a woman alone in a man's world.
Against the Storm 39-42 Sandra Micheal Written "as if housewives were intelligent" with strong anti-war sentiment Proctor and Gamble
Amanda of Honeymoon Hill 40-46

Hummert Soap, Amanda lives on the estate of her Wealthy husband in trying times.

"Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (1854)"
Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories 37-56

Love Stories and Down-home wisdom along with recipes using the sponsor's Shortening… Spry Shortening

"Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms"
Aunt Mary 42-51 Lee and Virginia Crosby & Gil South "Dear Old Girl"
Bachelors Children 35-49? Bess Flynn While Dr Bob takes care of his adopted twin girls, he & his best friend fall in love with young women  
Betty and Bob 47 Ann & Frank Hummert Secretary falls in love with boss General Mills, Syndicated "Salut d'Amour" (Opus 12)
Big Sister 36-52 Julian Funt, Carl Bixby, Bob Newman and Bill Sweets Girl gives up all to raise her orphaned siblings Rinso "Westminster Chimes", "Theme for Big Sister"
Bright Horizon 44 James and Elizabeth Hart Spin-off of Big Sister whose star appeared in early episodes to insure a good start Swan Soap "Little Brown Jug", "Bright Horizon"
Brighter Day 48-56 Irna Phillips Spun-off Joyce Jordan MD,when Liz outshadowed Jordan's character Dreft "The Brighter Day"
Career of Alice Blair 39-40 Small town girl travels to NY and is caught in conflicts with her career-family life including intrigues & scandal.
Cecil and Sally 28-37 Johnny Patrick / HelenTroy Early show created by couple in SF studios S and W Coffee
Clara Lu and Em 30-42 Isabel Carothers, Louise Starkey, Helen King Early soap, focused around tongue wagging housewives Colgate Palmolive
Claudia 47-48 Rose Franken Ups and downs of a newly wed wife Coca Cola
David Harum 36-50 Ann & Frank Hummert Harum solved mysteries, unraveled personal problems, uncovered nefarious scams and rescued damsels in distress. "Sunbonnet Sue"
Dear John 33- ? Irene Rich Like reading a personal diary of a wealthy, affluent grape juice drinking woman. Welch's Grape Juice
Dick and Jeannie
Doctor Paul 45-53 Small town doctor treats residents and is caught up in the schemes and secret love. Dutch Mill Cheese / Sno-Drift Shortening / Wesson Oil  
Doctor's Wife, The 52-56 Small town full of big personalities Ex-Lax
Easy Aces 30-45 Goodman Ace for the Hummerts Married couple and their maid, lite hearted fare Jad Effervescent Salt, Lavoris, Anacin "Manhattan Serenade"
Eternal Light 44-68 Jewish Theol Seminary Jewish literature, theology, stories and music
Eveylyn Winters , Strange Romance of 44-52 Ann & Frank Hummert

Playwright falls in love with the beautiful daughter of his Army Colonel after the war.

Front Page Farrell 41-54 Ann & Frank Hummert Newspaperman husband and loving wife, wartime themes American Home Products "You and I Know"/ "Front Page Farrell"
Goldbergs 29-49 Gerturde Berg Life of a Jewish Family in a Bronx Tenemant "Toselli's Serenade"
Green Valley Line 34 Serialized story of small railroad line, full of RR details Syndicated
Guiding Light, The 37-56 Irna Phillips Longest running broadcast drama of all time Proctor and Gamble "Aphrodite", Wieniawski's "Romance"
Hearts in Harmony 46-48 Poor young composer trying to make his mark in the world Kroger Grocery
Hilltop House 37-57 Wayne King, producer Hilltop House Orphanage, Palmolive's first sponsorship Palmolive "Brahms' Lullaby"
Houseboat Hanna 37-57 Frank and Ann Hummert Enjoy life & loves on SF Bay in this little known Hummert soap opera. Lava "Laugh Your Way Through Life"
John's Other Wife 36-42 Frank and Anne Huumert

Playwright falls in love with the beautiful daughter of his Army Colonel after the war.

"Tell Me, Do You Love Me?
Joyce Jordan MD 38-56 Irna Phillips

Can a Woman Doctor be a Woman and a Doctor at the same time?

Dreft "My Moonlight Madonna"
Judy and Jane 32-35 Frank and Ann Hummert Friends seek to right wrongs and fight criminals in the small town of Honeycrest Folger's Coffee
Just Plain Bill 39?-55? Ann & Frank Hummert Simple barber solves local and international problems Anacin
Kay Fairchild, Stepmother 38-42 Real life step mother raising another woman's children Colgate Toothpowder
Kitty Keene 37-41 Day Keene and Wally Norman Former showgirl solves crimes with toughness and "Purrfection"
Life Can Be Beautiful 38-54

Chichi was a girl on the run, now living in a backroom of Papa Solomon's used bookstore.

"Melody in C"
Life of Mary Sothern, The 34-38 Mary works hard to keep her family grounded and going Hinds Honey & Almond Fragrance Cream, Pebeco Tooth Paste, Ipana Tooth Paste "A Little Love, A Little Kiss"
Light of the World 40-50

Bible stories dramatized for sponsor General Mills

General Mills "Light Of This World"
Linda's First Love 39-50 Shop girl marries and must get used to rich husband's family Spotlight Coffee/Krogers "Romance" (Opus 44, No. 1)
Lora Lawton 43-50 Ann & Frank Hummert Maid turned millionaire's wife BAB-O Cleanser "Just a Little Love"
Lorenzo Jones 37-55 Ann & Frank Hummert Dreamer/Inventor and his long suffering/loyal Wife "A Little Love, A Little Kiss"
Love Story 37-38 Love Story Magazine Stories from Love Story Magazine Syndicated
Ma Perkins 33-60 Ann & Frank Hummert Show centered around Ma and her 3 adult children & her smalltown business Sta-Puff Laundry Rinse, Kellogg's All Bran "A Little Love, A Little Kiss"
Manhattan Mother 38-40

Lovely woman raises her children alone.

Chipso Soap
Marriage, The 53-54 Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn Stage Stars Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy are married in real life, the couples fictional show is narrated from differing points of view…

 

Mary Lee Taylor Program 33-54 Jim and Sally Carter appear in "Story fo the Week" followed by economically delicious recipes from Mary Lee Taylor using PET Milk PET Milk
Mary Foster, Editors Daughter 48? Editor's Daughter Mary Foster wears many hats. Kroger's Iced Tea
Mary Noble Backstage Wife 35-59 Ann & Frank Hummert Smalltown girl marries the Matinee Idol of a million other women "Stay As Sweet As You Are"
Masquerade 48-52 Irna Phillips

Marion Fields' life is filled with lies and deception. Get out your hankies…

Gold Medal Flour

Monticello Party Line Small town lives and loves in Moticello Ill.

Dr Caldwell's Pepsin Syrup Laxative

Myrt and Marge 31-46 Myrtle Vail Vaudeville Mother creates show for herself and her daughter Wrigley Gum "Dream Waltz, The" "Poor Butterfly"
Nona From Nowhere 50 Ann & Frank Hummert Nona Dutwell takes care of her stepfather and tries to find her birth parents BAB-O Cleanser "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen"
One Man's Family 32-59 Carlton E Morse Patriarch Henry Barbour's Family Wesson Oil, Penn Tobacco "Destiny Waltz (What Do We Know of the Morrow?)"
Our Gal Sunday 34-59 Ann & Frank Hummert Orphan Girl from Colorado marries England's most eligible Lord, has complicated life Various "Red River Valley"
Pepper Young's Family 32-59 Elaine Carrington Honest highschool athlete and his pretty sister grow up Beechnut, Camay, Fluffo Shortening "Au Matin"
Perry Mason 43-55 Erle Stanely Gardner The Radio Perry Mason would be the inspiration for TV Soap The Edge of Night Tide, General Foods
Portia Faces Life 40-53 Mona Kent Portia Blake was a widowed attorney raising her ten year old son while fighting crime and corruption in the small town of Parkersburg General Foods: Post Cereal "Portia Faces Life Theme"
Pretty Kitty Kelly 37-40 Ann and Frank Hummert

Kitty Kelly arrives in America suffering from amnesia and is implicated in several murders…

"Kerry Dance, The" [aka: The Cuckoo]
Right to Happiness 39-40 Irna Phillips Originally a spinoff for Guiding Light character Rose Kransky "Song of the Soul"
Road of Life 37-54 Irna Phillips

Dr. Jim Brent deals with his pretty wife Jocelyn's rich but dysfunctional family, the Overton's. Jocelyn suffers from many rare and deadly diseases.

"The Story of a Starry Night"
Romance of Helen Trent, The 33-60 Ann & Frank Hummert 7200+ episodes, everything soap-opera is in Helen Trent Various "Songs Of Affection"
Romance of the Ranchos, The 41-42 Early California history dramatized with Frank Graham as the Wandering Vaquero Title Ins and Trust of LA
Rosemary 44-45 Elaine Sterne Carrington Secretary Rosemary falls in love with Bill; a war veteran with amnesia Proctor & Gamble: Ivory Soap "Rosemary Love Theme"
Scattergood Baines 35-49 Clarence Budington Kelland Hardware merchant offers wisdom to anyone who will feed him Various
Smiths of Hollywood 46-47 Smiths are a regular family with movie stars for neighbors Syndicated
Stella Dallas 37-55 Ann & Frank Hummert Considered the mother of all SoapOperas, Stella is falsely accused of stealing a mummy Sterling Drug "Memories" / "How Can I Leave Thee?"
Story of Aunt Mary, The 42? Lee and Virginia Crosby & Gil South Country life with Aunt Mary and her live-in neice: Unwed mothers & jealousy Various
Story of Mary Marlin, The 35-52

Mary's husband takes a seat in the US Senate. Mary has romantic adventures in Washington…

"Clair de Lune"
This Day is Ours 38-40 Eleanor McDonald's problems include her child being kidnapped, loses her memory, and must help a friend find a killer Crisco Shortening "Love For Today"
This is Nora Drake 47-59 Problem solver at heart, Nora gives advice on childrearing, home and social life Tony Home Permanents "This Is Nora Drake Theme"
This Life is Mine 43-45 Teacher Eden Channing and her family, revolving around life on the home front during WWII.
Today's Children 33-50 Irna Phillips

Phillips' replacement for Painted Dreams, Today's Children was the first network Soap…

"Tales From The Vienna Woods"
Valiant Lady 38-52 Ann & Frank Hummert Broadway Starlet gives it all up to care for stricken father, but dreams of more Gold Medal Flour, Wheaties, Cheerioats "Estrellita" (My Little Star)
Vic and Sade 32-46 Paul Ryhmer Quiet Midwestern Family having sweet, typical adventures "Oh, You Beautiful Doll" / "Shine On, Harvest Moon"
Vick's Romantic Bachelor 33 The Bachelor tells and sings of the Women who have won his affections Vick's Vapor Rub
Wendy Warren and the News 47-58 Lady Reporter Wendy Warren gives a daily newscast before launching into the daily story of her love life "My Home Town"
When a Girl Marries 39-51 Elaine Sterne Carrington

"A tender, human story of young married life", Husband's impoverished life is contrasted with his bride's high society life…

"Notturna D'Amore" [English title: Drigo's Serenade]
Whispering Streets 52-60 The next week's story will be told from a minor character's POV "Whispering Streets Theme"
Woman in my House, A 51-59 "Imperious Man, look in your heart and dwell on this, without the Woman in My House, what would I be?" Manhattan Soap
Woman in White 38-48 Irna Phillips

The first Soap to be centered on the inner workings of a Hospital…

"Interlude, An"
Woman of America 43-45 Pioneer Prudence Dane crosses the Old West in a covered wagon in this allegory for the struggles of WWII Ivory Snow "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
Young Doctor Malone 39-60 The town of Three Oaks has it all: jealousy, romance, crippling disease, death & marriage General Foods "Alexander's Ragtime Band"
Young Widder Brown 38-56 Ann & Frank Hummert Smalltown full of lies and deceit has all of the ingredients of a Hummert Soap Sterling Drugs, Gillette "In The Gloaming" / "Wonderful One"
Your Family and Mine 38-40 Lillian Laugerty The hopes and fears, loves and triumphs of the Wilbur Family Sealtest "Look For The Silver Lining"

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