radio

The World Of The Soap Opera

From the 1930s through the 1950s, daytime radio offered millions of listeners the opportunity to escape their ordinary lives and enter the world of romance and action that was the realm of soap operas. In their real existences, housewives went predictably about the business of homemaking. They reared children, prepared meals, cleaned house, shopped, and kept home and family as harmonious as possible. There were, of course, occasional interruptions in this lifestyle as deaths, accidents, illnesses, and financial crises occurred. And during World War II, the exigencies of combat temporarily brought many housewives into essential industries as laborers. Such developments, however, were infrequent; and relative to the decades of normalcy, they were unique experiences. As an antidote to the day-to-day routine of many housewives, it was the soap operas which regularly invited listeners to escape their personal existences and share the intense and varied emotions of the fictional radio characters.

The realm created by the soaps was filled with strong doses of agony, hatred, suspense, love, and tribulation. By following the plots of several serials simultaneously, listeners encountered stimulating fantasies they could incorporate into their own ordinary realities. Thus, the soap operas proffered worlds of action where a wide range of human and social developments—murder, marriage, birth, death, love affairs, accidents, divorces, and disease—could be vicariously experienced through regular listening.

Alice Reinheart, who through two decades portrayed several soap opera heroines, has suggested that such emotional extremism resulted from the fact that life was exaggerated in the daytime serials. A soap opera, she remarked, "mirrored the problems in concave mirrors, in mirrors that blew them up out of all proportion. It mirrored the regular, everyday problems that any marriage goes through—but it exaggerated them." The heroes and heroines of the soaps moved emotionally between the poles of joy and despair. No one better captured the essence of these extremes than did Kay Fairchild, the central character of Stepmother, when in the episode of July 22, 1940, she remarked:

All we can be sure of is that nothing is sure. And that tomorrow won't be like today. Our lives move in cycles—sometimes that's a good thing to remember, sometimes bad. We're down in a dark valley that allows us to hope, and to be almost sure that we'll come out after a while on top of a hill. But, we have to remember, too, that beyond every hill, there's another valley.

Uncertainty and anguish were often built directly into the structure of a soap opera. In many instances, it was the result of a marriage of an average woman to a man of wealth and power. Of course, this dramatic device allowed audiences to fantasize about the luxury that came with affluence. But the serials were always careful not to glamorize excessively the wealthy new surroundings in which such characters operated. While Lora Lawton was called "the story of what it means to be the wife of one of the richest, most attractive men in all America," it also warned listeners that the series was the "story of love and riches in a world so many dreamed of, but where so few dreams come true." When the announcer on Our Gal Sunday repeated his daily question—"Can this girl from a little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?"—most listeners felt that happiness was possible, but that it would be painful to achieve. The same uncertainty surrounded Rich Man's Darling which in 1935 related the story of an attractive newspaper reporter who at age twenty had married a millionaire aged forty-five. One soap opera, Linda's First Love, went so far with this theme that in 1937 it offered wrist watches as prizes to those letters which best told why Linda, a poor girl, should marry either the rich boy or the poor boy in the story.

Many other serials had suffering integrally built into their foundations. The Strange Romance of Evelyn Winters was the story of a successful Broadway playwright, mustered out of the Army with a medical discharge, who found himself the guardian, and eventually the sweetheart, of the attractive twenty-year-old daughter of his former colonel who had been killed in action. John's Other Wife, which premiered in 1936 and lasted for six years, was based on the motion picture Wife vs. Secretary, and related the jealousy of John's spouse toward his secretary. Later, however, it evolved into "the story of the happiness and the heartaches of a second marriage." And the harrowing struggle to find success in show business was the theme of several soaps including Myrt and Marge, Broadway Cinderella, and Mary of the Movies.

Despite the pain and turmoil, the potential for finding happiness was always present. Even the titles of several soaps suggested that "life can be beautiful," that one had "the right to happiness," and that there was always a "bright horizon" along "the road of life." In one of the more striking testimonies to the power of positive thinking, the opening lines to Woman of Courage proclaimed it to be "the moving story of a wife and mother who is unafraid because she knows if you believe, you can win—nothing in life can defeat you—and that what is right will be." Altruistically, Dr. Paul was always introduced warmly as "radio's wonderful story of love and service to humanity."

Related to the theme of happiness in daytime serials was the confession of one writer that at the basis of his successful soaps was the so-called "Cinderella story." According to Robert Hardy Andrews, the author of such series as Betty and Bob, Just Plain Bill, and Judy and Jane, "Cinderella is the spirit of make-believe. She is the princess of dreams-come-true." In an interview published in 1935, Andrews explained further the integration of wished-for happiness into his stories.

She represents what every man, woman, and child, deep down in their hearts, really want.... Cinderella represents life as people would like to see it lived. In her never-ending story, justice overcomes cruelty and injustice, riches supplant poverty, virtue is rewarded, and romance comes to complete the dream.

Nowhere was this happiness more apparent than in the plots of the soaps. Regardless of the pain, there were wholesome love affairs, marriages, births, business successes, recoveries from illnesses, worthwhile children, and personal triumphs. As morose as they might be at times, soap operas could also generate moments of joy, as when Sylvia Field brought home her baby in 1943 on When a Girl Marries and boastfully declared, "It feels simply super colossal! As if you'd accomplished the most important thing in the world!" Although Chichi Conrad cried throughout the sad times on Life Can Be Beautiful, she also shed many tears of happiness over the loving warmth of Papa David Solomon who ran the Slightly Read Book Shop, her husband, Stephen Hamilton, and their infant child.

And in 1941, when wealthy Carter Trent proclaimed his love for "commoner" Peggy Young of Pepper Young's Family, it was in the most affirmative terms: "I love you more, darling, and I expect to go on loving you more every time I see you. Every time I'm near you, it's, well, it's just going to mount and mount until I don't know where it'll end. I guess nobody will ever have loved anybody as much as I love you." In thousands of such moments during the history of the soaps, listeners found that after all the anxiety, love and tenderness made life worth enduring.

If tender moments justified existence in the soaps, it was the institution of the family in which such loving experiences were most successfully achieved. Many serials revolved totally around the activities of members of a family. Irish-American families were spotlighted in series such as Today's Children, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, and The O'Neills. Jewish-American families were the focus of The Goldbergs and The Foxes of Flatbush. Strong, but fatherless families appeared in Ma Perkins, Manhattan Mother, and Young Widder Brown. And a motherless family flourished in Bachelor's Children.

There were large and small families, wealthy and poor ones, some that lived with knowing anguish, while others existed calmly and confidently. Some families, such as Pepper Young's household, grew up, married, and had children during the life of the serial. Others encountered death in the soaps, such as when Chichi's husband and baby died in the mid-1940s.

But, whatever the condition or the evolution of the serial family, it always remained what one character in The Carters of Elm Street termed "the magic ring of happiness and home." Soap opera characters struggled through their fictional lives to realize this social balance. The heroine of Stella Dallas spent her radio life acting out of "mother-love and sacrifice" to see that her married daughter had happiness. And Linda Young on Pepper Young's Family lived in shame and depression throughout the 1950s because she could not bear another child to replace the one lost earlier in a hospital fire. Yet, no one better summarized the idealized significance of the family as a social unit than did Carleton Morse whose One Man's Family was a domestic serial broadcast in the evening for more than twenty years, and as a daytime soap opera for five years. His was one of the programs which most glorified the American family. Although the following excerpt was broadcast on April 27, 1947, when One Man's Family was still an evening program, Morse's pristine evaluation of the family remained consistent throughout the life of the program. Conversing with his son, Morse's leading character, Henry Barbour, said of the family:

Father: The American home is the backbone of this nation. The American family is the life blood of the American democracy, the seed of our way of life. If we let that seed die, if we kill the divine spark, then we've killed America.
Son: Well, when you come to think of it, that's one of the first things Hitler did in Germany: broke up families, made a mockery of marriage and home ties, put a prize on license and illegitimacy....
Father: Is it any wonder that we've made the home and the family our theme for fifteen years? ... We are dedicated to it and rededicated to it, world without end. Amen.

Soap operas were a seductive and significant dimension of American life for two generations. Listeners strongly identified with the characters. When Ma Perkins or Lora Lawton offered premiums for a box top or two of the sponsors' product, tens of thousands of replies followed. When a character was married or gave birth in the story, listeners sent cards and gifts. Helen Mencken, who played the operator of a sewing shop in Second Husband, even received a sewing machine when in the story the woman she portrayed moved from Montana to New York to set up a new store. The latest developments in story lines became points of conversation between neighbors, and occasionally thousands of fans even sent letters of protest to actors, networks, and advertising agencies when they disapproved of the direction in which serial characters were headed.

Ultimately, soaps were successful because the world they created was relevant and important to their audiences. Although many advertising agencies might have argued differently, the serials were not simply forms of advertising, as important to selling the sponsors' wares as were the commercials. Instead, they represented stylized glimpses into the dramatic potentials of social living. They were insights into middle-class lifestyles in which the humdrum and the extraneous were removed, and the essential retained. Traditional, critical, and defensive in their moral view of life and society, soap operas were educative models which, in the American commercial democracy, disseminated the conservative message necessary for a society to stay together.

The serials, therefore, were products of a bourgeois culture wherein citizens learned of critical values, of themselves, and of their fellow citizens. The premise of all soaps was the commonness of the American experience—what was described in one episode of Betty and Bob as "the same emotions, the same passions, the same hatreds, the same love, the same prejudices [that] stir men and women everywhere." The daytime serials were ritualistic dramas wherein fictional characters met and overcame adversity, while identifying listeners learned better to comprehend themselves, their cultural standards, and the community of the nation.

 

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