This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
Click here to return to the index of selected articles.
HISTORICAL DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN RADIO SOAP OPERAS
By Jim Cox
Scarecrow Press, 2005, 292 pp. ($ 70)
Reviewed by Maury Cagle
(From Radio Recall, April 2006)
In 1934, 1000 housewives were asked to name their four most essential appliances, in order of usefulness. The answers were: iron, radio, vacuum cleaner, and refrigerator. For decades, women listened to the radio while utilizing the other three appliances. What most of them listened to were the daily dramatic serials, termed “soap operas” by journalists, because many of them were sponsored by makers of soap and other household cleaners. Rinso had “Big Sister,” and one of the longest-lasting was touted as “Oxydol’s own Ma Perkins.”
MWOTRC member Jim Cox’s latest book takes an informative and entertaining look into the economic and cultural powerhouse of the soap opera, with many interesting statistics and sidelights.
Just what was a soap opera? One of the better descriptions came from none other than James Thurber, who wrote in 1948:
“A soap opera is a kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.”
And serve it they did. In the 1940’s, one estimate is that there were 70 soap operas broadcast every day. In 1941, 90% of sponsored network programming during the day was soap operas. In 1948, of the top 30 programs on radio, 25 were soaps, including the top ten.
As James Thurber noted, it took a few years for the soap opera formula to jell. One story of the beginning goes back to 1923, when New York announcer Norman Brokenshire was forced to fill in when all of his guests failed to arrive on time for a variety show. He read from a book of short stories until they arrived. The station got hundreds of phone calls in the next few days, asking to hear the end of the story, proving the power of drama by installment.
Most historians agree that the first bona fide soap opera was “Painted Dreams,” which began in October 1930 in Chicago. It was the creative effort of Irna Phillips, who developed 18 dramas, first on radio and then on television. She was one of the Big Three who helped the soap opera dominate daytime broadcasting. The others were Elaine Sterne Carrington, and the team of Frank and Anne Hummert. Together, these led the field for three decades.
Cox has divided the main shows into ten plot schemes, such as #1: “The woman who struggles to maintain orderliness and provide for her brood against imposing odds (such as a worthless or absent spouse, crushing economic blows, and/or out-of-control adolescent offspring).”
But he notes that not all daytime serials were misery-based, citing programs such as “Vic and Sade,” “Lorenzo Jones,” and “Ethel and Albert.”
The heart of the book (238 pages) is the dictionary of over 500 entries, which lists the serials, the key people (writers, producers, actors) involved, organizations (sponsors, networks) and key themes.
While this is a dictionary, it is a very readable book, with a lot of fascinating information arranged in accessible fashion. The result is a book that would be of interest to any OTR fan, not just those who want to research soap operas.
Reading this book is like trying to eat one peanut. You enter it to look up one show and end up looking up all the soaps you remember, such as ‘Life Can Be Beautiful,” and “Young Widder Brown,” and “When a Girl Marries.”
I just have one question: when does Jim Cox eat or sleep? This is his twelfth book, and the eighth on radio.