The Actress Who Became Ma Perkins
by Cort Vitty. © 2014
(From Radio Recall, February 2015)
The on-air light flickered and the studio went dim. The Ma Perkins Thanksgiving broadcast on November 25, 1960, concluded a radio run lasting twenty seven years and three months. CBS chose the traditional start of the Christmas season to close out the last of the radio network "soaps." The genre moved to television during the previous decade and executives planned to devote the radio network completely to news and talk.
Ma Perkins originally debuted on station WLW in Cincinnati on August 14, 1933. The story revolved around the widowed matriarch of a family living in the fictional town of Rushville Center. Although busy running a successful lumber business, Ma always found time to dispense thoughtful doses of wisdom-laced philosophy to family, friends and neighbors. An early description of wise-old Ma was "a shrewd combination of Tugboat Annie and David Harum."
Actress Virginia Payne, born in Cincinnati on June 19, 1910, nurtured and grew the title role from beginning to end. She was the oldest child of Dr. John and Nannie Payne; her sister Adele and brother John rounded out the staunch Irish-Catholic family. Virginia's parents inspired a legacy of civic and social service in their children; this philosophy underscored Virginia's future work for cultural causes and projects developed to help young people.
Soon after Virginia learned to speak, her mother taught her to memorize poetry. By the age of six, she was reciting poems in front of club and church audiences. High school at Cedar Grove Academy included a strong music curriculum. Virginia also studied at the reputable Schuster-Martin School of drama, where her teacher, Mrs. Patia Power commented: "We realized that she could act with rare ability and feeling." Future matinee idol Tyrone Power was Virginia's classmate and the son of Mrs. Power.
Virginia earned a B.A. degree from the University of Cincinnati. She apprenticed at the prestigious Stuart Walker stock company. Piano and voice were studied at the Cincinnati College of Music, as she pursued her M.A. degree.
Her collective studies provided Virginia with a solid working knowledge of theatre and music. Cincinnati radio staff on WLW debuted in 1922 and regularly invited students to audition for early parts. At age 15, Virginia successfully became an unpaid station intern, gaining valuable experience. She quickly was recognized as capable of handling any part, with the ability to improvise script on the air.
An early role as an Indian maiden for a Thanksgiving play, led to the starring role in the early mystery serial A Step on the Stairs, broadcast on WLW Cincinnati, KYW Chicago and KDKA Pittsburgh. A Step on the Stairs was directed by Helen Rose.
Virginia recalled to author Frances Kish: "I thought then, as I do now, that she was an amazing person, with great ingenuity and invention, who could function in any capacity. She would cast and direct the play, work out all of the sound effects (we actors did them ourselves), and she could handle anything and everything. Working with her was wonderful training for me."
The cast was not paid, but received a small stipend to cover cab fare. This practice inspired on-air performers to jokingly refer to the call letters WLW as standing for "world's lowest wages."
Performing a series of Sunday opera stories. Virginia used a different voice each week, making it appear the station had a large entourage of actresses. The series led to her first actual paying job, as the speaking voice of Honey Adams, a radio heroine with a decidedly southern accent. More than forty actresses, with authentic accents auditioned for the part; Virginia won the role; Jane Froman handled Honey's singing voice on the program.
Virginia's father had reservations about the whole acting business. She recalled his wry comment the first time he helped fill out her income tax form: "I guess I'll have to put actress down as your occupation." After she gained success in radio, her dad lamented: "I used to be known as Virginia's father, now she's known as my daughter."
It was from her dad that Virginia learned a tireless work ethic; based on the way he helped people all hours of the day and night. Virginia recalled: "Sometimes when people remark that Ma Perkins is just too good to be true. I think immediately of my father and know the criticism is not valid."
During the summer 1933, Virginia heard about auditions for a new daytime serial on WLW, called Ma Perkins. She was the fifth actress selected to read for the part and after finishing was asked to remain in the studio. She waited, while auditions continued all afternoon; Virginia ultimately learned she had been chosen for the part.
After the excitement wore off, producers actually had a hard time convincing her to accept the role. Virginia was slightly built and only twenty-three years old. How could she possibly handle the role of grandmotherly Ma Perkins? After sharing misgivings with her mom, Virginia accepted the role and confided years later that she really didn't think the show would make it past the original 16-week contract period. In reality, it turned out to be a career move.
Proctor & Gamble's Oxydol soap detergent sponsored the show. Actor Charles Egelston portrayed Ma's business partner Shuffle Shuber and would remain in the role until his passing in 1958. Murray Forbes was added as Ma's son-in-law Willie Fritz, a few weeks after the premiere; like Virginia, he'd remain with the cast until the series ended.
Payne's P&G contract stipulated that her true identity (and age) were never to be revealed. Standing just over five-feet tall, with an expressive young face, framed by blond hair and blue-gray eyes, Virginia's wardrobe for all personal appearances became a "gray wig, steel-rimmed glasses, low-healed oxfords and two dresses - one for winter, the other for summer."
Performing early scripts, Payne proactively helped mold Ma's character. Thinking Ma's words were a bit harsh and didn't match the kind-hearted disposition possessed by the family matriarch; "Virginia reminded herself that listeners could not see the twinkle in mom's eye or the curled smile on her lips, so she improvised voice infection to add a warmer personality to the character."
Virginia had a rich natural speaking voice, utilizing perfect grammar to punctuate a beautiful tone. She added inflection and tone to make Ma's voice "older, flatter and more matter-of-fact." Ma generally invented phrases, used less than perfect grammar - and a favorite saying was "land sakes."
After an early broadcast, a stranger waited patiently outside the studio to see her. Payne recalled liking the woman very much, while patiently listening to her encouraging words: "I have been in vaudeville and radio all of my life and I wanted to tell you that in your Ma Perkins characterization, you have a fortune in your pocket. Don't ever let anyone change anything about her." Virginia later learned the compliments came from Marian Jordan, the famous star of Fibber McGee and Molly.
Audience response to the show was tremendous. P&G executives decided to move the show to Chicago, allowing Ma to dish out her levelheaded advice to a much larger network audience. Young Virginia left home for the first time and established residence in the "windy-city."
The NBC network show premiered December 4, 1933. Payne took advantage of the relocation to continue her career studies at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. Here, she also became interested in the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA) and started to serve locally in the organization she'd one day lead as national president.
Virginia and her strong work ethic nearly missed a performance in February 1942. On a wintery evening, she suffered a broken ankle after slipping on an icy sidewalk. Rushed to the hospital, the ankle wasn't set until after midnight and the throbbing pain resulted in a sleepless night. The weary actress hobbled on crutches into the studio the next day. She didn't know it at the time, but toughing out that injury would keep her streak of consecutive shows intact.
High ratings, plus the national prestige of simultaneously being on two networks, warranted a late 1940s move to New York. Virginia rented a spacious apartment, in a posh Upper East Side mansion. In addition to Ma Perkins, the busy actress was featured on: The Carters of Elm St; the Light of the World; Lonely Women; Today's Children; Mama & Papa Schultz, Cloak & Dagger and Silver Theatre. The intense workload kept her busy enough to earn a salary estimated to be in excess of $50,000 a year.
She built a five-room vacation cottage in Ogunquit, Maine and maintained large gardens at both residences. She was partial to roses and the American Rose Growers Association honored her (and her character) by naming one hybrid variety the "Virginia Payne," while a second was christened the "Ma Perkins."
Virginia employed Addie as her full-time housekeeper. Addie started out as a fan of the show and remained one while in Virginia's employ. She referred to Miss Payne as "a treasure" and noted that the entire cast "just seemed like real people." Addie commented: "I say if everyone were like Ma Perkins and Miss Payne, there would be no more trouble in the world."
Virginia's reputation as a true professional meant handling any tough situation. However during one broadcast, Virginia indeed had difficulty remaining composed. When WLW celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1952, Virginia returned with Charles Egelston (Shuffle Shober) to re-broadcast the very first installment of Ma Perkins. "So touched was Virginia by memories that crowded her heart, she had difficulty keeping Ma's voice to its usual calm level."
In addition to being a talented actress, Virginia was an astute businesswoman; she understood ratings points and certainly noticed the flight of the radio soap opera genre to television. Proctor & Gamble had given up sole sponsorship of the show in 1956; by the end of the decade she knew the handwriting was on the wait.
The Thanksgiving broadcast in 1960 was selected by management as a safe date to conclude Ma Perkins, since listeners would undoubtedly be shopping and might not even notice; in reality the station was deluged with calls of protest.
Payne never missed a performance and concluded the last broadcast with a heartfelt: "I give thanks that I've been given this gift of life, this gift of time to play my little part in it." The closing theme played and Virginia uncharacteristically stepped out of her role to utter the following: "This was our 7,065 broadcast. I first came to you on December 4, 1933. Thank you for being so loyal to us these 27 years. Ma Perkins has always been played by me, Virginia Payne. Good-by and may God bless you."
Author Jim Cox noted: "Switchboards lit up like a Christmas tree when devoted listeners discovered Ma, her family and the residents of Rushville Center were no more."
Without missing a beat, the veteran actress immediately turned to live theatre in major cities across the country and even enjoyed a stint on Broadway, delighting her old fans and illustrating her versatility.
Her last stage appearance was in Cincinnati during the Christmas season of 1976. Virginia Payne, the woman who developed the role and became the heart and soul of radio legend Ma Perkins, passed away in Cincinnati on February 10, 1977. She (along with Ma Perkins) was elected to the Radio Hall-of-Fame in 1988.
Barron Mark, Rocky Mount Evening Telegram, June 20, 1952.
Calta Louis, "Obituary," New York Times, February 12, 1977.
Cox Jim, The Great Radio Soap Operas, McFarland, 1999.
Kish Frances, "Cincinnati's Ma Perkins," TV-Radio Mirror, April 1957.
Louelof, Jorie, "Saga of Ma Perkins," Ada (Okla.) Evening News, April, 4 1965
"Plays Two Roles," Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1938.
"She's Southerner From Ohio," Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1936.
"Dialogs" Ironwood Times, February 4, 1942.
"Saga of Ma Perkins," Cumberland Maryland Times News, April 24, 1965.