Monday, July 31, 2006

Real Life and True-to-Life: Assurances of Authenticity in Radio Soap Operas
Old-time radio soap operas are probably best remembered today for their dramatic and sometimes sensational plots. Another important reason for the popularity and longevity of these domestic daytime serials, however, was their substantial and frequently explicit identification with the world and circumstances of their listeners. The stated themes and signature openings of many of these programs give assurance that the content will reflect "real life" or will be "true-to-life."
One popular soap, Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories, embodies this concept in its very title. Significantly, the show was known as Aunt Jenny's True Life Stories for a large portion of its existence.
The opening to Just Plain Bill describes it as "the real life story of a man who might be your own next door neighbor and of people just like people we all know." We are similarly informed that "Pepper Young's Family is the true-to-life story of your friends, the Youngs." Long-running David Harum was billed as "the true-to-life story of David Harum. . . ." Other soaps whose signature openings contain the phrase "real life" or "true-to-life" are Stella Dallas, Stepmother, and Linda's First Love.
Some series, though less explicitly so, make similar claims to a fidelity to everyday life. The beginning of Lorenzo Jones states that "we all know couples like" Lorenzo and his wife Belle. "Their struggle for security is anybody's story." Life Can Be Beautiful, we are told, "is an inspiring message of faith drawn from life."
Another group of radio soaps making an obvious identification with the large daytime audience of stay-at-home mothers are those prominently featuring motherhood itself. Thus Stella Dallas is "the true-to-life story of mother love and sacrifice." Young Widder Brown is "the story of the age-old conflict between a mother's duty and a woman's heart." The aforementioned Stepmother asks the question, "can a stepmother successfully raise another woman's children?"
It seems that the deliberate blending of the dramatic and the down-to-earth, which is far more characteristic of soap operas than of any other radio genre, contributed to the tremendous popularity that soaps experienced for so long. The audience enjoyed all the emotional upheavals, but liked them when tempered with authenticity (the "real life" and the "true-to-life" elements), and when at least sometimes they involved "people just like people we all know."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Old-Time Radio's Complete Day
One of the best collector's items from radio's past is the entire broadcast day aired over station WJSV, Washington, D.C. on Thursday, September 21, 1939. Beginning with the sign-on and Arthur Godfrey's Sundial program at 6:30 a.m., it concludes with the sign-off at 1 a.m. Friday following a remote broadcast of the Bob Chester Orchestra "playing for dancers in the Mayfair Restaurant of Hotel Van Cleve in Dayton, Ohio."
The content has been marketed under various titles and in different formats. My own copy, which I found in a Borders Books and Music store early in 2001, is a nicely boxed set of a dozen C-90 cassette tapes put out by a company called America Before TV and entitled September 21, 1939: A Day from the Golden Age of Radio.
During the program Sunshine Report, which aired at 1 p.m. and is included, announcer Hugh Conover noted that a recording of all that date's WJSV transmissions would be placed in the National Archives because of the historical significance of an address by President Roosevelt to a joint session of Congress. What was to become World War II had broken out in Europe early that month, and Roosevelt was proposing a change in our policy towards the combatants. Because the entire broadcast day was taped, not only the president's speech and other war-related programming has been preserved, but a great deal more as well. Every program, commercial, bulletin, announcement, promo and station break has survived for posterity. In fact, it is the unabridged, unedited, all-inclusive nature of this material that makes it so fascinating and helps it serve as an extraordinary source of social and cultural history.
Nothing illustrates this better than Sundial with Arthur Godfrey, which begins the day's programming and runs for two hours, from 6:30 to 8:30. To be sure, there are plenty of war-related items (the French have completed their general mobilization; there has been an unconfirmed report of an uprising in the Czech provinces of Moravia and Bohemia against Nazi Germany, etc.). But then there is Arthur chatting, whistling, humming, passing on birthday and anniversary greetings from his listeners to their loved ones, and doing local weather, news and announcements (today is the first day of fall; lost: a heart-shaped baby's locket in Petworth; found: a gold Bulova wrist watch; the Grainsville Methodist Church is hosting an ice cream social at 6 p.m. today; the jitterbug semifinals of the Harvest Moon Ball will be held tonight at ten o'clock at the Wardman-Park Hotel; tickets on sale for the amateur boxing carnival to be held at Griffith Stadium on October 11th; movie The Women opening tomorrow at Loew's Palace Theater; petition to improve Route 7-- Leesburg Pike-- "the same old road that George Washington laid out").
He also plays numerous musical recordings, such as "Sunbonnet Sue" by Bing Crosby; "The Merry Old Land of Oz" by Frankie Masters; and The Foursome's version of "There'll Be Some Changes Made." And, of course, a slew of commercials. Pepsi-Cola: five cents for a twelve-ounce bottle, carton of six for twenty-five cents. Arthur on Pepsi: "Serve it to the kids when they come home from school. It won't hurt 'em. It's good for them." Zlotnik the Furrier, "at the sign of the big white bear, 12th and G Northwest." For sale, a 1938 Chevrolet Master Deluxe Town Sedan, $575-- at Coast-In Pontiac, in the 400 block of Florida Avenue Northwest. Bond Clothiers offers hand-stitched men's suits for $25-to-$35, two pair of trousers with every suit. Liggetts has a special on fudge cake with ice cream, ten cents. Penn-Daw Hotel on the Richmond Highway: "serving breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Hearing these two hours gives a vivid and unforgettable impression of how people lived almost seventy years ago. They were aware of the war in Europe and increasingly worried about it, but still hopeful that we could stay out of it. We get a sense of what they drove, how they dressed, what they ate and drank, and what all of that cost. We hear the same popular music that they listened to. We are reminded that, indeed, some things don't change much. Birthdays and anniversaries meant a lot to them as they do to us. Churches were social centers then as now, and people liked to dance and attend sporting events.
Most of the remaining morning and most of the afternoon are taken up with newscasts, the presidential address and reactions to it, and episodes of seventeen soap operas. Interspersed with these are such local programs as Certified Magic Carpet, a quiz show; Mary Lee Taylor (cooking); Jean Abbey, essentially a fifteen-minute commercial which advertises items of interest to women (corsets, panties, fabrics, perfume, face cream, towels, wool blankets, a Sunbeam Mixmaster, etc.) at different D.C. department stores; a baseball game between the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Senators; The World Dances, "a program of dancing tunes played by top-ranking radio orchestras"; and Sports Review with Harry McTag.
Amos 'n' Andy airs at 6 p.m., and is followed by a variety of programs including The Parker Family, an early sitcom; Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour ("On this opening day of autumn we spin our weekly wheel of fortune for the 236th consecutive time"); The Columbia Workshop, presenting a play entitled "Now It's Summer"; and Americans at Work, which tonight interviews five auctioneers, one each from the fields of livestock, furs, art, eggs and real estate (there are eight thousand horses in greater New York, and sixteen million in the country; New York prefers white eggs to brown, while Boston is just the opposite). Ninety minutes of band remotes precedes the sign-off.
To the best of my knowledge, this preservation of a station's entire broadcast day is unique among all the relics of old-time radio. It is a time machine which transports us to a bygone era and lets us experience it for ourselves.
I am not sure whether this item is still available packaged as it was when I bought it. However, at least a couple of internet dealers do have it. Try ATG Enterprises ( On the home page, select "Complete Sets" and scroll down to "WJSV Complete Broadcast Day." Also look at Select "WWII" at the top of the home page and scroll down to "Complete Broadcast Day, Sept. 21, 1939." There you can also view a schedule of all programs aired on WJSV that day. Please note that ATG's items play on a standard CD player, while OTRCAT's usual format is MP3 CD.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Radio Soap Opera Quiz
This will test your knowledge of OTR domestic daytime dramas. The degree of difficulty, while not intended to be severe, generally increases as the list progresses.
1. In the soap Just Plain Bill, what is Bill Davidson's occupation?
2. One of the most popular radio soaps of all time features a heroine who "sets out to prove . . . that because a woman is thirty-five, or more, romance in life need not be over." What is it called?
3. Only one of the radio soaps which made the transition to a television soap is still on the air today. Can you name it?
4. What famous soap features "a sweet young girl from Iowa" who marries an actor called the "matinee idol of a million other women"?
5. What soap asks the question, "can this girl from a little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?"
6. In which soap does Dr. Jim Brent work at the Theodore Wheelock Memorial Sanitarium in Merrimac?
7. Ma Perkins was the mother of two girls and a boy. Her son died young. How did he die?
8. The soap Joyce Jordan, M.D. evolved into another famous soap whose principal characters are the Reverend Richard Dennis and his daughter Liz. Can you name it?
9. What real-life big city provides the setting for the soap Stella Dallas?
10. What is the significance of the date November 25, 1960?
1. Bill was a barber, famously known as "the barber of Hartville."
2. The Romance of Helen Trent.
3. The Guiding Light.
4. Backstage Wife.
5. Our Gal Sunday.
6. Road of Life.
7. Ma's son John was a soldier killed in action in World War II.
8. The Brighter Day.
9. Boston.
10. That was "the day the radio soap operas died." The few remaining soaps (such as The Right to Happiness, The Second Mrs. Burton, Young Dr. Malone and Ma Perkins) all broadcast their final episode on that date.

Monday, July 17, 2006

An Uncataloged Episode of The Brighter Day
Surviving episodes of The Brighter Day, one of the best old-time radio soap operas, are unfortunately rare. Reel 763 of the SPERDVAC General Library contains an episode which is not listed in the catalog entry for that reel (p. 109) and which I have not encountered elsewhere.
It is on Side 1 of the reel, following Just Plain Bill and preceding The Fred Waring Show, both of which are listed. The sound quality is excellent. The reel itself is available on C-60 cassette tapes which can be borrowed from the SPERDVAC library by members.
As for the story line, it is set in the spring and deals amusingly with fifteen-year-old Patsy's stirrings of adolescent sexuality. The brilliant Patsy is inclined to lead a life of the mind, but she has learned that Otis J. Hopkins is planning to ask her to the junior prom!