Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Employment Patterns in Old-Time Radio Soap Operas
In several previous postings, I have examined the claim made by numerous radio soap operas of being "true-to-life" or of presenting "real life" characters and details. See "Real Life and True-to-Life: Assurances of Authenticity in Radio Soap Operas"; "Buildings, Businesses and Public Places in Old-Time Radio Soap Operas"; and "The House in Rosehaven." This article will take a look at how mostly major characters in these daytime serials were employed, and whether the occupations depicted seem representative of those held by the work force of the era of old-time radio.
While soap opera characters held a wide variety of jobs, the largest concentrations were in four areas: health care workers, members of the legal profession, people associated with the stage and screen, and business owners. At least four shows feature doctors as title characters, these being Young Dr. Malone, The Life and Love of Dr. Susan, Dr. Paul and Joyce Jordan, M.D. Bob Graham in Bachelor's Children and Jim Brent in Road of Life are physicians, as are Ruth Wayne's husband John in Big Sister and Joan Scott's husband Tubby in Valiant Lady. Eileen Holmes (The Woman in White) and Nora Drake (This is Nora Drake) are nurses.
Lawyers are also in plentiful supply. Although Portia Blake (Portia Faces Life) is the only female attorney of great importance that I am aware of, Harry Davis is the male lead in When a Girl Marries as is Michael West in Bright Horizon. Lawyer Jim Curtis is married to Brenda in Brenda Curtis, Stephen Hamilton eventually becomes Chichi's husband in Life Can Be Beautiful, and David Post is engaged to Mary in The Story of Mary Marlin.
Vocations associated with the stage and screen are popular in old-time radio soaps. Larry Noble (Backstage Wife) is a Broadway matinee idol, and we learn that Brenda Curtis has acted professionally in the past. Alice Blair (The Career of Alice Blair) is a Hollywood actress, and Kitty Kelly (Pretty Kitty Kelly) is connected with the New York stage. The leading male character in The Strange Romance of Evelyn Winters is playwright Gary Bennett. Myrt and Marge (The Story of Myrt and Marge) are chorus girls in New York, while Helen Trent (The Romance of Helen Trent) has an office at the Jeff Brady Motion Picture Studio in Hollywood at one point, and is chief gown designer for Parafilm Studios at another.
Myrt and Marge as well as Helen Trent can also be included among characters with an entrepreneurial spirit. The two members of the Chic-Chicks launch the Myr-Mar Theater Project and begin producing stage presentations. Helen tries her hand as a partner in an exclusive Hollywood dress shop. Other characters with a proprietary bent are Bill Davidson (Just Plain Bill), who operates a barbershop in Hartville; Papa David Solomon (Life Can Be Beautiful), owner of The Slightly Read Bookshop; Ellen Brown, who runs a tearoom in Simpsonville (Young Widder Brown); Lorenzo the inventor in Lorenzo Jones; and Ma Perkins, partner in a lumberyard in Rushville Center. Wealthy Peter Carver, Lora's husband (Lora Lawton) is a magnate at the head of the Carver Shipbuilding Company. Lora herself owns a photographic studio.
Many other occupations are represented among the radio soaps, though less liberally than those mentioned thus far. The professions give us, for example, a man of the cloth in the person of the Reverend Richard Dennis (The Brighter Day). Bess Johnson (and later Julie Erickson) is a social worker, head matron of the orphanage which lends its name to the soap Hilltop House. Higher learning is not neglected: Eric Hansen (The Open Door) is Dean of Students at mythical Vernon University in the town of Jefferson; and Jason McKinley Allen (Against the Storm) is a professor at Harper College in Hawthorne. Timothy Story, Midge Conway's illicit love in Midstream, is an archaeologist. Wendy Warren (Wendy Warren and the News) and David Farrell (Front Page Farrell) are both newspaper reporters, she for the Manhattan Gazette and he for the [New York] Daily Eagle. Gary Haven of We Are Always Young is a composer, although he is forced to drive a cab while he waits for success in his higher calling.
Political figures can be found in John Fairchild, mayor of Walnut Grove (Stepmother); and Mary Marlin, a United States Senator from Iowa (The Story of Mary Marlin). Working in the sales area are Ted White and Bill Bauer of The Guiding Light, both employed by the same advertising agency; and Sam Ryder of Bachelor's Children, who is an insurance agent. Finally, among rank and file employees, Carol Brent (Road of Life) works at the White Orchid Cosmetic Company; Joan Scott (Valiant Lady) for publisher T.R. Clark, whose offices are in the New York Tower; and Rosalind Marlowe as a secretary for Chase Associates in New York City (The World of Rosalind Marlowe).
So what conclusion can we reach about whether the occupations found in radio soap operas were a realistic reflection of the labor force of their times? Taken together these jobs may have been a little more glamorous than the daily chores of the stay-at-home mom who listened to the programs, but they were by no means foreign to her world or underrepresented in "real life," then as now. Significantly, there were no deep sea divers or truffle farmers, and nobody worked in a salt or a diamond mine.
Generally speaking, this is another area in which the soaps seem to have achieved their stated goal of giving a true-to-life portrayal of at least certain elements of the society from which they drew their inspiration.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The House in Rosehaven
Every radio soap opera created its own fictional world and attempted to make it vivid, familiar and accessible to listeners, a second home that they would want to visit every day. Since radio is strictly an auditory medium, the extent of perceived fullness and depth experienced by the listener relating to each of these worlds depended in large part on the generosity of details (or word pictures) provided about it.
Being "domestic daytime dramas," much of the content of soap operas necessarily centered on the hearth and home. So that is a place we might look in determining how abundant and distinctive the particulars of any given series proved to be. Doing so will also help us evaluate the claim many soaps made of being "true-to-life" and presenting "real life" situations.
I will focus primarily here on the series Backstage Wife, the story of Mary and Larry Noble. She was a "sweet young girl from Iowa," and he was a "famous broadway star." Their "modest home" in Rosehaven, Long Island was within commuting distance by personal car, taxi or train (all of which were used at times in various episodes) of Larry's work in New York City.
It might be best to begin by placing the Nobles' home in its larger context, especially the municipal and commercial part of the village of Rosehaven, which plays a role in many of the story lines. This part of Rosehaven is within walking distance of the Nobles' house, but far enough away that the characters almost always use other forms of transportation.
Among the businesses and services offered by Rosehaven are a bank, a post office, a filling station, a diner which is "just off the main street," a hairdressing establishment, a liquor store, a garage, a place to buy groceries and a taxi service. There is also "a small restaurant" called The Laurel Inn described as being located "some miles away" from the Nobles' home. It may or may not be within the village. All of the above figure in one or more episodes of the serial.
As for the house itself, a driveway leads up to it and terminates near the front door. Upon ringing the doorbell, guests are ushered into the entrance hall where there is a table, a telephone and a message pad, and a closet (in which, among other things, Larry's house slippers are kept).
The living room contains a fireplace, a sofa, a desk and chair, and probably more than one armchair (we are told at one point that Larry has his "own armchair"). This is the setting for many scenes and a favorite place for Mary to do her needlepoint or work in her mending basket. A front window in the room looks out onto the driveway, while on the back side of it French doors open onto a flagstone terrace.
Going upstairs for a moment, we find the home's four bedrooms. One belongs to Larry and Mary, who have separate beds. The room has blinds, and its own bathroom with a shower. Reference is made to a bedside light in at least one episode.
Their young son Larry, Jr. has his own room, but the only detail I have found about it is that it contains an extra bed which could be made available to a guest. A third bedroom is simply referred to as the "guest room." During one long story line that I am aware of, it is occupied by family friend Maud Marlowe, herself an actress. Finally there is another guest bedroom, this one located under the eaves. It is so closely associated with playwright and family friend Tom Bryson that Larry once refers to it as "your room" when talking to Tom, who on another occasion calls it "my special room under the eaves" in a conversation with Mary.
The house has a dining room, one entrance to which is through the pantry. Mary uses the pantry as a place to arrange cut flowers from her garden, keeping a number of vases there. She once tells Maud, when they are in the pantry together, that to make some lilacs last another day or two she will "cut the stems and bruise the ends and put them into water." The liquor supply also seems to be located there, as we have various adults repairing to the pantry for a sociable nip now and then.
The kitchen is another frequent setting, and we learn a lot about it. Specifically mentioned are a stove, a refrigerator, a table, shelves, a bread box, an electric toaster, a coffee pot, a juicer (apparently a manual one), serving trays and a butter dish. Mary and her friend Maud spend time together there, washing the dishes in one episode and just talking while Mary beats egg whites for a lemon pie in another.
The Nobles and their visitors and guests are often to be found "out back." I mentioned that French doors open from the living room to a flagstone terrace. Larry especially enjoys sunbathing there, lounging in one or another of the deck chairs placed in that location. An awning provides shade for part of the terrace, and at one side next to Mary's flower garden are a stone bench and a low stone wall.
The garden itself is Mary's delight. Armed with her gloves and garden shears and garden basket, she can be found among her lilacs and roses and peonies and irises and petunias. Now we see her "kneeling on a pad and gently crumbling the earth around a bed of sturdy seedlings," or weeding the petunias and preparing to transplant them, or nipping buds off a peony bush. She tells Larry, "you've got to disbud peony bushes to get the best flowers." You "nip off the little buds, leaving one bud to a stalk." A hedge separates the end of the garden from the property of the next-door neighbors.
It seems evident that no one would be likely to mistake the Nobles' house for any other domicile in the realm of radio soap operas. The images of it are too abundant and the details too distinctive. In its treatment of hearth and home, Backstage Wife deserves high marks for creating a place with which its listeners must have felt very familiar and comfortable.
Many other radio soap operas provide a wealth of domestic details. The home of Dr. Bob and Ruth Ann Graham in Bachelor's Children, for example, has a living room with a piano, and pictures on the walls; a dining room; a pantry where a ladder is kept; and a broom closet in the kitchen containing a broom, a dustpan and a carpet sweeper.
In an episode of The Right to Happiness, a woman is selling off some household possessions to raise money. These include a living room chair, a lamp, bric-a-brac, some dresses, and candlesticks from the mantle. A buyer also expresses interest in the family piano.
Probably the most memorable piece of furniture in any soap opera is the front porch swing in Ma Perkins. But we also learn that Ma has a flower garden (one episode mentions her dahlias); that the telephone is located in the parlor, which is adjacent to the kitchen; that Ma does her sewing in the living room, usually sitting in a rocking chair across from an "old Morris chair"; that the front door has a bell; and that the kitchen can be entered directly through an outside door.
A final word about radio soap operas and reality, in answer to those who see no connection between the two. Characters in these programs did not live in trees or in caves or on houseboats. They inhabited, for the most part, single-family dwellings (often two-story) with bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, closets, and sometimes a library or a pantry. Front porches and flower gardens were common. Conservatories, billiard rooms and wine cellars (as well as root cellars for that matter) were in short supply. As for household contents, seldom do we find anything more far-fetched than a lamp, a table, a telephone, an armchair, a piano, a dustpan or a butter dish. In their representation of how homes were built, laid out and furnished, many of these programs seem to have mirrored the middle class of their era quite faithfully.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Buildings, Businesses and Public Places in Old-Time Radio Soap Operas
In another posting on this blog, I have pointed out that old-time radio soap operas frequently purported to be "true-to-life" and to depict "real life" characters and situations. But were these claims justified? Did these programs, indeed, reflect the social and cultural realities of their day, or were they merely overblown fantasies constructed to divert bored housewives and bearing little relation to the everyday experience of their listeners?
One way of getting at the answer is to examine the ordinary details of life as they are actually presented in radio soaps. We can learn a lot about the world of these programs by looking at the communities their characters lived in and where they worked, how their homes were constructed and furnished, what their domestic chores and habits were, what they ate and drank, and what they did for recreation and in their leisure time. In this piece I will address the first of these-- where the characters resided, with particular emphasis on places their communities offered to work, shop, recreate and conduct personal and legal business.
So where did they live? Well, not on Mars or in the Land of Oz or in Timbuktu. Sometimes they inhabited real American cities like New York and Washington and Chicago and Hollywood; and more frequently fictitious places with names reflecting small town America then as now-- Springdale, Valleydale, Glendale, Elmwood, Walnut Grove, Three Oaks, Three Rivers, Riverfield and Wakefield to name a few.
The depiction of factual cities in the radio soap operas contains few surprises. Thus New York has an abundance of restaurants, theaters, office buildings and traffic. In Washington a character might live in a beautiful triplex penthouse apartment (Lora Lawton) or be invited to a lavish ball thrown by a member of the president's cabinet (The Story of Mary Marlin). A resident of Hollywood might visit an amusement park in nearby Venice and ride a roller coaster (The Career of Alice Blair).
We find a wealth of details about the fictional places which provide the settings for so many soaps. In a 1946 episode of Aunt Mary, a nursemaid has been wheeling a baby around the town square of Wakefield in a pram, and pauses to rest on a bench. She thinks to herself that Wakefield is "exactly how I'd expect a small town to look." She notices the brick courthouse, the main street with a corner drugstore, The Elite Cafe, and a hotel. Other broadcasts indicate that the Farmers Bank and the Calvert Real Estate and Loan Company are also on the square, and that a movie theater and the Wakefield Auto Court are within the city.
The description of Riverfield, home of Bright Horizon, rivals that of Wakefield in its attention to detail. Located near Emerald Lake, the city contains a newspaper (The Riverfield Morning Light), a city hall, a law office, a restaurant, a movie theater and Riverfield High School.
The unnamed city where Bachelor's Children takes place is not to be outdone. Its paper is The News Dispatch, and also within its confines are a hotel, a restaurant, a hospital, a church, a drugstore and a movie theater.
Rushville Center, where Ma Perkins is set, has a barber shop, a bank, a movie theater, a drugstore, a hospital, and of course the Perkins Lumber Yard. Nearby towns are also mentioned, which has the effect of putting Rushville Center in a larger context and thus making it more lifelike. Ma's business partner and friend Shuffle Shober lives in Middleborough, about fifty miles from Rushville Center and connected to it by a busline. The city of Fort William is home to a hotel, and to a newspaper read by residents of Rushville Center.
A railroad makes one of its stops in Littleton, location of Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories. The newspaper office of The Clarion is also found there, as is a law office, a rooming house, and St. Stephen's Church.
These descriptions in the radio soap operas of both big cities and small towns are perfectly consistent with our knowledge about the realities of the era. In this respect, there seems to be validity to the soaps' claims of having "true-to-life" elements within them.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

September 21, 1939 Soap Opera Broadcasts on WJSV
The following is an annotated list of soap operas aired September 21, 1939 on radio station WJSV in Washington, D.C. The entire day's broadcast has been preserved. See my other posting, "Old-Time Radio's Complete Day," for more information including suggestions on how to obtain it.
1. Bachelor's Children. 8:45 a.m. Royal Dutch Cleanser. Dr. Bob and Ruth Ann have coffee at the Ryders.
2. Pretty Kitty Kelly. 9:00 a.m. Wonder Bread. A development in the Madmoiselle Dupin murder case.
3. The Story of Myrt and Marge. 9:15 a.m. Concentrated Super Suds. Tryouts for a Myr-Mar Theater Project production in Manhattan.
4. Hilltop House. 9:30 a.m. Palmolive Beauty Soap. Bess and Captain John Barry set wedding date.
5. Stepmother. 9:45 a.m. Colgate Tooth Powder. Peg rejects the advice of Kay and John about Agatha Clark.
6. Brenda Curtis. 10:15 a.m. Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup. Jim fears he is about to lose the Hargreaves case.
7. Big Sister. 10:30 a.m. Rinso. Ruth makes friends with Miss Pike.
8. Aunt Jenny's True Life Stories. 10:45 a.m. Spry All-Vegetable Shortening. The return of an old flame may threaten a marriage.
9. When a Girl Marries. 11:15 a.m. Prudential Insurance. Professor Kilpatrick warns Harry about Ralph Stanley.
10. The Romance of Helen Trent. 11:30 a.m. Angelus Lipstick. Helen plans to offer Doris Harper a job in her dress shop.
11. Our Gal Sunday. 11:45 a.m. Anacin. A letter from Arthur Brinthrope.
12. Life Can Be Beautiful. 12:15 p.m. Ivory Flakes. A tearful Chichi is cheered up by news from Kate Henderson.
13. Road of Life. 12:30 p.m. Chipsol Washday Soap. Opening statement in the murder trial of John McEwen.
14. This Day is Ours. 12:45 p.m. Crisco. Myrtle plans to go dancing with Sammy Foster.
15. The Life and Love of Dr. Susan. 1:15 p.m. Lux Toilet Soap. Susan and others await news of Butch Bixby's big game.
16. Your Family and Mine. 1:30 p.m. Sealtest Dairies. Judy is by Woody's side when he awakes from surgery.
17. The Career of Alice Blair. 3:15 p.m. Daggett & Ramsel Perfect Cold Cream. Alice thinks Myra is getting too close to Uncle Andy.