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.


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