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.


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