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.


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