radio

Soaps In The Depression Era

In treating the soap opera as a scholarly subject, most writers have spent time and energy trying to name the first such program. While some trace it back to the 1920s in programs such as The Smith Family, Amos 'n' Andy and The Goldbergs, others place its premier about 1930-1931 in series like Moonshine and Honeysuckle and The Stolen Husband. While this historical pursuit has a certain academic value, it directs attention away from more important questions about the daytime genre. More significant queries are: when they did emerge in the early 1930s, why did soaps become so popular with American listeners?, and what was there about this period that made it possible for such programming to become the favorite of millions? In answering these questions one learns more about the relationship of radio to life in America.

The soaps were a product of the Great Depression. Certainly, the development of network radio in the mid-1920s was important to them. So, too, was the success in the late 1920s of night-time domestic comedies, such as Arnos 'n' Andy and The Rise of the Goldbergs, which demonstrated the viability of serialized stories. It was the great economic collapse of the 1930s, however, that created the social environment in which soap operas could first survive. The Depression put men and women out of work, it broke apart families, and it threatened the confidence which held together the entire society. While governmental ineffectiveness served primarily to aggravate the national predicament, generalized pessimism and perplexity were to be found in popular attitudes throughout the nation.

The popular arts reflected this national mood. In literature, theater, music, and film the sense of helplessness was notable. Radio also mirrored the realities of the Depression. Radio comedy, for instance, achieved its primacy at this time as it served to make listeners laugh away unpleasantness—at least for a thirty-minute broadcast. In a similar vein, soap operas emerged in the midst of the turmoil and grew in popularity throughout the 1930s. Harrison B. Summers, in his survey of network programming, has shown this, for in 1931 the number of "women's serial drama" programs was three; while in 1934 it was ten; in 1936 it was thirty-one; and in 1939 it was sixty-one.

Thematically, many of the early daytime serials appealed directly to listeners feeling the bite of hard times. Betty and Bob, which premiered in 1932, was the story of a young married couple who had been disowned by the husband's millionaire father and was forced to work and save, as did most listeners. Marie, the Little French Princess in 1933 told of a wealthy young woman of nobility who found a happier and more romantic life living as a commoner in the United States. In Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch listeners encountered in 1936 a character whose fictional suffering and discomfort was always worse than the reality of the audience. Both Painted Dreams (1931) with widowed Mrs. Moynihan, and Today's Children (1933) with Mrs. Moran presented large Irish-American families headed by philosophical, elderly widows coping with the problems of Depression life. And in Ma Perkins in 1933 the public found a model of strength and determination which was meant to offer courage to listeners. This point was well understood by a reviewer when he described Ma as:

a resourceful, courageous widow fighting the problems of hard times with the same indomitable spirit that you and you and you are 3showing in like circumstances. Thus, besides laundry soap, Oxydol [the sponsoring soap powder] urges upon the country a philosophy of patience and resolution. Not money and high position, but kindly hearts is the big thing in life ....

Although they were created to capitalize upon both the frustrations and the hopes of female listeners, soaps possessed a fundamental formula which allowed for their development, even when the economic crisis passed. It was a structure which Hubbell Robinson, Jr., then of Young and Rubicam advertising agency, described as being "based on four cornerstones" which are:

  1. simple characterization;
  2. understandable predicament;
  3. centrality of female characters; and
  4. philosophical relevance.

First, the successful soaps established simple, recognizable figures. The attempt was to create ordinary characters to whom ordinary listeners could relate. Typical of this format was Bill Davidson, the central personality in the popular Just Plain Bill. A homespun philosopher and helpful neighbor, Bill was a barber in the small town of Hartville. Even the theme song of the program, "Polly Wolly Doodle," suggested amiability, traditionalism, and familiarity. Bill's personal characteristics were aptly summarized by one critic who described him as, "calm and quiet and gentle and sympathetic and tolerant and understanding and kind, but still firm and strong and wise." With such an arsenal of positive traits recognizable to the average listener, Bill Davidson for more than two decades encountered and resolved problems that varied from domestic misunderstandings to murder.

Similarly recognizable were the human characterizations on programs like The Rise of the Goldbergs and Clara, Lu and Em. In Molly Goldberg, the center of a Jewish family coping with urban life, author and actress Gertrude Berg established a warm-hearted, believable, motherly character who moved generously in and out of the lives of the family members. Clara, Lu and Em, on the other hand, presented three realistic small-town women—slightly gossipy, a little naive, and terribly involved with the problems of being housewives and mothers—who demonstrated bonds of friendship that were familiar to most of their audience.

Establishing understandable situations was fundamental to the formula of a successful daytime serial. Although detractors might argue that this guaranteed the programs would be produced with the intelligence of a twelve-year-old in mind, the writers actually created predicaments and concerns that never overshadowed the personalities of the fictional characters. On occasion, soap heroes became involved in complicated court battles, difficult assignments, and trips abroad. For the most part, however, their lives centered on commonplace developments. Romantic concerns dominated the soaps, from courtships and births, to jealousies and divorces. Domesticity was also a favorite topic as scripts were often concerned with such homey themes as preparing a meal, rearing children, cleaning house, and arranging a party.

Due to the slow-moving pace of the typical soap opera, a week or more might be taken up with such predictable situations as packing for a trip, coming home from the hospital, or gossiping about other characters. It once took "Just Plain Bill" Davidson more than a week to give a customer a haircut. The heroine of Pretty Kitty Kelly spent three weeks going up a few floors in an elevator, and once when Alice Reinheart's two-week vacation occurred, the character she was playing, Chichi Conrad, left the room to take a bath and did not return from the bathroom until the vacation was completed.

As a third cornerstone, soap operas usually featured women as principal characters. The titles of many serials from the 1930s suggest this preoccupation with feminine interests: Aunt Jenny's True Life Stories, The Romance of Helen Trent, Manhattan Mother, When a Girl Marries, Girl Alone, Arnold Grimm's Daughter, Stella Dallas, and Valiant Lady. Others implied at least equality between women and men: The Carters of Elm Street, Betty and Bob, Billy and Betty, and Vic and Sade.

Although series in the 1940s presented male doctors and lawyers in strong central roles, men usually played weak roles relative to the strong heroines. Unbalanced, emotionally vulnerable, lacking strength, and generally persuaded or pushed by the serial heroines, the leading men in soap operas were definitely the weaker sex. In fact, except for their professionalism—they were usually the doctors while the women were the nurses—there was little in the soap opera world that men could lord over women.

According to Alice Reinheart, radio actors often complained about being "so sick of playing this wishy-washy husband who comes home and is told how to live and what to do and how to do it.... It was always the woman who was the strong character." No one was stronger or more determined than the widowed Ma Perkins who maintained a lumber yard and a household and was described in the opening episode on December 13, 1933, as

a woman whose life is the same, whose surroundings are the same, whose problems are the same as those of thousands of other women in the world today. A woman who spent all her life taking care of her home, washing and cooking and cleaning and raising her family. And now, her husband's death pitched her head foremost into being the head of the family as well as the mother.

The final dimension of the soap opera formula involved a philosophy that was integral to the personality of the leading characters. Here such homilies as "the meek shall inherit the earth," and "virtue is its own reward" were personified in people like Bill Davidson and Stella Dallas. Such bits of religious philosophy or folk wisdom had been accepted as social gospel for generations. In this way soap characters and stories became reaffirmations of commonly-held beliefs. And listeners could recognize not only the plight of the heroine, but also the repudiation of truth which her predicament represented. According to Hubbell Robinson,

it is easy to be emotional about a character whose activities you have followed through a series of mishaps or defeats and triumphs and for whom you are rooting. It is doubly easy if that person seems to you to represent a force for good, and who represents a point of view you share.

This inner goodness in soap characters was not always subtly blended into their personalities. On many occasions listeners found their enduring, honest, saintly principals blatantly moralizing to them. In an episode of Lora Lawton in May 1948, for example, Lora pontificated, "I think that life in general is bad enough without unhappiness stemming from temperament being allowed to make it worse." Ma Perkins, who was extremely fond of enunciating moral conclusions, typically expressed herself to her audience in mid-1938, noting that, “anyone of this earth who's done wrong, and then goes so far as to try and right that wrong, I can tell you that they're well on their way to erasing the harm they did in the eyes of anyone decent.”

This type of sermonizing from a respected soap opera personality also dramatically occurred in Pepper Young's Family in 1941 when Sam and Mary Young were discussing their daughter's decision to dress according to her own fashion rather than pretentiously try to impress her wealthy future in-laws.

Sam: Honey, imagine her saying a thing like that—about it being more important what kind of person you are than the kind of clothes you put on.
Mary: Ah it was a nice speech, wasn't it?
Sam: Oh, you bet it was. And it shows the stuff she's made of, too. You know, Mary, I'm proud of my daughter.
Mary: You ought to be, Sam.

The soaps reflected more than the economic and social dislocation of the Depression. They and their producers changed with the times by introducing fresh and relevant themes, and by creating new series which focused upon more contemporary values. By the end of the 1930s the flourishing and flexible daytime serials were probing areas of interest not found in earlier programs. Few of the early soaps dealt with career women, but by 1940 many featured women as professional achievers. The heroine of Hilltop House managed an orphanage, while the principal character in The Story of Mary Marlin became a United States Senator. Female lawyers were the focus of Her Honor, Nancy James and the highly successful Portia Faces Life.

Then heroine of The Woman in White was a nurse, and nurses appeared regularly as supporting roles in several serials dealing with doctors and hospitals. The Life and Loves of Dr. Susan was a short-lived program which premiered and concluded in 1939, but Joyce Jordan, Girl Intern began in 1938 and, under its subsequent title, Joyce Jordan, M.D., survived for a decade and was revived for the 1951-1952 radio season.

By the end of the Depression, other career women were noticeable in prominent roles in soaps. Several heroines owned or managed small businesses. Ellen Brown ran a tea parlor on Young Widder Brown, Brenda Cummings owned a sewing shop on Second Husband, Connie Tremayne opened a lingerie store and later managed a factory on Arnold Grimm's Daughter. And the heroine of Jenny Peabody was the proprietor of a small hotel. Other leads were actively involved in careers outside their homes. The principal character of Kitty Keene, Inc. ran her own detective agency, Patricia Locke of Manhattan Mother was a businesswoman, and the heroines of Rich Man's Darling and Jane Arden were newspaper reporters.

Until the late 1930s, the only network soap opera devoted to a career woman had been The Romance of Helen Trent which, in the cliché that opened the show daily, told the story of a thirty-five year old fashion designer who,

when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair, fights back bravely, successfully, to prove what so many women long to prove in their own lives: that because a woman is thirty-five or more, romance in life need not be over, that the romance of life can extend into middle life, and even beyond.

Certainly, the appearance of professional women in soap operas helped to create new predicaments which differed from the domestic operations of most serials. But this new emphasis also reflected the fact that between 1930 and 1940, as the economic crisis gradually eased, the number of working women rose by almost 16 percent. Daytime serials, therefore, mirrored a growing sophistication within American society—a maturity which accepted women as careerists, no longer totally relegated to home and family.

By the end of the decade, daytime serials also shed some of their sexual exclusivity and featured more males as heroes of their own series. Yet, these newer soaps, plus the few early programs centering on men, were still intended primarily for female listeners. When men did serve as central characters, they fit usually into one of three distinct stereotypes, none of which was incongruous with those soaps with feminine leads. In such programs as Young Doctor Malone (1939) and Terry Regan, Attorney at Law (1937) the principals were professional men. Youthful, handsome, and unmarried at first, these men were shown as dedicated to their careers. Other such dedicated heroes appeared in The Road of Life (1937) where Dr. Jim Brent practiced his medical profession, and in Bachelor's Children (1935) where Dr. Robert Graham nobly practiced medicine while raising the eighteen-year-old twin girls entrusted to him by a dying war buddy.

A second style of masculinity was featured in those serials dealing with older men who acted as social philosophers. Here were grandfatherly characters whose strength lay in intelligence, experience and inner confidence. Cracker-barrel wisdom came from the heroes of David Harum (1936) and Scattergood Baines (1938), both small-town luminaries whose ideals and accomplishments were reassuring to their neighbors. In this category also was Reverend John Ruthledge on The Guiding Light (1938), who offered patience and understanding as the formula for living a good life.

The final stereotyped male lead was an easy-going, sometimes humorous characterization which stood in opposition to the melodramatic types normally found in the genre. Honest, slightly naive, even eccentric, this type of man usually mixed seriousness and comedy in his adventures. Larry "Pepper" Young of Pepper Young's Family (1936) emerged as a wholesome, gregarious teenager whose family was "your friends, the Youngs," and whose daily routines took listeners into his dates, disappointments, parties, and loves. Even as an adult, by the late 1950s Pepper remained a relaxed and gullible personality. More humorous, but equally well-intentioned, was the central character of Lorenzo Jones (1937). Lorenzo was portrayed as an impractical but lovable inventor whose main concern—when he was not inventing oddities like a three-spouted teapot with separate spouts for weak, medium, and strong brews—was his devoted wife and partner in mirth and light-heartedness, Belle.

Despite modifications in traditional patterns, soap operas continued for the most part to focus on familiar heroines operating within routine situations. New serials like The Carters of Elm Street, When a Girl Marries, Those Happy Gilmans, and The Couple Next Door featured the dramatics of family life, while Our Gal Sunday, Kitty Foyle, and Backstage Wife continued the theme of women of a lower social standing marrying wealth or fame and moving into higher society. The traditional image of the strong woman facing, either alone, or without supportive understanding, the rigors of contemporary life was found in new serials such as Valiant Lady, Girl Alone, Stepmother, and Stella Dallas. And matriarchy continued in those households headed by the widowed heroines of My Son and I, Margo of Castlewood, and Young Widder Brown.

By the late 1930s, the soap opera had been formed as an American popular art form. Although new serials would appear, and older ones would alter their emphases to relate to changing realities, the genre was fully defined. Furthermore, the most prolific and successful creators of daytime serials—Frank and Anne Hummert, Elaine Carrington and Irna Phillips—had made their impact felt in radio. The Hummerts did for the radio serial what Henry Ford did for the automobile industry: they created a "factory" in which they sketched out story lines and acted as general supervisors for a group of anonymous writers who labored to flesh out the suggested plots and create the final products. During the 1930s this scripting system allowed the Hummerts to create dozens of soap operas and many night time dramas. By 1936 they were broadcasting more than one hundred scripts each week for more than thirty different sponsors.

Frank Hummert was one of the pioneers of soaps. He told one scholar that his idea for such programming was predicated on the success of serial fiction in newspapers and magazines. According to Hummert, "It occurred to me that what people were reading might appeal to them in the form of radio dramas." From this insight came some of the most popular serials in the history of radio. Included in this listing were The Romance of Helen Trent (1933-1960), Just Plain Bill (1933-1955), Backstage Wife (1935-1959), Our Gal Sunday (1937-1959), Lorenzo Jones (1937-1955), Stella Dallas (1937-1955), Young Widder Brown (1938-1956), and /i>Front Page Farrell (1941-1954).

The Hummerts were business-like about their soap opera empire. In the early 1930s they created Air Features, Inc., and a subsidiary, Featured Artists Service, Inc. These organizations handled production and casting details for the Hummert productions, but neither Hummert received compensation from them. Instead, they were employed by the advertising agency of Blackest-Sample-Hummert, an organization so powerfully influenced by Frank Hummert that, even though he was not a partner in the organization, for prestige value his name was listed equally with the owners, Hill Blackest and J. G. Sample. When Hummert left that agency in 1944, he established Hummert Radio Productions, Inc., and operated as an independent producer.

Despite an efficient approach to the manufacture of soap operas, the Hummerts were protective of their creative function. The many writers who wrote dialog or otherwise filled out ideas were forbidden by contract to credit themselves as originators of the programs. Although they did not disallow a writer being cited as the developer of an idea by Frank and Anne Hummert, they took precautions against anyone other than themselves becoming too identified with a series. Thus, writers were frequently replaced or reassigned to other shows. During the period 1937-1938, for example, Lawrence Hammond wrote for three different programs, John's Other Wife, Backstage Wife, and Young Widder Brown, while Marie Baumer was routinely shifted from Young Widder Brown, to Our Gal Sunday, to Backstage Wife, to Second Husband, and to Stella Dallas.

Frank Hummert strongly defended the system which was devoted to mass production, low costs, standardization, and specialization. According to him, while it was not humanly possible for him and his wife to produce every line of the scripts broadcast in their name, the "initiative, the conception, the detailed synopses and essentially direction, tone, casting, and nature of the series" were theirs. He denied, however, that his system did not recognize a collaboration in the usual literary or dramatic sense; but Hummert argued that the salary the writers received made them employees, not designers.

The empire built upon soap operas by Frank and Anne Hummert was an impressive organization. From their estate in Connecticut, they relayed their plot sketches and summaries to a corps of writers, script readers, and typists. Here the summaries were expanded, refined, and turned out as final scripts. The Hummerts were demanding. Scripts had to be prepared up to six weeks in advance of broadcast. Even if completed, a new idea or a whim to be incorporated into the plot could necessitate completely rewriting weeks of scripts. Salaries paid to writers were low—in 1938 only $25 for each eleven-minute script—and work was heavy, as the flow of words from the factory reached six and one-half million annually.

In contrast to the strenuous business environment in which they operated, Frank Hummert described the world he and his wife created for radio listeners as concerned with "the everyday doings of plain, everyday people—stories that can be understood and appreciated on Park Avenue and on the prairie."' Into these serials about ordinary people was added a mixture of uncertainty, suffering, and turmoil that created the dramatic element so effective in the soaps.

One of the more compelling patterns in the Hummert productions involved the frail but determined heroine of humble birth who had married into money and prestige and spent every episode struggling to ward off jealous female competitors for her husband's affection. The heroine of Our Gal Sunday was an abandoned orphan, who had been raised by Colorado miners, now married to "England's richest, most handsome lord, Lord Henry Brinthrope." Mary Noble, the central character in Backstage Wife, was "a little Iowa girl" and the jealous, defensive spouse of Larry Noble, a handsome Broadway idol who was the "dream sweetheart of a million other women." But Amanda Dyke, the principal of Amanda of Honeymoon Hill, was the most disadvantaged of all. She was described each week as "a girl who has nothing in life except her own beauty—neither education, nor background, nor any real contact with the world." Her wealthy young husband, Edward Latham, had to take her away from her strict father and endure the condemnation of his own family. It was in this context of alienation and hatred that the couple sought "happiness on Honeymoon Hill in Virginia."

While the Hummerts were primarily producers, not writers, of daytime serials, Irna Phillips began as an independent writer. Her first program, Painted Dreams, premiered on WGN (Chicago) in 1930. This drama of the hopes and realities of the Moynihan family was the first fully-developed daytime serial broadcast specifically for a female audience. Phillips became so committed to the series that she also appeared as one of the characters. Nevertheless, after two years and 520 scripts, she moved to NBC and created the highly successful Today's Children, which for six years was one of the most popular soap operas in radio.

Because of her success and the demand from advertising agencies for more serials from her, Irna Phillips by 1940 had established her own smaller version of the Hummert system of mass production. In this modified arrangement Phillips helped to plot the shows, and she approved all final scripts. To do the actual writing, she employed a group of anonymous writers who received up to $500 per week for producing such series as the Road of Life, The Woman in White, The Guiding Light, and, until 1943 when she sold the serial, The Right to Happiness.

By the end of her first decade in radio Phillips had written or supervised 6,000 scripts and was earning about $200,000 annually. Unlike the massive operation of the Hummerts, which could have as many as a dozen different series broadcast weekly, Phillips confined her efforts to four or five quality serials per season. She also avoided the fantasy that sometimes entered the Hummert’s product, preferring dramas about people caught up in more realistic predicaments. The Road of Life, a story about doctors, endured on CBS for twenty-two years; The Guiding Light concerned a minister whose private and professional life for the twenty years of the serial was dedicated to helping others; The Woman in White, involving the professional and romantic experiences of a young nurse, lasted for eleven years on NBC; and The Right to Happiness (a spin-off from The Road of Life) for twenty-one years related its story of people in search of the happiness described as "the sum total of many things—of health, security, friends, and loved ones."

The success of Irna Phillips' programs came from her devotion to reality and from her careful understanding of the women who comprised her audience. She frequently consulted community and social organizations to obtain current thinking on urgent problems. For example, at the end of World War II, she enlisted the aid of several veterans', parents' and teachers' organizations to gain their views on postwar issues.

She was especially concerned with problems such as the adaptation of families to returning disabled veterans, the paradox of women in the home and on the war job, juvenile delinquency, and marriage problems created by the war. She integrated such issues into her daytime dramas, convinced that women in the audience were interested primarily in the home and all that it represented.

Phillips contended that the principal urge of women was to create a warm and protected family. According to her, the American woman sought “to build securely for herself a haven, which means a husband, a family, friends, and a mode of living—all wrapped up neatly and compactly into a tight little ball with the woman as the busy center of the complete, secure little world.” To develop tension Phillips introduced into this ideal a range of threats and disruptions perhaps familiar to her listeners. Thus, the challenge of the "other woman" or the "other man" might be a force that propelled a plot for many episodes. So, too, did matters such as illness, thievery, children, or childlessness function in her stories. Hers was a tight, secure universe assaulted by realistically unsteadying forces with which listeners could identify.

Elaine Sterne Carrington came to soap operas after several successful years as a free-lance writer for such magazines as Saturday Evening Post, The Pictorial Review, and Good Housekeeping. Throughout her radio career she maintained the writer's conservative desire to do it all herself. Instead of the elaborate system of the Hummerts, or the modified style of Irna Phillips, Carrington produced her materials alone. Lying in bed, smoking a cigarette and relaxing, she dictated scripts to her secretary. After careful editing and some rewriting, the scripts were completed. In this manner she produced such long-running serials as Pepper Young's Family, which was a mainstay at NBC from 1936 until 1959, When a Girl Marries, which ran on CBS from 1939 to 1957, and Rosemary, which appeared on NBC for several months before shifting to CBS from 1945 to 1955.

Carrington was a woman of impulse and verve whose lack of pretension did not betray the fact that she was the highest paid writer of soap operas. Mary Jane Higby, the leading actress throughout most of the life of When a Girl Marries, recalled Carrington as impish, loving risqué stories, and comfortably poised as she entered the elegant offices of NBC, dressed in lace and furs and wearing a pair of gum-soled shoes. Carrington admitted that although she had to provide a yearly story outline to her advertising agency, she never managed to stick to it. Instead, she preferred to let her characters grow naturally out of the situations in which they found themselves. And she often defended soap operas from critics, asserting, "If they aren't a hifalutin' form of art, they frequently contain profound wisdom expressed in universal terms."

One of the most striking aspects of Carrington's programs was the effusively romantic quality they often demonstrated. Reflecting her own happily married life with a successful lawyer and two children, her stories dealt usually with love and family. In her typically gushing style, in one episode of Rosemary she had the heroine and her girl friend, Joyce, discussing love.

Joyce: Oh, Rosemary, I'm so happy.
Rosemary: Are you, dear? I'm glad.
Joyce: I never knew what it was to be happy before—not really happy...not deeply, warmly happy. Happiness is a funny thing, isn't it, Rosemary?
Rosemary: Yes.... I guess it is.
Joyce: Suddenly it comes—just like a ray of sunshine—one minute you've been living in a gray world, and then you are living in a world of blazing sunlight. I guess I sound goofy, don't I?
Rosemary: No, you just sound happy.
Joyce: Happy? Rosemary, it's when you wake up in the morning with this—this choking feeling of utter joy...sometimes it seems as if your body is too small to hold so much happiness crammed into it.
Rosemary: Darling, you haven't known anything like this before, have you?
Joyce: Nobody has. Oh, I don't mean that I'm the only person in the world who was every happy this way—that would be foolish—but I mean nobody unless she's in love with the man who's in love with her can feel it. It's as if—as if—well, as if you belonged to a small society and you can only get in when love has unlocked the door.

With the emergence of Carrington, Phillips, and the Hummerts, as well as scores of writers of other major and minor soap operas, the daytime serial as it would flourish for more than a quarter-century was fully established.

One of the most interesting dimensions of the daytime serial structure was its exploitation for political purposes. Private interest groups were the first to employ the genre for partisan ends. As early as 1934, a strongly anti-New Deal organization, the National Industrial Council, created American Family Robinson as a means of attacking Franklin D. Roosevelt and his remedial policies. In this prerecorded serial that was syndicated for two years, the hero, Luke Robinson, was the editor of a small-town newspaper, the Centerville Herald. He was stridently anti-socialist, pro-business, and Republican. In frequent discussions within the story line, Robinson and others attacked Roosevelt's social policies as utopian and disruptive. Robinson's political bias was even evidenced in the name which he suggested for his wife's radio club for women.

Mrs. Robinson: I was telling you about the radio club for women. Oh, I've had such wonderful responses to the idea. There are hundreds of answers from Centerville alone. And so many good names suggested, well, I hardly know which to choose. There's the Save America Club, and the Sound Recovery Club, and the Economic Freedom Club. Which of those do you like best? ...
Mr. Robinson: Well, why don't you call it the Woman's Forum for the Promotion of Constructive Thinking as Contrasted with Radical Theories in Government and Business.... Well, how about the Ladies' Aid for America?
Mrs. Robinson: Oh, now, don't be funny.
Mr. Robinson: No, no, I'm not being funny. It would mean just what it says: Ladies who are aiding in the preservation of American principles.
Most explicitly, in a later episode Robinson's son-in-law, Dick Collins, engaged a western rancher in a conversation that summarized the thrust of the entire soap opera.
Rancher: That's just what it [the ranching business] is—terrible! Now you take you fellas back East. I understand business has all been took over practically by professors. And all you fellas have to do is set around and let somebody else do the worrying. Wonder when they'll take over the ranching business. Isn't anything I'd like better than to have some government agency come out here and run my business for me while I sit back and listen to the radio and read Shakespeare like I always wanted to....
Collins: I gather that you want the government to do all the work and the worrying and make up all the deficits on the rent side of your ledger, while you act as a sort of retired vice-president, eh?
Rancher: Sure. Ain't that the general idea?
Collins: Not by a long shot. If your ranch were taken over, you'd find yourself looking for a job. If you were lucky enough, you might be able to get a government job managing your own ranch on a salary. Then, you'd have all the worry of making the thing go, and none of the profits. No, the time hasn't come yet when you can get much for nothing, even from Uncle Sam. Our wisest economic leaders are trying to help business stand on its own feet. That's the only way we can preserve that independence which is supposed to be our national characteristic.
Rancher: Well, maybe so. But I set as great a store by my independence as the next one. But what I say is, wouldn't do my independence no harm to get some of those benefits they're passing around so free like. And while they're doin' all this national plannin', I don't see why they can't work up a plan that'll make the ranchin' business pay.
Collins: Oh, you fellas are all alike. You seem to think that the United States Treasury has got a big window in it, with a "Paying-Teller" sign on it, and all you have to do is step up and hold out your hand. National planning would mean more than just keeping your pockets filled. If the government forced people to pay you a high price for your cattle, it would force you to pay a high price for the things you buy. Individual rights and government planning just don't go together. If carried out, national economic control would destroy individual freedom, and regiment America into a collective society.... People have got to decide whether they're going to favor plunging into a lot of radical experiments that endanger the jobs of everyone, or return to time-tested principles.

While American Family Robinson failed to undermine Roosevelt's popular support by the time of the Presidential election in 1936, it set a precedent for conveying political messages through the medium of the radio soap opera. In late 1938, the Republican Party of Iowa used this tactic. In the eight weeks before the congressional elections of that year, it ran The Park Family on three stations in Iowa. The serial stressed the value of Republican positions, while relating the story of the Parks. That same year the United Auto Workers sponsored a thirteen-part daytime serial on WJBK (Detroit) . This series, Flivver King, was a dramatization of Upton Sinclair's controversial book based on the life of Henry Ford, a book that was difficult to find in Detroit since police had barred street vendors from selling it.

Until the early 1940s, network soap operas, as opposed to these special-interest, non-network serials, avoided taking openly political positions. Their primary concerns were entertaining listeners and selling commercial products. Nevertheless, it was not out of the question for a character to become involved in topical matters. This was especially the case in the first half of the 1930s when plots occasionally referred to the Depression or to conditions prompted by it. Probably the most explicit involvement of a soap character with topical affairs, however, occurred in Ma Perkins in mid-1938. During the time of the Great Purge Trials in the Soviet Union, the plot of this soap opera concerned Ma and two anti-Stalinists, Gregor Ivanoff and his wife, Sonya. Ivanoff was being hunted by Russian secret agents who found him in Ma's quiet home town, Rushville Center.

To insure his capture, the Red agents kidnapped his son and then threatened to kill Gregor unless he surrendered. Matters reached a climactic point in the broadcast of May 31, when the Stalinist secret police shot at Ivanoff through the window of Ma's home. Although they missed Gregor, the Communist agents accidentally shot Sonya. She died in Gregor's arms as the closing theme music swelled in the background and Ma Perkins stood by in amazement.

 

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