Entertainment for Ladies

 

Radio entered American homes about a century ago. It changed life everywhere. It transformed rural life most of all, giving listeners a tenuous, vital connection to the wider world. At first it offered morning farm market prices, news, prayer, and a separate evening session of music before signoff, which in most of the country came early. Once most local stations were wired into national networks, big advertisers made more lavish programs possible, and what we now call old time radio flourished. Relatively few women worked outside the home in those days, so the afternoon became the traditional time for radio sponsors to reach and entertain them. Women, generally being more sociable than men, were especially glad to have radio’s substitute companionship during long hours of housework. Serial dramas with appealing and/or hissable characters instantly became popular.

Being a homemaker has always been a tough job, but 70-100 years ago it required physical labor to a degree that few of us lucky moderns realize. Hanging the wash, keeping an anxious eye on the clouds, and bringing it in were tiring enough, but the washing was also done by hand, scrubbing on a washboard. Variety had a once-amusing, condescending 1920s term for daytime drama, which it continued to use for three decades: “women’s washboard weepers.” That general line of midcentury wit is where the term “soap opera” comes from.

Now-commonplace appliances like refrigerators and washing machines were luxuries in the ’20s, and for many people, the Depression kept them coveted right up through the ’30s. It was the woman of the house who kept fires going for cooking, and hot water for cleaning. Up until then, meat, eggs, and produce had to be brought home fresh and cooked that day or the next. Big, general-purpose supermarkets didn’t fully catch on until after the war. More American women had drivers’ licenses than in any other country in the world, but few families of the FDR era were well off enough to have a second car for the wife’s daytime use. That would come later.

There were more children at home. Families were bigger than today’s, with no day care or kindergarten. Kids scuffed up their clothes and grew out of them. The sewing basket and its pile of needed mending was something that could be worked on while listening to afternoon radio’s extravagant tales of honest, true-hearted women confronting daily dramas of unrequited love, obedience to duty, and selfless devotion.

Daytime’s rules permitted twice the number of commercial minutes that evening radio did. Back then, sponsors actually owned the programs, with far fewer rules about blatant on-air “plugs.” Ads were relentless with endless pitches to buy Borden, Armour Star meats, Reynolds aluminum foil, Kellogg’s, Jell-O, and a thousand other products.

In the ’50s, audiences for daytime radio drama held up better and longer than the evening shows, which began to suffer crippling ratings losses to television. Most of the nighttime radio entertainment schedule was off the air by 1955, and all but one show was gone by 1960. Television soaps like CBS’s “The Guiding Light” (1952) and “Search for Tomorrow” were slower to displace their radio counterparts. One obvious issue compared to radio was you had to watch TV to follow what was going on, so it wasn’t as useful a companion for housework. Another was a semi-fact flatly declared by one of the dads in a “Back to the Future” scene set in 1955: “Nobody has more than one TV set.” That one set was in the living room, not the kitchen. There wouldn’t be small TVs suitable for a kitchen countertop until the late ’60s.

But as the ’50s rolled on, that was okay, less and less of a handicap, because things like clothes dryers, dishwashers, electric rotisseries, television as a babysitter, and great postwar advances in marketing prepared, instant foods like Minute Rice and Swanson TV Dinners made it possible for moms to spend less time doing housework.

By the ’60s, new hits like ABC’s “General Hospital” were attracting audiences and advertisers. The newer shows, many of them created by writer Agnes Nixon, maintained a dignified, ladylike tone, but they were more realistic than radio’s daytime dramas and touched on more up-to-date issues like divorce, broken families, and remarriage.

And that brings up one strong comparative advantage of TV: The guys looked as good as they sounded. Women have always been unfairly judged or dismissed because of their looks, but if there’s one field of entertainment where women have always had it their way, it’s daytime drama, where male roles are cast on looks alone. Anyone can be a movie star, but the term “matinee idol” refers only to a man. Traditionally, who goes to weekday matinees? Women. Napoleon once sourly noted that he would not permit his wife to go to the theater in the afternoon because he wanted to know that all her children would be his. Afternoon television became the home of matinee idols.

When I moved to California, one of my early days co-workers had a lucrative side job working for one of the young actors on “Y&R,” “The Young and the Restless.” She wrote personalized answers to his voluminous fan mail, responses as formulaic as today’s send-me-money political emails and texts, always with the objective of getting his often lovestruck fans to write letters directly to CBS, demanding more of him in Y&R plotlines.

By the late ’70s, soaps were getting a little racier, paralleling similar changes in romance paperbacks like Harlequin and women’s magazines. It wasn’t just Ms. and Cosmo; by then, even the covers of McCall’s and Redbook were earnestly talking up the goal of perfect sex. This was a messy transitional time, piously aware of sexism but unwilling to stop exploiting it. TV Guide, a covert cultural conservative in those days, actually agreed with lib/left/les magazines like Ms.: An awful lot of daytime’s hunky men were acting on screen like real bodice rippers, not the metaphorical ones of Harlequin covers, and this might not turn out to be healthy in the long run.

Show producers prudently toned it down a little, for a while. The controversy was one of the few times when daytime soap operas became a mainstream news story. Occasionally, a rare phenomenon like “Dark Shadows” (1966) would be featured in Time or Newsweek. When Luke and Laura got married on “General Hospital” in 1981, it attracted a now-incredible 30 million viewers. Susan Lucci being snubbed by the Emmys was a subject of late-night comedy. But mostly, soaps stayed under the cultural radar.

Of course, the soaps weren’t the only female-friendly shows on daytime. Talk shows had always been around. In radio days they were often nondenominational religious or self-improvement talks that were meant to be uplifting. There were practical shows about cooking and housework. And even back then, there was a type of woman-oriented, high-minded public affairs program about polio or child poverty that would be recognizable to any NPR listener today. These traditions carried over to television, just as the soaps did. Daytime hosts like Mike Douglas were like friendly uncles who did a lighter, sunnier version of late-night shows.

This all changed with the arrival of Phil Donahue. He had on the same singers and bestselling authors and visiting performers as the other shows, but Donahue was more provocative, especially about sexual relationships, and he had an immediate effect of changing women’s TV. Rob Long once wrote a column about it, and he was right. Men came home from work, heard their wives talking about onstage homosexuality or open marriages in Sweden, and wondered where the hell did that come from?

Donahue led to Oprah, and from there Sally Jessy Raphael, Ricki Lake, Queen Latifah, and Ellen. Gradually, the soaps began to lose out. New genres like courtroom shows attracted daytime audiences. After generations of being able to keep transforming in ways that kept women tuning in, daytime drama was reduced to 60-90 minutes per Big Three broadcast network, in informal rotation so no soap was competing with another. Even in their weakened states, the afternoon lineup of women’s washboard weepers is still one of the best places to sell cereal, fabric softener, diapers, back to school supplies, cosmetics, or discount shoes.

Male readers may ask, “What about us guys? In the great daytime battle of sponsors seeking eyeballs, where do men stand?” Well, what kind of man is watching weekday TV midday? Grouchy old retired guys whose wives do most of the shopping. (They toss us baseball games and reruns of “Mannix.”) Or younger men who attract ads for for-profit vocational schools teaching job-winning skills or for drug and alcohol rehab centers; attorneys who specialize in drunk-driving defense or winning custody battles for dads. From an advertiser’s point of view, rarely desirable demographics, let’s face it.

Have you ever heard of a TV director named Lela Swift? Me neither, and after decades of reading television history, you’d think I would have run across her before. Starting way back in 1950, when she was only 31, she directed more than 1,400 television shows, rarely drawing critical or public attention. In a rare interview in 1953, she said, “Above all, don’t let anybody tell you it can’t be done. I did it. You can, too. What’s it like for a woman to do a man’s job such as directing? Well, I don’t rightly know, because I don’t think about being a woman when I do my job. I work with actors, stagehands and technicians as artists and artisans, not as men and women.”

“When you go into the business of television, expect the exhilaration of a difficult job well done, the agony of a carefully planned effect ruined by an on-the-air accident, the happiness and the heartache that goes with show business everywhere. Expect to care about everything a great deal. Expect to love it. I do.”

Lela Swift died only six years ago, at age 96. You’d think an industry that’s become obsessed with documenting pioneering women would have noticed or remembered her, but after all, she only worked in low-prestige daytime. Even to today’s women in the industry, it’s like she never existed.

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  1. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Gary McVey: That general line of mid-century wit is where the term “soap opera” comes from.

    I always thought it was because soap and detergent vendors were heavy advertisers.

    • #1
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: That general line of mid-century wit is where the term “soap opera” comes from.

    I always thought it was because soap and detergent vendors were heavy advertisers.

    It’s really both–they needed the soap flakes to do the washing, after all. 

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I remember being home sick and lots of game shows. 

    • #3
  4. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    What fun reading! And many memories, too! Thanks, Gary!

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    “All My Children” was my mom’s favorite. It also won a measure of approval from the brothers in my fraternity, seeing as how it was on at lunch time.

    Once, a character came across a locket, opened it up, and reacted with horror.

    ”What could be in a locket that would cause that reaction?” the lunch crew wondered.

    ”it’s a wartime picture of Lars Bogard in his SS uniform”, I guessed.

    And sure enough, six or seven weeks later, that was the Awful Secret that was revealed. Since then, I’ve had in my back pocket that I could always get by as a writer for cheesy soap operas.

    • #5
  6. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Gary McVey: That one set was in the living room, not the kitchen.

    And once TV sets started appearing in bedrooms, it was “Goodbye large families.”

    • #6
  7. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Back in the 1970s Phil Donahue would do a week of shows live from Summerfest in Milwaukee.  A friend of mine was in the audience and got to ask Bob Hope (the guest that day) a question.

    • #7
  8. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    Gary McVey: Another was a semi-fact flatly declared by one of the dads in a Back to the Future scene set in 1955: “Nobody has more than one TV set”

    Of course, but out in the boonies it took another ten before we got a second channel.

    • #8
  9. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    Girlfriend to boyfriend:

    “I’ve got good news and bad news.

    “The good news; We’re gonna be on tv. The bad news; We’re gonna be on Jerry Springer.”

    • #9
  10. Addiction Is A Choice Member
    Addiction Is A Choice
    @AddictionIsAChoice

    Gary McVey: Once most local stations were wired into national networks, big advertisers made more lavish programs possible, and what we now call old time radio flourished

    Shameless Plug®:  Experience “Old Time Radio” for yourself by listening to “Saturday Night Radio” every Saturday night in the Member Feed.

    • #10
  11. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    Thanks Gary for another insightful telling of entertainment history!

    I continue to be amazed that Days of Our Lives and Young and the Restless keep getting renewed after all these years.

    • #11
  12. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Gary McVey: When Luke and Laura got married on General Hospital in 1981, it attracted a now-incredible 30 million viewers.

    And Liz Taylor.

    It was also an incredible endorsement for how to get your dream girl through rape. Still bizarre as far as I’m concerned.

    Gary McVey: Well, what kind of man is watching weekday TV mid-day?

    Major League Baseball players. Soaps were very big around the league for years. Hey, you’re stuck in a hotel room or sitting at home waiting to go down to the park for a night game and there’s only 4 or 5 channels on the TV…

    Gary McVey: This all changed with the arrival of Phil Donahue.

    I worked at least a half dozen of Phil’s shows over the years. Besides the star, the driving force for that show was a woman named Pat McMillen. She started out as Phil’s secretary at WLWD-TV2 (now WDTN) in Dayton, OH and ended up as his executive producer and final “guest.”

    Two final notes on soaps – On radio soap operas were only 15 minutes in length. Despite the fact that new, original to television serials were running at 30-minutes, The Guiding Light continued in a quarter-hour format until the fall of 1968. That was also the first season they embraced the miracle of video tape. It is also the 4th longest show in broadcast history, airing it’s first episode on NBC on January 25, 1937 and ending on CBS Television on September 18, 2009 for a total of 72 seasons.

    Soaps were so popular that Michael Eisner of Disney created an entire cable network for re-running them: SoapNet, which lasted for 13 years. Ratings tumbled in the 2000’s and now only four remain: The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless (both on CBS), Days of Our Lives (NBC), and General Hospital (ABC). Prospect Park’s attempt to revive All My Children and One Life to Live as web series were both noble and doomed from the start.

     

    • #12
  13. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    Very interesting. Thanks Gary. Do you happen to know where most of the TV Soaps were shot Gary? I’m under the impression that most were shot in NYC in the fifties but they slowly drifted to LA where most were shot by the seventies.

    • #13
  14. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    tigerlily: Do you happen to know where most of the TV Soaps were shot Gary? I’m under the impression that most were shot in NYC in the fifties but they slowly drifted to LA where most were shot by the seventies.

    Soap production was a staple of New York, hosting the majority of shows. The four remaining soaps are taped in Los Angeles. All My Children moved from Manhattan to LA towards the end of it’s broadcast run as a desperate bid to save money. Only NYC could make LA look cheaper.

    • #14
  15. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    Thanks, @garymcvey and @ejhill, the two of you are giving us all very interesting inside views of the entertainment industry.

    • #15
  16. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    I remember being home sick and lots of game shows.

    It was worse for us. You’re a generation younger than me. For Boomer kids, especially boys, the dreariness of daytime TV was a built-in penalty for being out of school that day. In pre-cable days, once morning cartoons ended around 9, there was nothing but old, old movies, game shows, and ugh, ladies sitting around a table talking. 

    • #16
  17. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Percival (View Comment):

    “All My Children” was my mom’s favorite. It also won a measure of approval from the brothers in my fraternity, seeing as how it was on at lunch time.

    Once, a character came across a locket, opened it up, and reacted with horror.

    ”What could be in a locket that would cause that reaction?” the lunch crew wondered.

    ”it’s a wartime picture of Lars Bogard in his SS uniform”, I guessed.

    And sure enough, six or seven weeks later, that was the Awful Secret that was revealed. Since then, I’ve had in my back pocket that I could always get by as a writer for cheesy soap operas.

    At my first film festival job, the staff scheduling board had a mysterious closed-door meeting listed each day as “AMC”. It seemed logical to me. After all, American Multi-Cinemas was a giant in the industry. And so was American Movie Classics. But, of course, it turned out to be neither of those. 

    • #17
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Addiction Is A Choice (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: Once most local stations were wired into national networks, big advertisers made more lavish programs possible, and what we now call old time radio flourished

    Shameless Plug®: Experience “Old Time Radio” for yourself by listening to “Saturday Night Radio” every Saturday night in the Member Feed.

    (Announcer:) “Treat yourself to one of Ricochet’s finest weekly features, and boost your knowledge of radio too! Tune in for “Saturday Night Radio” on the A-I-A-C network!”

    • #18
  19. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: When Luke and Laura got married on General Hospital in 1981, it attracted a now-incredible 30 million viewers.

    And Liz Taylor.

    It was also an incredible endorsement for how to get your dream girl through rape. Still bizarre as far as I’m concerned.

    Gary McVey: Well, what kind of man is watching weekday TV mid-day?

    Major League Baseball players. Soaps were very big around the league for years. Hey, you’re stuck in a hotel room or sitting at home waiting to go down to the park for a night game and there’s only 4 or 5 channels on the TV…

    Gary McVey: This all changed with the arrival of Phil Donahue.

    I worked at least a half dozen of Phil’s shows over the years. Besides the star, the driving force for that show was a woman named Pat McMillen. She started out as Phil’s secretary at WLWD-TV2 (now WDTN) in Dayton, OH and ended up as his executive producer and final “guest.”

    Two final notes on soaps – On radio soap operas were only 15 minutes in length. Despite the fact that new, original to television serials were running at 30-minutes, The Guiding Light continued in a quarter-hour format until the fall of 1968. That was also the first season they embraced the miracle of video tape. It is also the 4th longest show in broadcast history, airing it’s first episode on NBC on January 25, 1937 and ending on CBS Television on September 18, 2009 for a total of 72 seasons.

    Soaps were so popular that Michael Eisner of Disney created an entire cable network for re-running them: SoapNet, which lasted for 13 years. Ratings tumbled in the 2000’s and now only four remain: The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless (both on CBS), Days of Our Lives (NBC), and General Hospital (ABC). Prospect Park’s attempt to revive All My Children and One Life to Live as web series were both noble and doomed from the start.

     

    Days of our Lives survives on Peacock, for what it’s worth.

    • #19
  20. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    Clavius: Days of our Lives survives on Peacock, for what it’s worth.

    Still running on NBC, too. And though the visuals have changed to hi-def CGI the voice is still that of the late Macdonald Carey, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of our Lives…”  

    • #20
  21. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Soaps have always been the subject of satire and parody. One of my favorites was “The Soap Opera Caper” on The Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective. If you’re never heard what radio daytime drama really sounded like, this is it:

     

     

    • #21
  22. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Mary Noble, Backstage Wife was a long-running series. Bob and Ray would later do a series of four-minute parodies:

     

    • #22
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Gary McVey: When Luke and Laura got married on General Hospital in 1981, it attracted a now-incredible 30 million viewers.

    And Liz Taylor.

    It was also an incredible endorsement for how to get your dream girl through rape. Still bizarre as far as I’m concerned.

    Gary McVey: Well, what kind of man is watching weekday TV mid-day?

    Major League Baseball players. Soaps were very big around the league for years. Hey, you’re stuck in a hotel room or sitting at home waiting to go down to the park for a night game and there’s only 4 or 5 channels on the TV…

    Gary McVey: This all changed with the arrival of Phil Donahue.

    I worked at least a half dozen of Phil’s shows over the years. Besides the star, the driving force for that show was a woman named Pat McMillen. She started out as Phil’s secretary at WLWD-TV2 (now WDTN) in Dayton, OH and ended up as his executive producer and final “guest.”

    Two final notes on soaps – On radio soap operas were only 15 minutes in length. Despite the fact that new, original to television serials were running at 30-minutes, The Guiding Light continued in a quarter-hour format until the fall of 1968. That was also the first season they embraced the miracle of video tape. It is also the 4th longest show in broadcast history, airing it’s first episode on NBC on January 25, 1937 and ending on CBS Television on September 18, 2009 for a total of 72 seasons.

    Soaps were so popular that Michael Eisner of Disney created an entire cable network for re-running them: SoapNet, which lasted for 13 years. Ratings tumbled in the 2000’s and now only four remain: The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless (both on CBS), Days of Our Lives (NBC), and General Hospital (ABC). Prospect Park’s attempt to revive All My Children and One Life to Live as web series were both noble and doomed from the start.

    Great comments! Thanks, EJ.

    Soaps had or have an odd financial trajectory compared to other TV shows. Most shows are produced at a deficit–they cost more than the networks will pay for a first-run show. The studio producing them accepts that, because they’ll continue to own the show in perpetuity. For example, The Nanny went off the air 22 years ago, but the company Clavius works for makes money off it to this day. But the economics of daytime drama are different. Up until our age of internet streaming, and other than one-shots like SoapNet, the shows don’t have much residual value. Only fanatics would rush out and buy a DVD boxed set of Santa Barbara or One Life to Live. So the production cost has to be low enough to be covered the first time around, because for all practical purposes, there isn’t going to be a “later”. 

    • #23
  24. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Only fanatics would rush out and buy a DVD boxed set of Santa Barbara or One Life to Live.

    All 13,000 Episodes!!

    • #24
  25. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    When Dark Shadows first went on the air, even before Barnabas Collins made his appearance, it was in black and white. TV critics thought it added to the gothic quality of the vampire-themed show. Actually, it was because it was on ABC, the cheapskate network that was last to spend money on converting to color television. 

    • #25
  26. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Only fanatics would rush out and buy a DVD boxed set of Santa Barbara or One Life to Live.

    All 13,000 Episodes!!

    On 6 disks.  The video quality may be a bit lower than you’re used to.

     

    • #26
  27. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Judge Mental (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    Only fanatics would rush out and buy a DVD boxed set of Santa Barbara or One Life to Live.

    All 13,000 Episodes!!

    Oh, man. The big drawback to soaps was that nothing ever happens. Lars Bogard’s Nazi past took forever to get anywhere.

    Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death.

    – Macbeth Act V, Scene V

     

    • #27
  28. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    One inspiration for this post came from a December 2012 article in the New York Post by Glenn Reynolds, “Where Big GOP Bucks Could Matter”. Sheldon Adelson had just spent $150 million on the unsuccessful Romney campaign. Reynolds suggested, only half-facetiously, that Shelly would have done more good spending that $150 million on buying up women’s magazines, which had become more stridently liberal over the years. His point was, many people are less affected by outright political advertising than they are to constant, under-the-radar gentle propaganda that is, in effect, liberal elevator music. You’re not really focused on listening to it, and you may not even remember it when you get off the elevator, but it affects you whether you’re aware of it or not. 

    • #28
  29. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    I remember being home sick and lots of game shows.

    It was worse for us. You’re a generation younger than me. For Boomer kids, especially boys, the dreariness of daytime TV was a built-in penalty for being out of school that day. In pre-cable days, once morning cartoons ended around 9, there was nothing but old, old movies, game shows, and ugh, ladies sitting around a table talking.

    There was a hole, after The Price is Right, went off the air at 11, and only soaps and news. At 1, TBS (or what it was before that) started showing old shows like Dick Van Dyke. Long 2 hours when you are sick. 

    I weep for you as a boomer Gary. But not much, as let’s be honest, everything wrong with America today is the fault of the boomers. :)

    • #29
  30. Clavius Thatcher
    Clavius
    @Clavius

    EJHill (View Comment):

    Clavius: Days of our Lives survives on Peacock, for what it’s worth.

    Still running on NBC, too. And though the visuals have changed to hi-def CGI the voice is still that of the late Macdonald Carey, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the Days of our Lives…”

    I should have known that it was still on the air.

    • #30