Of course, we’re all familiar with the concept of the soap opera. It’s a serial, either daily or weekly, that usually dramatizes (often overly so) the lives of a generally small group of people linked to gether in some way. They might live in the same city, work together in a hospital, or even just be members of the same family. The daily soaps especially are known for their rushed production and generally lower production values than night time programming, but they still have an incredible number of followers who will make it “appointment tv” to make sure they don’t miss their “stories”.
(A quick aside: I put the word “stories” in quotes there not to imply anything abput the plots of these shows which can, at times and over the years become quite intricate, but because that’s the phrase my grandmother used to use to describe them, and I’ve heard it used quite often since.)
Of course,like a lot of our entertainment options,the soap operas began on the radio where they were broadcast to provide entertainment to housewives as they went through their day. As a matter of fact,that’s where the phrase “soap opera” comes from as often the shows were accompanied by advertisements for laundry detergents and other household cleaners that the women would use while doing their daily cleaning.
One of the earliest and longest running soap operas was Ma Perkins, which was broadcast on the NBC network from 1933 to 1949 and on the CBS network from 1942 to 1960.Now you may notice some overlap there, and yes, it’s true. For awhile the show was so popular that from 1942 to 1949 it was carried by both networks. In total, 7,065 episodes were produced.
Ma Perkins was a widow who owned and operated a lumber yard (which she had presumably inherited from her husband in the small town of Rushville Center located somewhere in the south. She was the mother of three children, Evey, Faye, and John. Ma was portrayed through the entire run by Virginia Payne, who was 23 then the show started and never missed a show until it came to a close when she was 50.
However, even regular listeners would not have known the star by name, because even though everyone else would get their name read during the closing credits, the announcer would simply end with “…and Ma Perkins.” As a matter of fact, the only time Payne’s name was mentioned was in the last show when Payne took to the airwaves as herself to make a farewell speech to the audience.
It’s often noted that due to their very nature, daytime soaps tend to drag out their plot-lines often to an excruciating extent. After all, people might not be able to tune in every day, and if viewers miss too much that happens in a particular day or week, they might get so confused they simply tune out. This was especially true for Ma Perkins,where storylines could go on for three or four months without any resolution. At the same time, loyal listeners were rewarded for their tenacity with such over-the-top plots as when Ma exposed a black market baby-smuggling ring or when she gave safe shelter to Soviet political dissidents in her home.
Generally, though, the stories were more low-key, and simply dealt with Ma dealing with the crises that affected her friends and family.
Here’s a selection of episodes: