Broadcasting's most enduring genre emerged in Chicago's radio studios in the early 1930s, the outcome of an experiment to determine whether daytime network programming would attract audiences and sponsors.
Sharing the credit for the earliest soaps were Irna Phillips, a WGN staff writer, and the advertising agency team of Anne Ashenhurst and her eventual husband, Frank Hummert. Ms. Phillips's initial offering, Painted Dreams, the saga of Mother Moynihan and her extended family, debuted locally on WGN in October 1930. Following a dispute with management, Phillips left WGN in April 1932. Two months later her Today's Children —a thinly veiled remake of Painted Dreams in which the Moynihan clan became the Moran family—began airing on WMAQ. CBS brought Painted Dreams to the network in September 1933.
Meanwhile, Hummert and Ashenhurst introduced NBC network audiences to Betty and Bob (featuring a young Don Ameche as Bob) in October 1932, Just Plain Bill in March 1933, and Ma Perkins nine months later.
These 15-minute episodes soon came to occupy a central place in the culture of the American housewife. Advertisers flocked to them as readily as listeners, and their forever unresolved multithreaded plots provided a template for repeated imitation. Irna Phillips thus earned the title “Queen of the Soap Operas.” The Hummerts' writing team churned out as many as 90 episodes weekly. Thanks largely to the soaps, the combined daytime revenues of NBC and CBS more than trebled between 1932 and 1939.
Only at the end of World War II did the soaps begin their irreversible exodus from the Chicago studios where they were born.
Barnouw, Erik. A Tower in Babel. 1966.
Dennison, Merrill. “Soap Opera.” Harper's 180 (April 1940).
Lavin, Marilyn. “Creating Consumers in the 1930s: Irna Phillips and the Radio Soap Opera.” Journal of Consumer Research 22 ( June 1955).
The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago © 2005 Chicago Historical Society.
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