This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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SOAP STARS: ETHEREAL BUSYBODIES
by Jim Cox, © 2006
(From Radio Recall, October 2006)
Who were the busiest actors in radio? In all probability the leaders of the pack included those thespians who worked the quarter-hour daytime serials five days a week. Certainly they were in the studios as habitually as anybody and likely more often than most.
In an investigative analysis of legions of individuals whose voices were systematically dispensed from the Atwater Kents, the Crosleys and Philcos of yesteryear, hundreds of names have been identified that played on multiple aural soap operas in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. From a volley of data—as might be anticipated—the cream consistently rose to the top. The familiar monikers abound of people who were most often responsible for the leads, character parts and supporting roles in matinee misery. Many of those same actors gathered around network microphones after dark for still more dramatic broadcasts of several persuasions.
In one measurement, 70 professionals played recurring figures on no fewer than seven daily washboard weepers, although not all of those acted concurrently. That indicates either a strong propensity for concentrating the talent among a handful of artists or possibly suggests that they were the most gifted to select from, or maybe both. It is clearly understood, of course, that directors liked to hire seasoned thespians who knew the ropes. They went for those possessing diverse vocal range capabilities and those who had been tested and proved reliable in meeting the rigors of minimal rehearsals and exhibiting sterling performances with few fluffs. Some were employed over and over without auditions based on demonstrated quality and experience. Others competed in formal tryouts before learning their fates. Those signifying a certain level of expertise earned the coveted prizes again and again.
And just who were the most triumphant contenders? The top five and the serials they won parts for:
1. Ethel Owen (22 serials): Against the Storm, As the Twig Is Bent, Backstage Wife, Betty and Bob, Helpmate, Houseboat Hannah, Joyce Jordan, M.D., Kay Fairchild—Stepmother, Life Begins, Life Can Be Beautiful, Lorenzo Jones, The Man I married, Margo of Castlewood, The Right to Happiness, The Romance of Helen Trent, The Second Mrs. Burton, The Story of Ellen Randolph, A Tale of Today, This Day Is Ours, Today’s Children, Valiant Lady, When a Girl Marries.
2. Marvin Miller (20 serials—announcer for those with an asterisk): The Affairs of Anthony, Aunt Mary*, Backstage Wife, Dreft Star Playhouse*, Family Skeleton, The Guiding Light, Irene Rich Dramas*, Judy and Jane, Kay Fairchild-Stepmother, Lonely Women*, Ma Perkins*, Midstream, One Man’s Family (portrayed 20 roles in one serial), The Right to Happiness, Road of Life, The Romance of Helen Trent, Scattergood Baines, Today’s Children, Woman from Nowhere*, Woman in White.
3. Gertrude Warner (18 serials—narrator for those with an asterisk): Against the Storm, Beyond These Valleys, David Harum, Ethel and Albert, Joyce Jordan, M.D., The Man I Married, Marriage for Two, Modern Romances*, Mrs. Miniver, The Mystery Man, Perry Mason, Real Stories from Real Life, The Right to Happiness, The Story of Ellen Randolph, Valiant Lady, When a Girl Marries, Whispering Streets*, Young Doctor Malone.
4. Fran Carlon (17 serials): Backstage Wife, David Harum, Girl Alone, Joan and Kermit, Joyce Jordan, M.D., Judy and Jane, Kitty Keene Incorporated, Lora Lawton, Ma Perkins, Our Gal Sunday, Pretty Kitty Kelly, The Story of Mary Marlin, Terry Regan—Attorney at Law, This Changing World, Today’s Children, A Woman of America, Young Widder Brown.
5. Raymond Edward Johnson (16 serials): Bachelor’s Children, Brave Tomorrow, Girl Alone, The Goldbergs, The Guiding Light, I Love Linda Dale, Joyce Jordan, M.D., Kate Hopkins—Angel of Mercy, The Man I Married, Myrt and Marge, Stella Dallas, The Story of Mary Marlin, A Tale of Today, Today’s Children, Valiant Lady, Your Family and Mine.
Others with 10 or more daytime dramas to their credit:
6-9. Charme Allen, Clayton (Bud) Collyer, James Meighan, Santos Ortega (15 each).
10-12. John Larkin, Olan Soule, Ned Wever (14 each).
13-16. Joan Alexander, Laurette Fillbrandt, Mary Jane Higby, Irene Hubbard (13 each).
17-19. Joseph Curtin, Elspeth Eric, Les Tremayne (12 each).
20-26. Charita Bauer, Staats Cotsworth, Michael Fitzmaurice, Florence Freeman, Charlotte Manson, Betty Winkler, Lesley Woods (11 each).
27-32. Kay Campbell, Betty Lou Gerson, David Gothard, Agnes Moorehead, Ed Prentiss, Carleton Young (10 each).
Our review also underscores that many of the same individuals were responsible for the roles of heroes and heroines in the dishpan dramas. Twenty-nine actors won those coveted parts on at least three serials each. With the number of dramas in which they played the leads in parentheses, they were:
James Meighan (8).
Gertrude Warner, Betty Winkler (7 each).
Clayton (Bud) Collyer (6).
Fran Carlon, Florence Freeman, Betty Lou Gerson, Karl Swenson, Ned Wever (5 each).
Staats Cotsworth, Grace Matthews, Mercedes McCambridge, Jan Miner, Betty Ruth Smith (4 each).
Patsy Campbell, Joseph Curtin, Roger DeKoven, Elspeth Eric, Louise Fitch, David Gothard, Ken Griffin, Mary Jane Higby, Teri Keane, Richard Kollmar, Eloise Kummer, John Larkin, Virginia Payne, Lyle Sudrow, Lucille Wall (3 each).
Of course all of this data precludes specific mention of series other than soap operas which these individuals performed in, some of whom were quite active elsewhere. In addition, a sizeable segment persisted in televised narratives after radio waned. Several appeared in daytime soap operas there.
Not to be overlooked by the volume presented is the fact that some performers portraying fewer roles did so because they captured one or two long-running parts that kept them engaged—and financially satisfied—for many years, lessening the necessity as well as the opportunity to audition for still more. Virginia Payne played Ma Perkins for 7,065 episodes (27 years) and never missed a performance! Anne Elstner missed only one installment of Stella Dallas across an 18-year tenure. Karl Swenson was Lorenzo Jones for more than 18 years and simultaneously was Our Gal Sunday’s Lord Henry Brinthrope for more than 20 years. Julie Stevens was Helen Trent for 16 years. Florence Freeman was Young Widder Brown more than 15 years while Ned Wever appeared as her principal suitor, Dr. Anthony Loring, 16 years. Concurrently, Freeman was also Wendy Warren for 11.5 years. Vivian Smolen was Our Gal Sunday 13 years. Mason Adams portrayed Pepper Young nearly 14 years. There are many other examples of durable tenures as recurring figures.
Soap opera offered a venue where scores of talented artists plied their craft every working day. For a few hours at the studios some found permanent employment that provided them with comfortable livelihoods for decades.