Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Suds, Stage, and Myrt and Marge

I think that I shall never see a soap opera overview lovely as James Thurber's. Alas, it had to wait just long enough for Thurber to reveal Ezra Adams, the Iowa husband who smashed the family radio the better to silence one of his wife's such daily afternoon requirements. It cost him a ten dollar fine and a date in divorce court. "I have no way of knowing," Thurber mused, "how many similarly oppressed husbands may have clapped him on the back or sent him greetings and cigars, but I do know that his gesture was as futile as it was colourful."

Imagine the man in the higher times of the television soaps. His need would have begun with orthopedic surgery; the television set would have fallen under nothing less than a sledgehammer. And his date in divorce court would have been punctuated by restraining orders. I write with some authority on the subject. My first marriage was to a wife who considered spousal abuse to be any day on which I dared forget to set her daily soap opera dosage for videocassette recording.

"He had taken a puny sock at a tormentor of great strength, a deeply rooted American institution of towering proportions," wrote Thurber of poor Mr. Adams. Somewhere in the twentieth century, deep rooting came to need a mere twenty years. That was the time between the opening of what became Amos 'n' Andy to what became The New Yorker's publication of Thurber's five-part "Soapland." Amos 'n' Andy? Well, yes. It qualified as a soap opera in all ways but two. It ran in prime time, as we've become more deeply rooted in calling it since. And it was a comedy.

Few think of soap operas as comedic, necessarily, unless there's a decent parody on the loose. We haven't had one of those since Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman ran away with the police officer. We didn’t have one before, not full length, anyway. (There was, of course, Bob and Ray's murderous skit, "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife.") But you can credit or blame Amos 'n' Andy for making the soap operas possible in the first place, as Thurber observed once he got underway in earnest: "It was a comedy program, of course, and the [soap] pioneers didn't want that; it had created, in George (Kingfish) Stevens, a character worthy of a place in the fabulous line of rascals that extends from Sam Slick to Donald Duck, and the pioneers didn't want anything as difficult and wonderful as that; but [Amos 'n' Andy] proved that Americans like a continued story on the air, fifteen minutes a day, five days a week, and the pioneers did want that."

It also proved that they liked funny continued stories on the air, fifteen minutes a day, up to five days a week, and some beside the hard soap pioneers wanted that, too. Gertrude Berg wanted it both ways; she made it difficult to know whether her creation, The Goldbergs, was a comedy or a soap opera. (It was both.) Paul Rhymer, the absurdist virtuoso who created and wrote Vic and Sade, wanted and got funny stories on the air; he made it difficult to know whether his creation was really a serial. (It wasn’t, exactly.) In between both (The Goldbergs in 1928; Vic and Sade in 1932), Goodman Ace was asked to put funny stories on the air three times a week at least; Easy Aces was his answer, in 1930, becoming the second purely comedic serial and truly serial comedy on radio.

And then there was Lum and Abner, who were so tranquil they made Vic and Sade resemble The Bickersons. They were a kind of stretch serial in that a story might take three months to tell. Like Just Plain Bill’s barbershop, Lum and Abner’s Jot ‘Em Down Store was an establishment in which a customer almost never sauntered in. This allowed the pair time enough to wobble in and out of one after another hairbrained scheme (usually at the mercy of a hustler named Squire Skimp), in motion slow enough that you imagined they treated the horse and buggy like a traffic-busting big city taxicab.

Thurber sat down to write "Soapland's" five movements after spending a year listening to and observing the phenomenon. In a sense he had a simpler assignment than if he'd set about it a decade earlier. Several of the original long-life radio serials had collapsed during World War II, including nearly all the comic ones; several of those had committed suicide by graduating themselves from gentle fifteen-minute exercises that let the humour unfurl calmly to weekly half-hour exercises that brought in the audience, forced themselves to belly up the laughs, and usually lasted a year or less worth of grad school.

Since 1940, Thurber noted, "[m]ore than a score" of the older soaps had become history. And building an accurate record was a challenge.

It waited fifteen years for serious researchers, and it has had few competent critics. Almost none of the serial writers has saved his scripts. If the more than four thousand scripts (eight million words) of Just Plain Bill, the oldest serial now on the air, had been saved, they would fill twenty trunks, and the entire wordage of soap opera to date, roughtly two hundred seventy-five million words, would fill a good-sized library.

Thurber included "Soapland" in The Beast in Me and Other Animals: A New Collection of Pieces and Drawings About Human Beings and Less Alarming Creatures (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948). "This country," he wrote of “Soapland” in the book's foreword, "is so vast and complicated that the lone explorer could not possibly hope to do it full justice." Not even if he has audiences with some of the radio soaps' primary co-conspirators, if you will. All of a sudden I began to think my former wife wasn't so mad. (And her addiction didn't include a Joyce Jordan who took about eight years to finish her girl internship.)

Thurber’s rumination on the minds of the city fathers of Ivorytown, Rinsoville, Anacinburg, and Crisco Corners (as he called some of the soap towns and, in fact, the second movement of his suite) deserves more attention from me than the plenty he paid Frank and Anne Hummert, the General Motors of Soapland, and their Cadillac writer, Charles Robert Douglas Hardy Andrews, once a Chicago Daily News reporter and soon enough the single most voluminous and prolific soap scripter of the breed. (“For a long period, he kept seven radio shows going, and he rarely had fewer than five, most of them soap operas . . . He averaged well over a hundred thousand words a week for years, and his sprint record was thirty-two thousand in twenty hours . . . He kept at [Just Plain] Bill until October 1942. This was his last radio stint. He has written, alone or in collaboration, forty-five movies in the last twelve years . . . [He] answered a brief telegraphic query of mine some weeks ago with a letter, no doubt written between teatime and the cocktail hour, that ran to eight thousand words. In it, he advanced an astonishing explanation for giving up the writing of radio script. “I just got tired,” he said. Why, Charles Robert Douglas Hardy Andrews!”)

Blame it on Myrt and Marge. An acquaintance on a favourite online forum sent me a small pile of radio show files that turned out to include about fifty surviving episodes. Thurber had mentioned Myrt and Marge in the same breath as Vic and Sade for “differ[ing] from most serials in that it was basically humourous.” But I had also noticed that none of my other books addressing classic radio refer to the show in any great comic or satiric context; Gerald Nachman’s Raised on Radio doesn’t mention the show at all, not even in a full chapter about the soaps, though it does mention Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, which inspired Bob and Ray’s routine but was no satire of its own. So I downloaded the entire pile of Myrt and Marge from my unexpected cache and decided to listen for myself.

The show was born in 1931, the creation of a former chorus girl named Myrtle Vail, who had happened into Chicago with husband and children and, according to a few sources, was hit with a brainstorm while unwrapping a piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint. The only thing I’ve ever been hit with while unwrapping a piece of gum is relief from bad breath. But Ms. Vail noticed Wrigley sponsored no radio show, so she reached to her chorus girl past and dreamed up a behind-Broadway serial, casting herself as Myrtle Spear and her real-life daughter, Donna Damerel Fick, as her younger protege Marge Minter. You can take the surnames and put one plus one together without my help.

The oldest known surviving episode dates 2 November 1931, the show’s original premiere. There’s little enough in it to suggest the humour to which Thurber alluded, except maybe the genteel plays on Florenz Ziegfeld’s splashdowns. There’s nothing much funny about a mousy sixteen-year-old aspirant named Margie Minter close to collapsing from starvation as she introduces herself to Myrtle Spear in the next-to-last rehearsal before opening night. But there’s something droll enough in the (ahem) Hayfield Pleasures, led by Francis Hayfield, for whom the reasonably seasoned Myrt and the reasonably green Marge perform as part of the Hayfield precision chorus, the Chic Chicks. And it is to laugh hearing the house organist playing the show’s chosen theme, “Poor Butterfly,” in funereally soapy tone, especially if you’re familiar with Billy May’s breathless, swelling 1968 chart behind Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington.

A second surviving episode probably survived because a CBS outlet in Washington, WJSV, decided to record their entire broadcast day come 21 September 1939. The world behaved momentously enough that day as it was: Reinhard (Hangman) Heydrich went to Berlin to discuss “the final solution to the Jewish question,” while a pro-Nazi contingent of Romania’s Iron Guard assasinated premier Armand Calinescu. Preserving the full broadcast day couldn’t possibly have been prompted by Margie Minter’s seedy foster brother Jimmy paying her a visit, the ladies beginning a new show, Myrt hoping it pushed failed suitor Lee Kirby out of Marge’s mind, and Marge wary over a new prospective suitor named Bellarton White. By now, too, Myrt and Marge also did the opening commercial spots for Super Suds (superceding Wrigley's as their sponsor), which claimed “floods of suds for dishes and duds,” presumably not including the dud that slogan was.

It is from a period between April Fool’s Day 1946 and early-to-mid June of the same year that we find the bulk of surviving Myrt and Marge episodes, including a remade/remodeled version of the original debut, and with Helen Mack as Marge. (Donna Damerel Fick died in childbirth in 1941; sixty actresses auditioned in due course for the part Mack won.) As radio soaps go these are decently written and played. There seems to be a sense that neither of the title characters’ portrayers take it all too seriously; they wisecrack just enough through the requisite soap ingredients of love, betrayal, and a little semi-organised crime, considering Marge’s kidnapping and rescue and Myrt’s efforts to keep it hushed up before April ended. But they would have sounded grotesque playing for laughs a plot line involving Myrt’s would-be beau, Ray Hunt, saddled with a shrewish wife faking disability to keep him, before he turned up dead and Myrt turned up among the suspects.

Myrt and Marge isn’t exactly the kind of character humour you find in such absurdist masterworks as the urbane Easy Aces, the genteel Vic and Sade, or the later, quietly cheery Ethel and Albert. For yielding a certain taste of Broadway’s bustle before, between, and after the show, without the deconstruction of its Walter Winchells, the show forged a soft niche. (Indeed, Myrt’s periodic despair of quelling gossips in company and in print was a semi-recurring sub-theme.)

But early in Myrt and Marge’s life, its popularity secured reasonably, Vail and Damerel Fick took their characters to a 1933 Universal film, also named Myrt and Marge, directed and co-written by Al Boasberg. “After studying their respective talents for more than an hour,” wrote New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall in January 1934, “one is apt to conclude that they are peculiarly suited to radio entertaining.” The three reasons this otherwise disposable film survives were cast as helpers to their original leader, Ted Healy. Their names were Moe, Larry, and Curly. They survived, too.


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