Early Radio and TV Soap Operas: Daytime Film Entertainment: Ma Perkins, Stella Dallas and Others

Stella Dallas,from the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty, was one of the most popular radio soap operas in the early days of that genre. The movie version starred Barbara Stanwyck as Stella, a down to earth, rather lower class woman whose darling daughter Laurel was to be married to a socially prominent young man, Dick Grosvenor. Stella stayed away from the wedding so as not to embarrass her daughter and the fadeout in the movie shows her standing in the rain, looking through a window at the wedding until she is told by a policeman to leave. This was the stuff of real soaps and in the radio version the young actress Anne Elstner took on the leading role of Stella. Her daughter was played by Vivian Smolen. Film actor MacDonald Carey was one of the men who played Grosvenor. Elstner, after the show’s last episoe in 1955, moved to New Jersey, where she and her husband operated an upscale restaurant in Lambertville.

Ma Perkins, another early afternoon show, had ‘Ma,’ played by Virginia Payne,as the owner of a lumberyard. Ma solved all the dilemnas that fell upon the characters, all the time baking pies and spouting folksy talk. The show originated on radio in 1933 and ran until 1960. Virginia Payne was a young woman in her twenties when she took on the role of the fiftyish Ma. The show was written by the noted team of Frank and Anne Hummert and was sponsored by Oxydol soap.

The Romance of Helen Trent was another favorite afternoon soap which began by the announcer solemnly intoning, “And now, the Romance of Helen Trent: the real-life drama of Helen Trent, who. when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair fights back bravely…” Apparently this type of heroine appealed to the women of the time who were just emerging from the Depression. The drama was on from 1933 until 1960 and starred Julie Stevens, who remained with the show until its demise.

The first radio soap was created by Irna Phillips, a young Dayton, Ohio, schoolteacher whose daytime soap opera was titled Painted Dreams, and concerned a woman named Mother Moynihan and her children. It was first heard over WGN, Chicago and featured Irene Wicker and Irna Phillips also. This was the drama which spawned Today’s Children.

Frank and Anne Hummertare really to be accorded the honor of being the inventors of the soap genre when, in 1933, they introduced the three dramas, Just Plain Bill, Ma Perkins and The Romance of Helen Trent, which would be the prototypes for soap operas throughout the years.