Monday, December 14, 2009


An Era That Will Never Return

The announcement that the 54-year-old TV soap opera As The World Turns is ending as the last of the soaps slammed a door in my nostalgia. Nope, never watched it. But this ends a phenomenon - entertainment that was the commercial backbone of radio and filled the void on early TV.
Soap operas started in the hungry 30s as a great escape, bloomed in the 1940s, and then evolved to the little screen as TV took its baby steps. They were dubbed soap operas by newspapers. A funny nickname really, combining a basic purchase with an elite entertainment patronized then only by the rich. Oxymoronic!
It is estimated that in 1940, 90% of the commercial revenue of daytime radio came from the giant soap companies. So many housewives listened to the soaps after World War Two that as a boy I could walk down the street on a summer day and not only listen to the same program drifting out of every open window, I knew the time.
If Ma Perkins came on, it was 3 p.m. If it was Pepper Young's Family, it was 3.30. Between the soaps and the whistles from the furniture factories and CN locomotives, there was no need to wear a watch in the town of Chesley up near Owen Sound.
I didn't have a normal boyhood with the radio 60 years ago. My grandmother, who was five foot square and tough, never allowed me to do much of anything, and I certainly never got to turn on the radio. But she did daily, her only escape. In our little house near the tracks, we listened to Jim Hunter with the 8 a.m. news from CFRB, soaps from 11 a.m. to noon, soaps from 3 p.m. to 4. and then Wes McKnight with the news at 6.30. I'm sure I would have been strapped if I had ever tried to listen to the radio shows that my buddies did, like The Shadow and the Green Hornet.
Still burned into my memory is that preamble from Our Gal Sunday about whether a girl from a little mining town in Colorado could find happiness after she married a British lord and moved to Black Swan Hall in Virginia. The soaps were just mindless fluff really, where nothing really happened in each show's 15 minutes, but my grandma, who never left the kitchen and only read the Bible, used to gobble them up endlessly.
The soaps dominated radio and the entertainment of the masses to a degree that will never be repeated. After all, with the explosion in the media, with hundreds of outlets pouring out news and weird reality programming 24/7, any new programming is devoured and becomes a failure in the ratings after only a few seasons. New soaps wouldn't last decades, not unless they had real plots.
Another factor is the giant soap companies that paid for them no longer dominate advertising. The days when every single Canadian knew that Ivory was 99 and 44 one hundred percent pure have passed because we now wade our way through tsunamis of ads and pitches and BS.
I do have a soft spot in my heart for Colgate Palmolive and the two summers that it helped pay for my university. An honourable place to work (I buy their products first) because even when I goofed, they paid me. I was once assigned to make soap flakes (this is really ancient history, isn't it) and fell asleep in the oven heat from the machine on the hottest day of the year. As I drifted away, I punched the wrong button, meaning an entire floor of the old factory on Carlaw was flooded with an inch of liquid soap. Every worker in the company had to help me scrape the floor.
Colgate had then moved on to TV shows, and its big star was Lassie. The company would bring a Lassie to each of the factories to build morale. I lined up to pat one (there were actually a dozen male dogs playing the role) and I later boasted to Grandma about it but she as not impressed. For her, TV didn't have the same magic as when she had to build mining towns in her memory and agonize over faltering marriages, when radio was more than just sports, talk and music.

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