31 July: A washed-up soap pioneer

(L to R) Louise Starkey, Isobel Carothers, Helen King, the once-irrepressible Clara, Lu & Em. (Unidentified publicity photo.)

(L to R) Louise Starkey, Isobel Carothers, Helen King, the once-irrepressible Clara, Lu & Em. (Unidentified publicity photo.)

Arguably, Clara, Lu & Em was radio’s first known soap opera and should have been left to its rest when—at the height of its popularity and influence—co-creator/ writer/performer Isobel Carothers (Lu) died unexpectedly in 1936.

The 37-year-old Carothers had been hospitalised with strep complicated by pneumonia. Her grieving co-conspirators, Louise Starkey (Clara) and Helen King (Em), yanked their creation off the air almost at once, refusing to continue without their partner and friend.

A gentle radio innovator, Clara, Lu & Em was as much a comic offering as a melodramatic serial, perhaps more so. Born in a Northwestern University sorority house and snuck onto the air in 1930, the show became a weekday fixture once NBC picked it up for national broadcast from Chicago’s WGN. Its gentle humour and quiet style probably helped provide several blueprint suggestions to the coming like of Lum & Abner and Vic & Sade, even if the three protagonists’ winging most of each show wasn’t quite the style of those two jewels-to-be.

What Clara, Lu & Em did provide, however, was what Lum & Abner and (especially) Vic & Sade eventually mastered, bringing an entire cast of support characters to vivid life merely by the title players talking believably about them. Paul Rhymer was nobody’s copyist, but the Vic & Sade mastermind, who put completely formed neighbours and passers-by into the tales told by three players who could deliver them flawlessly, probably owed more than a little to Starkey, Crothers, and King’s creation than his own legion of admirers might concede.

Clara, Lu & Em‘s recurring themes included Clara and Em’s unheard husbands, Charley and Ernest. Charley was a mechanic and a father of three but more reactor than motivator; Ernest was a father of six whose mattress business collapsed, sending him tumbling quietly into a degree of irresponsibility and benign neglect of his wife. Assuming Lu had a husband, he was rarely a topic, if ever, but he didn’t need to be, considering his wife was probably the most playful of the three leading ladies.

An America wracked by the Great Depression discovered those ladies, with their understated wit and very real life concerns, seemed completely empathetic with the era anguish of real women. This was a far cry from the escapism, which often crossed the line to excess, into which the burgeoning soap opera world lured daytime listeners in short enough order. By 1936, Clara, Lu & Em had become popular enough that the three masterminds could be persuaded to move their brainchild to prime time, in a half-hour version, under Frigidaire’s sponsorship.

Carothers’s death put an end to the prime time version before it really took flight, and to the daytime original as noted earlier. But by 1942, Starkey and King decided to give Clara, Lu & Em another try, after all. They reached to their roots for another Northwestern classmate, Harriet Allyn, to play what Carothers had done so well, and re-launched the show in 1942.

The problem proves to be that Starkey and King have reached back too far in another sense. The new Clara, Lu & Em isn’t very new at all. If it seemed at first as though you were re-discovering old, lost friends, before long the new show proves what happens too often when old friends re-appear: nothing can be quite the same, if it’s too much of the same past.

The nation is now wracked in World War II, but Clara, Lu & Em‘s humour remains of its original Depression life, too much so. If at first it seems a charming toast to surviving those earlier years, now it seems a bittersweet memory book that can’t accompany listeners forward any longer.

The show will survive only until the end of the calendar year. Starkey and King will give it one more try in 1945 syndication . . . but they won’t be heard on the show. Harriet Allyn will be heard, however . . . switching from Lu to Em, with Dorothy Day (not to be confused with the Catholic Worker Movement co-founder) stepping in as Lu and Fran Allison—the future puppeteer and children’s television favourite—as Clara.

Clara, Lu & Em will leave one more legacy before it finally dies, however: its place as a pioneer comic soap is taken in the 1940s by the more contemporary but oddly less of-its-time-and-place Lorenzo Jones.

 

TUNE IN TONIGHT:

Clara, Lu & Em: The New Grandchild (CBS, 1942)

The trio (Louise Starkey, Harriet Allyn, Helen King) learn Elizabeth Anne Wills has a baby girl, prompting gossip and rumination including “the women’s Army.” If you know the original creation, this one’s going to hurt a little bit.

Announcer: Bret Morrison. Writers: Louise Starkey, Harriet Allyn, Helen King.

 

Further Channel Surfing . . .

Lum & Abner: Abner Sells the Store to Snake Hogan (Serial comedy; NBC Blue, 1935)

The Goldbergs: Sylvia’s Tantrum (Serial comedy/drama; CBS, 1941)

For the Record: Benny Goodman and his All-Star Band; vocal guests: Mildred Bailey, Perry Como (NBC, 1944)

Academy Award Theater: Hold Back the Dawn (Dramatic anthology; CBS, 1946)

Baukhage Talking: Midday Washington Summary: The Sergeants Affair (Jack Bell filling in; news/comment; ABC, 1947)

Our Miss Brooks: A New Job in Norwich, Connecticut (Situation comedy; CBS, 1949)

Broadway is My Beat: The Harry Brett Murder Case (Crime drama; CBS, 1950)

Dragnet: The Big Signet (Crime drama; NBC, 1952)

Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: The Bob & Ray Employees’ Picnic (Improvisational comedy; it’ll come to us, 1959)

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