1950s Soap Operas

The soap opera is the open-ended serial narrative, with stories spanning several episodes. One of the defining features that makes a television program a soap opera, according to Albert Moran, is “that form of television that works with a continuous open narrative. Each episode ends with a promise that the storyline is to be continued in another episode.” In 2012, Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Lloyd wrote of daily dramas:

Although melodramatically eventful, soap operas such as this also have a luxury of space that makes them seem more naturalistic; indeed, the economics of the form demand long scenes, and conversations that a 22-episodes-per-season weekly series might dispense with in half a dozen lines of dialogue may be drawn out, as here, for pages. You spend more time even with the minor characters; the apparent villains grow less apparently villainous.

On January 31, 1949, the first TV daytime soap opera, “These Are My Children,” premiered on NBC in Chicago. It was shown for 15-minute episodes every weekday at 5 pm. The story centered around the life of Mrs. Henehan, an Irish widow who ran a boarding house with her children. It was created by Irna Phillips, later known as the “Queen of the Soaps.” “Soaps” had been around since the 1930s when Proctor & Gamble produced 15-minute episodes of love and drama for radio. Allegedly, the term “soap opera” was coined because these shows were sponsored by a company that made cleansers. Although the show only aired for 24 days before being canceled, “These Are My Children” paved the way for a new popular TV genre. Phillips went on to create successful daytime TV soap operas and mentor others, like “One Life to Live” creator Agnes Nixon, who further popularized the genre. By the 1950s, television soap operas like “Search for Tomorrow” and “Love of Life,” as well as Phillips’ “Guiding Light,” became popular daytime shows. In 1956, Phillips co-created “As The World Turns” with the assistance of her protégé, Nixon, who would become known as the “grande dame of daytime drama.” “As The World Turns” was one of the first two daytime serials to run for 30 minutes. It became the most-watched daytime drama from 1958 to 1978. Daytime soap operas on television became a major part of 20th-century women’s entertainment and American culture.

A number of soap operas premiered in the Fifties and lasted multiple decades including the following (with links to video excerpts):

  • Search for Tomorrow (1951–1986) Jo Gardner lived in Henderson where she wed many times. She was a motel owner, librarian, then a B&B owner with best pal Stu Bergman. Jo’s daughter Patti and Janet Bergman were good friends. Stu first married Marge, then Ellie. Stars of the show were Mary Stuart, Sherry Mathis, Lisa Peluso, and Larry Haines. (https://youtu.be/bMhRfHti0MA);
  • Love of Life (1951–1980) Initially set in fictional Barrowsville, New York, this serial tells the story of extremely disparate siblings: long-suffering Vanessa, Dale and her bitchy sister Meg. Show stars were Audrey Peters, Ron Tomme, Jack Stamberger, and Peggy McCay. (https://youtu.be/179JVulMRhk);
  • Guiding Light (1952–2009) This show took place in the fictional Midwestern town of Springfield and centered on the middle class Bauer family. Major actors were Kim Zimmer, Beth Chamberlin, Maureen Garrett, and Robert Newman. (https://youtu.be/DNCV3KhtqD0);
  • The Secret Storm (1954–1974) Family secrets and hidden passions are the hallmarks of this dark, moody serial. Set in the fictional community of Woodbridge, New York, The Secret Storm tells the story of the long-suffering Ames family and their seemingly endless domestic tragedies. Stars were Peter Hobbs, Jada Rowland, Eleanor Phelps, and Lori March. (https://youtu.be/UEO5bbPtfk0);
  • As the World Turns (1956–2010) The focus is on the upper class Hughes and Stewart families plus their tribulations in Midwest Oakdale. The Stewarts fade away eventually to be replaced by the rural Snyders and wealthy Lucinda Walsh with her many intrigues. Stars of the show included Colleen Zenk, Don Hastings, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Kelly Menighan. (https://youtu.be/GDDHcN75HnU).