In 1930, radio station WGN in Chicago approached new employee and former speech teacher Irma Philips to create a show targeted at women and the sponsors who wished to reach them. Debuting on October 20 of that year, Painted Dreams aired every weekday in a fifteen-minute time slot to tell (in highly dramatic fashion) the story of the Irish-American Moynihan family, consisting of a widow and her unmarried daughters.
The new genre took off and the sponsorships rolled in from companies producing products of particular interest to the primary demographic—housewives. The American press dubbed the shows “Soap Operas.” By the start of World War II, there were sixty-four such programs available on American radio.
In the early fifties, after a few failed attempts to adapt the form to television, the Soap Opera became king there as well, and by 1960 the radio soap opera was a thing of the past. In more recent decades the once wildly popular genre has taken a hit as more and more American women work outside the home, but there are still a few of these silly shows going strong.
And they do seem a little silly. With open plots that go on and on, some of them seemingly indefinitely, and the long, drawn-out dialogue that can make a single scene last often more than a week, the remaining viewership is made up of a loyal bunch of extremely patient people. And let’s not forget about the crazy plots that occasionally feature amnesia, evil doppelgangers, babies switched at birth, mind control, faked deaths, faked pregnancies, faked births, and real alien abductions. To name a few.
The acting leaves something to be desired as well, because in the process of filming a daily television show, probably quite talented actors are given very little time to memorize lines, let alone rehearse a scene in which a previously demon-possessed woman transforms into a leopard, but turns out to be fine because the leopard woman is actually just a twin sister no one knew about who’d been brainwashed to think she was someone else. It’s no wonder the genre has also produced so many comedy spoofs.
So why, despite falling ratings, do many viewers still tune in to watch? I started watching my soap of choice, Days of Our Lives, when I was in junior high, mostly because it came on pretty much as soon as I walked in the door from school. I kept watching in part because I couldn’t believe my mother let me, and also because she started watching it, too. Turns out she had been in recovery for several years since becoming a working mom without much spare time on her hands, but she’d been addicted to the same “soap” in its early days.
It wasn’t long before we’d pulled my sister in, too. For years we all watched and laughed together at the ridiculous plot twists, reminiscing about how far the characters, or their evil twin counterparts, had come, and appreciating that no matter how twisted up our lives might seem, it was nothing compared to the dysfunction playing out in what my mother referred to as “the story.”
I finally stopped watching sometime in my early twenties when life got busier. By then my sister had also given up on it. As far as I know, my mom still catches an episode now and then.
My memories of the show are fond ones and when I saw that today marks the anniversary of its first airing, 53 years ago, my heart swelled a little. There aren’t as many soap operas available to watch anymore, but I’m glad to know this one is still plugging away.
When I occasionally glimpse an episode in the background at a store display (or my mom’s house), there are now a lot of faces I don’t recognize, which I assume means the characters I know have all had face transplants. Or it could mean that even a slowly moving plot eventually moves forward. After all, “like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”