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.”
15 thoughts on “Like Sands Through the Hourglass”
Haven’t watched it in years? Don’t worry, I’ll get you caught up.
Later, that same afternoon…
(Don’t remember where I heard this-I think from a Golden Girls episode-but so true!)
Kimberly’s baby! I’m not sure if it was “Days of Our Lives” or “The Young and the Restless” – but Kimberly’s baby was abducted and ten year’s later I was still surreptitiously watching to see if it had been found! That was in the days when I’d do anything to avoid having to face doing a university assignment.
College was the worst. I watched two of them then because my roommate was hooked on The Young and the Restless.
Oh man, this brings up memories of my grandma who LOVED her soaps. You did not disturb that woman when they were on (and it seemed like they were on ALL day when she’d babysit me in the summer). I never got hooked, but I do notice many prime time shows have taken the sudsy hint and, even though the episode will wrap up, have romantic subplots that never seem to end.
Oh yes. You do NOT interrupt the stories.
I watched Days of Our Lives for awhile – also while in Junior High! 🙂 I grew out of it pretty fast though. You’re right – it’s hard to have patience for those never-ending plots. My grandma also loved her soap operas – Bold and the Beautiful and Young and the Restless were her go-tos.
I’m sure I would have given it up sooner, but it was such a family bonding experience for us. When I got married, my sister painted “Horton” Christmas ornaments for us, with some extras for future family members.
The family bonding would make it much more fun 🙂 That is so cool your sister did that!
I inheirited my mom’s “stories” but soon tired of them. Her beloved characters seemed old to me. I wanted my own. So along came Love Is a Many Splendored Thing, which despite a horrendous title spoke to me of love being a splendored thing to be felt on top of a wind swept cliff overlooking a city panorama where you could imagine hundreds of lovers discovering love down in those depths. One Life to Live came soon after, to show that all those unobserved splendid lovers had to eventually settle down and focus. The thing about OLTL though was that the main character lived two very different lives due to what we then called a split personality. This was accentuated by a jarring replacement of the actress after years of knowing her inside and out. Talk about suspension of reality! But then along came All My Children! Erica Kane was a mere slip of sixteen years old when she fell deeply in love. But she had an evil heart and was her own worst enemy, going through men and marriages like Scarlett O’Hara on steroids.
I say all this to say … well … I don’t know why I say all this. But indeed some fine actors came from the melodramatic- fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants training. None more important that my beloved Tommy Lee Jones.
Oh for sure! I feel sorry for the actors on Soaps because they work under kind of impossible conditions. They really don’t have the opportunity to showcase their best stuff.
Also, the male actors must spend ten hours a day in the gym.For years at a time, too. Even the guys who play superheroes get a little bit of a break between movies to enjoy a slice of pizza.
I am pretty sure ‘Days Of Our Lives’ also showed on NZ TV – not 100% sure though. We certainly got a lot of the Aussie soaps in the same vein, along with our home-grown ‘Shortland Street’, about a fictional hospital in a real Auckland street that was itself named (oddly) after a pioneering doctor. It was so execrably, embarrassingly bad it made ‘Days Of Our Lives’, ‘Coronation Street’ etc look like high dramatic art. That said, the worst line in the first episode was so unutterably cringe-worthy it’s become iconic Kiwiana – a nurse introduces and back-stories a character by saying: ‘You’re not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata’.
That does sound pretty cringe-worthy, though it’s hard to imagine it might have been more ridiculous. Days once had a serial killer plot and the brought all the victim’s back by a twist in which the town’s most evil villain had actual faked their deaths, kidnapped them, and placed them in a fabricated duplicate town. I don’t know that it was ever explained exactly why. That’s just what villains do, I guess. 🙂
I remember watching episodes of Young and the Restless and the other CBS soaps with my grandmother when I wasn’t in school. She would record them on her VCR anytime she was out of the house during the afternoon so she could watch them later.