March is National Women's History Month in the United States, an appropriate time to consider contributions by women to radio. Radio Nouspace spotlighted several women who made significant and pioneering contributions to the radio ecology with this specially curated collection, National Women's History Month: A Radio Tribute. Listen and enjoy.
Cathy Lewis (1918-1968) was an immensely talented actress, and had many notable roles in several genres of Old Time Radio. In comedy, she played Irene Henshaw, the school principle, in The Great Gildersleeve series. She was a regular on Suspense, performing in more than 120 episodes, including "The House in Cypress Canyon," and "On a Country Road" with Cary Grant. She was the monotone and unsympathetic telephone operator driving Agnes Moorehead to hysterics in Lucille Fletcher's "Sorry, Wrong Number." (Listen to this program, below.) She appeared in several episodes of Lights Out!, Broadway Is My Beat, and Lux Radio Theatre. Her biggest role perhaps was as the star and narrator of the weekly comedy series My Friend Irma where she played Irma's sensible best friend Jane Stacy. Listen to the first episode, "Irma Meets Jane," broadcast 11 April 1947.
Edith Meiser (1898-1930) brought adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories about the fictional consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, to the radio in the 1930s. This example is "The Bruce Partington Plans," the earliest of the surviving episodes from The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio series, written by Edith Meiser. This episode was broadcast 6 November 1939.
Meiser, an American author and Broadway actress, thought the stories about consulting detective Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be perfect for radio. NBC expressed interest, if she found a sponsor. She found one in George Washington, creator of the first instant coffee, and also a Holmes fan. Washington Coffee agreed to sponsor a radio series called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Meiser adapted and wrote all episodes of the series, until its final episode, 2 December 1936. At the end of the first season, radio editors across the country voted The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes the best radio program in the country.
The first episode was Meiser's adaptation of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," 20 October 1930, starring William Gillette as Holmes. Gillette created the first stage adaptation of the writings of Conan Doyle in 1899, and the first American film, both under the title Sherlock Holmes.
In 1939, following the success of actors Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce with their Hollywood Sherlock Holmes films, Meiser began adapting and writing more Holmes stories for a radio series called The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Meiser wrote all the episodes until 1943 when she left the series to co-author a Sherlock Holmes comic strip.
Edith Meiser introduced Sherlock Holmes, the detective's detective to the American listening public and her tireless efforts kept him there until he became a permanent part of our lexicon, popular culture, and mythology. For this she should be remembered, and honored.
There were several well respected early radio series. Death Valley Days, 1930-1951, is among the best. Ruth Woodman wrote all the scripts. This example, "Sam Bass Is Captured," the true story of one of the most notorious outlaws of the Death Valley region, was broadcast 27 August 1936.
Ruth Cornwall Woodman (1894-1970) was an advertising copywriter for McCann Erickson, one of the few who wrote for radio. When company executives decided to start a western themed radio program, Woodman was assigned to write the scripts. The program sponsor, Pacific Coast Borax Company, makers of 20 Mule Team Borax, a popular laundry and washing soap, required the writer to have first-hand knowledge of the Death Valley region. Woodman immersed herself in the project, spending summers in the desert surrounding Death Valley, talking with miners, bar keepers, newspaper reporters, gas station attendants. Anyone that might have a story. She backpacked in the area. She visited small town historical museums. She read old newspapers. Always searching for anything that would inspire a good story. The result was a highly successful show that lasted over two decades, and later became a television show with Ronald Regan as the host. Woodman wrote more than 700 scripts for Death Valley Days each presenting the old west with realism and drama unmatched by other westerns of the day.
Margaret "Peg" Francis Lynch (1916-2015) is often called the best radio comedy writer. She wrote 11,000 scripts for radio and television, creating and voicing female characters in couples comedies of the ordinary. She created the radio comedy programs Ethel and Albert and The Little Things in Life. She was also the first woman to create, write, star in, and own a radio couples situation comedy series, The Couple Next Door, a husband-wife centered situation comedy, 1957-1960. She starred in each 15-minute episode. This example, "Neighborhood Bully," was broadcast 31 December 1957.
Mary Margaret McBride (1899-1976), as a pioneering radio interview host, talked with people well known in the world of arts, entertainment, and politics, with a style recognized as original to herself. McBride interviewed Zora Neal Hurston, famous in her own right, January 1943. They talked about cooking, southern heritage, literature, and zombies. It is a noteable interview for both.
McBride's popular radio shows spanned more than 40 years. She is also remembered for her few months of pioneering television, as an early sign of radio success not guaranteeing a transition to the new medium. She accepted advertising only for products she was prepared to endorse from her own experience, and turned down all tobacco or alcohol products. She is sometimes called "The First Lady of Radio."
Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen (1895-1964), as comedianne Gracie Allen, was internationally famous as the partner and comic foil of George Burns. They appeared on radio, television, and in film as the duo Burns and Allen. As a 14-episode publicity stunt for the Burns and Allen Show, Feb. 28-May 29, Gracie ran for president in the 1940 election, as the "Surprise Party." She actually received a few write in votes. This episode, "Surprise Party Platform," was broadcast 27 March 1940. Listen and enjoy, especially "The Campaign Song" at the end. Allen's campaign is just what we need today!
Violet Lucille Fletcher (1912-2000) began her radio career as a clerk-typist at CBS in New York. She wrote "The Hitchhiker" for Orson Welles who played the leading role, Ronald Adams, in Episode 11 of Suspense, broadcast 2 September 1942. From then on, Fletcher was a scriptwriter and novelist. LEARN more.
Fletcher established herself as THE writer for radio with the gripping thriller, "Sorry, Wrong Number." Starring Agnes Moorehead this is THE benchmark for radio drama. This episode was first broadcast 25 May 1943 as part of the Suspense radio series, and was repeated several times after in different versions and adaptations, including a movie screenplay which Fletcher wrote. LEARN more.
Candy Matson (1949-1951) was a weekly radio drama series noted for its strong, intelligent, no-nonsense female protagonist. She was a compelling alternative to the popular male detective radio genre, and the best of the popular female detective programs. Listen to the audition episode for the series. LEARN more.
Women in the Making of America was one of the earliest radio documentary series to examine women's history from a feminist perspective. Episodes dramatized the cultural and social contributions that women have made throughout the history of the United States and featured programs on suffragists including Lucy Stone (1818-1893), Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), Angelina Grimké (1805-1879), and Lucretia Mott (1793-1880). The thirteen week radio series premiered 18 May 1939. Created by Eva vom Baur Hansl (1889-1978), a long-time advocate of women's rights with thousands of publications to her credit, and scriptwriter Jane Ashman, Women in the Making of America was a project of the Federal Radio Theatre, a unit The Federal Theatre Project, itself a division of the Works Projects Administration (WPA). Following the initial thirteen episodes, and input from hundreds of professional women across America, Women in the Making of America was re-conceptualized and re-introduced as Gallant American Women in October 1939.
Eva vom Baur Hansl Papers at Syracuse University Libraris Special Collections.
The Library of Congress holds all the surviving scripts of the Federal Radio Division, a unit of The Federal Theatre Project.
Surviving recordings of programs are available at the Library of Congress and at the National Archives' Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Records LICON, Special Media Archives Services Division, College Park, MD.
Rouse, Morleen Getz. Daytime Radio Programming for the Homemaker 1926-1956. Journal of Popular Culture, ***date?***, pp. 315-327.
Gallant American Women grew from the success of Women in the Making of America. The series was produced by the Works Projects Administration (WPA), the United States Office of Education, the Federal Security Agency, and the American Association of University Women. Episodes were thirty minutes in length, each conceived around a topical focus, for example women as teachers, pioneer women, ladies of the press, mothers of presidents, women of letters, and women in medicine, science, nursing, aviation, and more. Dramatizations and historical vignettes highlighted each episode's focus and cited women and their accomplishments in that sector of society or history. Contemporary women often spoke about the topic of focus at the end of episodes. The first episode of Gallant American Women was broadcast 31 October 1939. Listen to "Women Building our Heritage of Freedom" below.
Digital Deli Gallant American Woman website.
Listen to and download episodes of Gallant American Women at the Old Time Radio website.