Radio Actors Weren’t Very Thankful 60 Years Ago as Most Drama and Comedy Came to an End

Virginia Payne, star of the soap “Ma Perkins,” readies for Thanksgiving.

(This story was updated from an earlier WHAV News article.)

CBS Radio logo in 1959.

As soap opera fans will attest, the number of these daytime television serials has dwindled over the years. The genre began on radio in 1930, but that came to an end Thanksgiving week 60 years ago.

There were at least two Massachusetts victims when CBS radio cancelled most of what we now know as “old-time radio” on Nov. 25, 1960. Peg Lynch, who wrote and starred in “The Couple Next Door,” found solace at her home in Becket in the Berkshires. Virginia Payne, who portrayed “Ma Perkins” 27 years left an address on the Cape for fans in her farewell message.

“Ma Perkins has always been played by me, Virginia Payne. And, if you’ll write to me—Ma Perkins at Orleans, Massachusetts—I’ll try to answer you. Good bye and may God bless you.”

Besides Lynch and Payne, CBS radio actors and crew members probably didn’t feel very thankful on Thanksgiving Day in 1960.

Actors, actresses, producers, directors, sound effects technicians and others associated with daytime drama formally lost their jobs the next day, Nov. 25, 1960. In fact, most had already worked their last day since most shows by then were pre-recorded. They received their layoff notices exactly one month earlier.

“You have been aware for some weeks now of the changes in the CBS Radio schedule which have been under discussion—changes necessitated by alterations in the national pattern of radio listening and the consequent adaptation of the network programming to the present conditions. The new line-up was thoroughly discussed and approved by the affiliates in their annual convention during the last week of September,” according to a CBS Radio memorandum found among Lynch’s papers.

One can only imagine the chaos that followed receipt of the letter. Four soap operas and the serialized “The Couple Next Door” had a month to resolve numerous cliffhangers and wrap up complicated plot lines. The Los Angeles Times described the pandemonium.

“The dramatis personae will not simply be hustled into a bus and driven off the nearest cliff. Old debts will be paid, marriages performed and families reconciled. ‘The Right to Happiness’ will be unequivocally reaffirmed. After three decades of trouble and grief, the public is entitled to at least this much. Organ music, up and out.”

Besides “The Couple Next Door,” and “Ma Perkins,” other cancelled serials were “Right to Happiness,” “Young Dr. Malone” and “The Second Mrs. Burton.” Other shows axed that day were “Whispering Streets” and “Amos and Andy Music Hall.” The carnage would follow over the weekend with, what were intended to be, the final episodes of “Have Gun Will Travel” and “Suspense.”

Perhaps still cleaning up after guests or enjoying leftovers, daytime radio listeners heard the voices of their radio friends for the last time the day after Thanksgiving.

“Ma Perkins” was the longest running of the soap operas—so named for their sponsorships by detergent companies. The show had been on the air since 1933. At the time of the cancellations, Payne was the first woman to serve as national president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. She was a founding member of the union in 1937 and served as president for two terms from 1959 to 1961. She was inducted into Radio Hall of Fame in 1988.

Don Page, Los Angeles Times radio columnist, wrote, “CBS is going to rub out a nice, little old lady.” Payne told him, “We just finished doing the 7,000th broadcast. I can’t believe it will end. It is one of the last bits of Americana left.”

The “Right to Happiness” and “Young Dr. Malone” both ended after 21 years, “The Second Mrs. Burton” after 14 years and “Whispering Streets” after eight years. Interestingly, the original Dr. Jerry Malone was played by Alan Bunce. At the time of the CBS cancellations, he starred opposite Lynch on “The Couple Next Door.” That show began on CBS in 1957, but had its roots in “Ethel and Albert,” a radio and television program dating back to the 1940s.

Dr. Malone, played by Sandy Becker since 1947, also read a sentimental farewell.

Drama Fades as DJ’s Role Brightens

CBS touts its Program Consolidation Plan in trade advertising.

The year 1960 began with CBS championing its radio line-up. As the months passed, however, CBS slowly began scrapping its dramatic programs. The soap opera, the “Romance of Helen Trent,” ended June 24, 1960. Trent sets out to show “when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair; fights back bravely, successfully, to prove what so many women long to prove, that because a woman is 35 or more, romance in life need not be over, that romance can begin at 35.” Or, at least until mid-1960.

By summer, “Bob & Ray,” “Andy Griffith” and “Burns & Allen,” new short-form programs only recently added to the radio schedule, would also be axed.

In its 1959 annual report, issued at the beginning of the year, CBS called the introduction of its early evening comedies “innovative,” but acknowledged the network “did not achieve all of its goals.” It noted an “encouraging first year” with its new money-saving arrangement with affiliated stations called “Program Consolidation Plan.” For the first time since the radio network’s founding more than 30 years before, it gave those stations free programs to sell to local advertisers instead of paying them for airing network shows. It also cut the number of available programs and required affiliated stations to carry every sponsored program as a means of attracting national advertisers who would receive guaranteed coast-to-coast coverage.

As fall approached, CBS was under pressure from local stations to give them more airtime for local programs, especially the now-popular and lucrative radio disc jockey formats. Local sponsors had stepped up to the plate, paying more for radio commercials than the networks had ever delivered. National sales, on the other hand, had been declining since the short-lived, but severe, Recession of 1958.

“It is understood the proposed changes were initiated by stations affiliated with the CBS network. Many affiliates believe airtime they now allot to certain network programs can be utilized more profitably through local programing,” according to the New York Times, Aug. 11, 1960. The Times suggested more than 50 radio actors, directors, writers and producers would lose their jobs.

The “Right to Happiness” was a spinoff from “The Guiding Light.” Both were the inventions of Irna Phillips. Over 43 years, she would create or co-create 18 radio and television serials, including “As the World Turns,” “Another World” and “Days of Our Lives.”

“Whispering Streets” was a melodrama with a twist. One of its hosts was Bette Davis, playing storyteller Hope Winslow. Each installment presented a link to both the previous episode and a teaser to one or more characters in the next episode.

During the early evening Nov. 25, the long-running “Amos and Andy” series came to end. The show had been on the air in one form or another since 1928. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, “Amos and Andy,” talked about a comeback at the end of the show. It came in the form of the actors providing voices for a cartoon, “Calvin and the Colonel” the following year. It featured Colonel Montgomery J. Klaxon, a shrewd fox and Calvin T. Burnside, a dumb bear. Their lawyer was Oliver Wendell Clutch, who was a weasel, literally.

CBS intended to keep “Gunsmoke” and “Yours Truly Johnny Dollar” as the only dramas on the schedule. That didn’t mean they were unaffected. “Yours Truly Johnny Dollar,” starring Bob Bailey and produced in Hollywood, would begin cost-saving production in New York the following week. Bailey refused to relocate and Robert Readick, already one of CBS’ stock actors in New York, took over the lead. The following June, “Gunsmoke”—which had been adapted for television with a new cast five years earlier—was replaced by a revival of “Suspense.” “Yours Truly Johnny Dollar” and “Suspense” remained on the air until Sept. 30, 1962.

Radio had been changing since television came into its own during the 1950s, but the network turmoil of this period would finally free local stations from the networks and force them to find firm footing.

“Historically, affiliates have complained that after television shoved network radio into a slide, the payments they received from the networks steadily diminished. Now two of the four networks—first Mutual and more recently CBS Radio—have abandoned cash payments as a basic form of compensation,” according to an article in “Broadcasting” magazine March 9, 1959.

Both ABC radio and Mutual almost went out of business during this difficult time of transition. NBC was also harmed when Westinghouse Broadcasting Co. stations dropped the network to go independent. In the end, radio networks reshaped themselves to provide national news and programming to an increasingly local-oriented radio station base.

“We deeply regret the termination of this program, and we want to express our appreciation of your contribution to the success it has enjoyed,” read the CBS memorandum to Lynch.

WHAV airs old-time radio programs seven-nights-a-week at 10 p.m. with encore performances three hours later at 1 a.m.

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