Queen of the Soap Operas
Actress Grace Matthews left Canadian radio to reign over the weepy world of the daytime serials. Maybe it isn’t art but it sure pays
MISS GRACE MATTHEWS, a bachelor of arts from the University of Toronto, alumna of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, England, and recently a star of Andrew Allan’s “Stage” series on the CBC, has a new title. She is now being hailed by the radio trade of America as the “Queen of the Soap Operas.” Since Jan. 10, 1917, the talented Canadian has been Ruth Wayne, the star of “Big Sister,” one of the most profitable and interminable of the soap operas (known also as cliff hangers, strip shows, washboard weejx:rs and defined by James Thurber as “an endless sequence of narratives whose only cohesive element is the eternal presence of its bedeviled and beleaguered principal characters”).
Miss Matthews is Big Sister on the Columbia network at. one o’clock each weekday except Saturday. Then, at three-fifteen on the same days, she is Julie Ericksen, female lead of Columbia’s sustaining serial “Hilltop House.” And every Sunday night she becomes Margot, girl Friday to the Shadow in Mutual’s thriller of the same name.
She does other odd jobs of radio acting, too, but by the soaps she is known. Sometimes in the late night silence Grace Matthews admits to some surprise at her present position. For it is something that, she never meant to Income. But, she says, “You decide to forget about art and call it business.” As business it provides Miss Matthews with a .$25,U00-a-year existence in Manhattan.
Miss Matthews looks more like the $25,000 a
year than the fictional characters she represents. She is a svelte woman with a Fifth-Avenue look and a big-boned handsome face that would suggest a fashion editor to Hollywood. She has what Andrew Allan, drama director of the CBC, describes as “a personalized glamour which is more than the sum total of her physical attributes. It is a rare kind of magic.”
Strangest of all, these very qualities come through in her voice. Her cultivated contralto reflects a social-university background in every well-formed note. Miss Matthews, a contemplative person by nature, often puzzles over how the millions of her soap audience can accept her unquestioningly as the small-town middle-class woman known as Big Sister.
This doubt certainly never enters the thinking of the producers of the show. They know only too well that there is no relationship between realism and the soap operas and that in the dream world of the kitchen sink the most banal problems can be solved most satisfyingly by a voice which is a cross between Cleopatra and Marlene Dietrich.
The only thing finally demanded of Grace Matthews by the producers is that she be personally liked by the audience. In her present roles it is not difficult, but even if she were the vixen of the piece she would still have to be liked—or, at worst, not disliked. Once on “Big Sister” an actress used a raw, guttural voice to play the part of a nasty woman. Immediately a batch of protests came in from women of the audience. The producers didn’t change the nasty woman; just gave her nicer vocal tones. Everybody was happy.
It’s that kind of a world.
It’s also this kind of a world. Miss Matthews lives with her husband, Court Benson, a Canadian announcer and radio actor, in a swank apartment in New York’s east 70’s. That’s the district where four-room apartments start at about $250 a month. And she has a wardrobe that starts at about the same price. And a maid who comes in every day at noon to do what the press releases describe as “Grace loves to to do her own cooking in spite of an exhausting daily schedule.”
By Miss Matthews’ own admission the daily schedule is not in the least exhausting. She rises slow’ly about nine o’clock, nibbles through breakfast., selects the suit with which to face the day and then saunters
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Queen of the Soap Operas
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down Madison Avenue. Just before eleven-thirty she presents herself in the grey-blue soundproofed air-conditioned vault in the Columbia Broadcasting System Building from which “Big Sister” is sent forth to North America. There is no noise, no confusion, no inspiration, no temperament in evidence. There is no studio audience, nor is there any feeling of the audience out there in Canadian and U. S. homes.
The actors involved in the day’s episode sit on tables, slump in chairs and lean against walls. They do a “first read-through,” get to know what the script is about, mark up tricky spots in their lines. On most soap operas this first run-through is the occasion for actors to make wisecracks about the characters they are playing and to moan and groan about the more fatuous of their lines.
Miss Matthews never kids the lines; she thinks it’s naïve. Her attitude is that she’s doing a job and she’ll do it well. This approach is much appreciated by the businessmen who are responsible for the shows. In their view “Big Sister” is not a story but a property. It runs through $18,000 a week; represents an investment of some $8 millions in its 12-year history. At those prices the wisecracks from the hired help have to be good to make a sponsor laugh.
After the run-through the actors gather around the microphone and the director slips in behind the glass window of the control room. Then they do it again on mike and take a timing. As a rule there is very little rehearsal of detail. The actors are all skilled craftsmen who do this stuff hundreds of times in the course of a year.
Besides, soap opera acting is very mannered and easy to do for anyone who has the basic equipment. In the words of one normally cynical director, it is “a composite of very sad readings, very long pauses.”
Grace Matthews follows the turtlepaced developments of the plot with mild interest, though this is in no way essential to her acting of the part of Ruth Wayne. The acting she can do with the front of her head while she compiles her income tax at the rear.
Just before one o’clock the actors break off and go out into the corridors for a smoke. At one o’clock they stand up to the mike again in the silent studio and 15 minutes later another episode of “Big Sister” has gone out to housewives of Canada and the U. S.
Ruth, Then Julie
The plot of this serial has gone through many convolutions during the past 12 years. In its early days Ruth Evans Wayne, a nurse, was a big sister who tried passionately to become mother and father to her orphaned sister Sue and her crippled brother Neddie. Today she is married to Dr. John Wayne and is symbolically a big sister to husband, friends and strangers, too. Like all good soap operas, “Big Sister” went to war after Pearl Harbor, suffered through rehabilitation maladjustments after VJ-Day, and is just now getting back to being thoroughly self-centred.
At one-fifteen each day, after the “Big Sister” broadcast, Grace Matthews goes downstairs at CBS for a quick lunch, generally at Colbee’s, a popular hangout for the radio-acting crowd. Her lunch is frequently interrupted by a call from PLAZA, a radio actors’ telephone agency which undertakes to find its clients anywhere in New York at any time of the day or
night to tell them that (hey are wanted by a director for another show-.
At two o’clock Grace is back upstairs in the studios where the mood is the same, the people are roughly the same, the pacing is the same and the wisecracks are the same. Only the words are different, because this time the serial is “Hilltop House.” Miss Matthews plays the part of Julie Ericksen, the attractive young matron of an orphanage whose sympathy and understanding develop confidence, respect and love in the often unruly and unhappy youngsters assigned to her care.
By three-thirty Miss Matthews is usually through for the day and the days are roughly the same Monday through Friday. Saturday is clear and then on Sunday afternoon she spends four hours preparing to be and being Margot, female helper to the Shadow at MBS. This routine goes on through 50 weeks of the year. By the terms of her American Federation of Radio Artists contract, Grace Matthews must have two weeks’ holiday from each show. To accomplish this the writer of the serial has to write her out—send her to the mountains, or the hospital, or on a mysterious errand where the microphone discreetly does not follow.
So far this day in the life of the Sarah Siddons of the soaps sounds fairly easy. And it is—so long as everything remains normal in the studio and sickness stays away from the door. Trouble with being a leading lady of the strips is that when everything goes wrong in the studio and you are personally suffering from an attack of influenza, you still have to go on and sound like the brave cultured woman you are.
Miss Matthews has been before the microphone with a temperature of 102 and with a violently throbbing tooth and with a racking cough. If you would like an idea of what radio actors must sometimes go through, try this one: next time your throat is really
tickling and you are dying to burst out in a series of racking coughs, don’t. Instead, talk for 15 minutes in a natural pleasant voice.
Fortunately, Miss Matthews is rarely ill. Only once has her voice disappeared completely. A doctor was rushed to the mike side, where, to the fascination of all, he pronounced the ailment, “globus hystericus.” He succeeded in getting the lump out of her throat in time for Big Sister to become her fascinating self.
Some Hate Soapers
As Queen of the Soaps, Miss Matthews plays to an audience estimated at close to three million people a day, a figure determined by telephone surveys made while the program is on the air. The popularity of “Big Sister” has varied this year between first and 13th place, in competition with 45 other soaps heard on the American networks.
The fan mail for “Big Sister” is fairly large. The letters of high praise are generally passed along to Miss Matthews, but critical letters are kept from her on the grounds that they might dampen her enthusiasm.
There is probably no one in all of North America without a definite attitude toward the soap serials. These attitudes range from a pathetic dependence and love through bitter and undying hatred to a kind of academicpuzzlement. Psychologists can t stay away from them. In the Columbia Broadcasting System’s Reference Library there are more than 40 serious studies of the strip show, varying in length from 10 pages to entire books and bearing such titles as “Daytime Serials and Iowa Women,” “The Day-
time Serial Drama—Its Psychological Background and Its Current Popularity Trend” and “What We Really Know About Daytime Serials.”
The most determined opponent of soap operadom is a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Berg. He has issued a number of studies which set out to prove that soap operas: “foster anxiety conditions in the listeners; induce mental fatigue; induce all those physiological changes in the listener which are concomitants of anxiety states—rapid pulse and respiration, high blood pressure, etc.”
Through all of the studies the soap operas go on their way unchanged and unaffected. And Grace Matthews continues to draw her fat cheques and go on her very urban way. Because she is comparatively new to the business, she is now making about $25,000 a year. Ina couple of years this income should go up considerably. The union pay scale for each of her soaps is only $152.50 a week, but as a personality she gets considerably more from “Big Sister” and may soon get boosts all j around. Bess Johnson, the actress who j played the lead in “Hilltop House”
I before Grace Matthews, and read the I commercials as well, got a walloping j $1,600 a week for the job. Big money j like this is not for everyone; over half j of the 2,600 radio actors in New York I make less than two thousand dollars j a year.
Training of a Queen
Miss Matthews was born in Toronto ¡ in 1913 to a prominent family of I normal business traditions. There was i no theatre blood anywhere in the linj age. She attended a private school for girls, Bishop Strachan in Toronto. It j was presumed that she would make her j debut in her 18th year, but she sur| prised her former associates, and her j family to some degree, by repudiating ! the social season and going on to the j University of Toronto. There she took i her B.A. and a series of summer courses j in acting at Hart House. Among her ! fellow students were several who have since become well-known on the Eng| lish stage; notably Florence McGee,
I David Manners, Kirbey Hawkes and ! Judith Evelyn.
Following graduation from the U. of j T. she did a casual tour of Italy and ! France for educational purposes only I and then settled down for two more j years of study at the Royal Academy j of Dramatic Art in London, where she ! was taught by Sir Kenneth Barnes,
I Charles Laughton and Sarah Algood.
From there she returned to Canada j and easy admission to the John Holden I Players in Winnipeg.
In 1938 she went down to New York, auditioned for and was signed by the J New York Theatre Guild for “Dame Nature.” From there she went to j summer stock at Marblehead, Mass., j where she appeared in “Spring MeetI ing” and “Burlesque.” She was playing i “Spring Meeting” at Saratoga Springs i on the day war began. The following I day the show closed and she returned ! to Canada.
Back in Toronto she turned to radio j and shortly became accepted as the leading lady for almost every major j show. At the same time she got her i introduction to the soap operas. She j was “Soldier’s Wife,” and “Dr. Susan,” and Judy in “John and Judy.” She slipped into these without knowing quite how it happened.
When Andrew Allan started his “Stage” series in 1944 she took leads there, too, and developed new power I in the better-than-average radio ve! hides that were available. In that year J she won three national awards as f Canada’s leading radio actress.
On a broadcast in 1940 she met Court Benson, an announcer who was on the hockey broadcasts from Toronto on Saturday night, and they were married shortly after. Court went overseas almost immediately with the 48th Highlanders and the romance continued by air mail. Their particular postwar dream was of a joint return to New York, where they would spend their lives acting together.
Part of the dream, at least, came true. In the spring of 1946 the Bensons put up the shutters on their pleasant way of life in Toronto and took off for that very tough town to the south.
Storming the Citadel
Now, it would be nice to record their dramatic struggle to break into the closed circle of New York radio. But it didn’t happen that way.
Two hours after their first audition, at Columbia Broadcasting System, they both had leads on a show called “American Portraits.” The Bensons continued to take general auditions; turned down jobs individually in many cases in order to be able to act together. All of the good New York things happened to them and none of the bad.
Then, one day late in 1946, the radio world trembled. It was reported that Mercedes McCambridge, the actress who was then playing Big Sister, was preparing to leave the show.
The Queen of the Soap Operas was abdicating her throne and across New York hundreds of young radio actresses spent sleepless nights visioning themselves as wearers of the crown. Miss Matthews gave it little thought, but when the preliminary tryouts for 20 actresses were announced she was among the chosen.
Radio Butters the Bread
Miss Matthews auditioned four times; was heard each time by an earnest panel of experts including the producer, the associate producer, the director of the show, the audition director, the account representative of the advertising agency, the publicity man of the agency and, finally, the client, Procter and Gamble. These people chose Grace Matthews straight across the board and without ever knowing what she looked like.
The Bensons set out for New York originally with the determination to go into the legitimate threatre, but it took them no time at all to learn that the money figures of stage just don’t add up to a living. The sad fact is that a
month is a long run for the average play that opens on Broadway and $300 a week is a high wage for an actor. And if an actor gets two plays a season it’s considered pretty good going.
That’s why actors turn to the soaps without any feeling of shame. Some very, very good actors have made their bread and butter and cakes and wine in that medium. Don Ameche used to play four soaps a day. Van Heflin was in the cast of a serial called “The Goldbergs.”
In anybody’s language the thing that the Bensons have built up is nice work if you can get it. Their combined income is over $40,000 a year and that buys comfort even in Gotham.
In the view of husband Court and of the world at large, Grace is a success. In her own late-night reflections she is not so certain. In Canadian radio, she recalls, she played Shakespeare and Greek tragedy as well as modern tragedy and sophisticated comedy. She growled her love scenes, ordered a mean cocktail and uttered the occasional emphatic “damn” and “hell.” In American radio her range has been much more limited. The classic parts are simply not in existence and the modern tiger women of American broadcasting are really just painted kittens. In the soaps—where self-censorship is extreme—women do not smoke and they go faint at the mention of sherry.
Once every six months the Bensons decide that New York is not really for them, that its values and its tempo are essentially false. “Then,” says Grace, “we talk of London all the time.” This past spring they almost packed their bags and took off; only the fact that Mrs. Benson was shortly to become a mother deterred them. Two months later they were again in love with “great warm stimulating New York.”
The future in radio seems somewhat uncertain to Grace, as it now does to all American actors, for television seems to threaten the other media. Certainly television will make obsolete some of radio’s more extravagant practices and will make it impossible for Grace Matthews to be Big Sister at one o’clock each day and the head of an orphanage two hours later. Or will it? Will the great American housewife fall in love even more deeply with Miss Matthews’ image than with her voice and be only too happy to see her pretending that she is six or seven different things during the course of a day? After the experience of the soap operas, daring is he who would be a prophet in this field, it