Go on Pretending

Go On Pretending: Romance Can Begin At 35?

Chapter 3: According to “daytime morality,” good men and women could not smoke. Or drink. Or have sex.

collage of early soap operas for go on pretending serial

There were llama droppings on the marble stairs. And Rose couldn’t have been happier.

“Props!” she shouted, leading to a chorus of chuckles and groans. The studio where they staged Guiding Light for 15 minutes live every weekday, year round also broadcast periodic, experimental television programs. For reasons no one could explain, those programs featured a disproportionate number of animal acts. Because the building had no elevator, the cast, sets and assorted creatures needed to arrive via a marble staircase.

This not only made a clatter — while they broadcast, Rose stationed boys at the top and bottom to stop anyone from interrupting; an aspect of Rose’s job Irna had neglected to mention — but also proved a magnet for droppings of many sizes and textures. There was an ongoing building argument about which department’s responsibility clean-up fell under. Most recently, it had been dumped on — pardon the expression — props. Hence, Rose’s call.

While such matters, technically, did not fall into her job description, Rose didn’t mind. She was happy to do whatever it took to keep the wheels of production churning. Because, as she’d promised Irna, the show came first. Everybody from the Network Head to actors with a single line, not to mention the sound effects crew, the director, and engineers, put their personal needs on the back burner and rallied to ensure their product was the best it could be from the moment the organ announced its beginning until the music faded, promising “until next time.” Rose would have expected to experience the height of worker solidarity at WEVD — though Irna warned her never to mention her previous employer; Mama had long beaten Irna to the punch and advised the same — but, as it turned out, there was nothing like the prospect of money to be made to get everyone enthusiastically rowing in the same direction. 

Money, of course, was also the source of some of their greatest conflicts. Not among the staff, but among those who created the shows and those who controlled them. Sponsors loved getting into the act, demanding that characters constantly use their products, talk about using their products, and marvel at the convenience and thrift of using their products. Irna was a wizard at having heart-clenching drama take place amidst a variety of cleaning supplies. If a villain wasn’t being threatened to have his mouth washed out with soap (only one brand would do!), then the heroine was hurrying to get her laundry done before her husband arrived home and learned she’d been out all day, engaging in who knows what mischief. How lucky she was that this brand of detergent took half the time for twice the results!

Their bigger problems stemmed from all that they weren’t allowed to do by Standards and Practices. According to “daytime morality,” good men and women could not smoke. This infuriated Irna, who saw thousands of dollars in potential sponsorship monies disappear like, well, smoke. It was Rose who came up with having the bad characters be the smokers, but having the good ones constantly remark on it. “Go, and take your (brand of) cigarettes with you!” and “I knew you’d been there. I could smell your (brand of) cigarette the second I arrived!” That way, they wouldn’t be going against the censors, but the product would still be associated with the voices of heroes and heroines.

They faced the same obstacles with alcohol. Even beer and sherry were off-limits. Tea or coffee was to be the beverage of choice, no matter what the crisis. (They had the choice of hot or iced, in case they felt creatively shackled.) Inspired by prohibition, Rose suggested to Irna that she write any drinking as either religious or medicinal. When Rose noted that having Jewish characters would make a sip on Friday a directive from God Himself — what pious censor could deny that? — she actually pried a smile out of her redoubtable boss.

Their biggest problem, however, was sex. They couldn’t show it. This was radio, not the movies. They couldn’t speak of it. This was radio, not…the bible. (Irna had chortled at that one, too, which was the biggest compliment Rose could hope for.) On The Romance Of Helen Trent, one of the few radio soaps not created by Irna, where the titular heroine had been proving that “romance can begin at 35” for 17 years — while managing to remain 35 – they spoke of the “emotional understanding” that could only come with marriage. And not a second before. They meant sex. Everyone knew they meant sex. But no one was allowed to say it. Irna was definitely not going to adopt that awkward turn of phrase for her own shows.

So, on The Guiding Light, characters begged each other to “hold me and never let me go.” They embraced. Quite a bit. They stared into each other’s eyes. And then they somehow ended up pregnant. Viewers filled in the gaps on their own.

Rose only wished she could do the same. She’d told Irna the truth when she answered that she wasn’t married. But she’d never confirmed the implicit promise that she never would be. She’d like to be. No matter how many times Mama told Rose she’d ruined whatever chance she’d had — what man would want her after what she’d done, what woman would want a man who would; it was quite the recursive question — Rose never quite managed to give up hope. She was a year short of 30 now. If Helen Trent could “find romance” at an even more decrepit age, why not Rose Janowitz?


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Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, available November 15, 2022!

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