Go on Pretending

Go On Pretending: We Have No Interest in Upsetting Irna Phillips

Chapter #19: Television may just be a fad, after all.

collage of early soap operas for go on pretending serial

It felt so strange to be walking into the WEVD offices again. When Rose had worked there in the early 1940s, the purchase by The Jewish Daily Forward had been completed, and the more money they poured into the station, the more their influence was felt. WEVD’s political content kept shifting from the left towards the center, with over 50 percent of broadcast time now dedicated to the commercials, which allowed them to stay on the air. Sponsors ranged from mainstream, national entities like Campbell’s Soup, to local businesses advertising in English and Yiddish. The latter was less than professional, which, some claimed, added to their charm.

Rose remembered a comedian named Aaron Chwatt building a whole routine out of making fun of the real-life ads run by Joe and Paul, a Brooklyn, Bronx, and Manhattan clothing chain. The bit started with some cantorial-sounding singing, followed by Yiddish-accented quick-talking listing their wares, then a series of interruptions for other products, including Alka-Seltzer, castor oil, and cigarettes. When Chwatt changed his name to Red Buttons and made the shift from the Borscht Belt to The Tonight Show, Rose kept waiting for him to revive the classic routine. He never did. Not mainstream enough. 

The Jewish Daily Forward claimed the preponderance of commercials was imperative to keep the station broadcasting. The Sociality Party disagreed. To protest what they saw as WEVD’s bowing down to capitalist interests, they redirected their budget to buying airtime on NBC and other conventional outlets. Which Rose, frankly, found hilarious.

Since Rose’s employment, WEVD had purchased an FM station and gotten rid of most of their dramatic programming in favor of public affairs panels debating “Should New York State Have a Little Taft-Hartley Law?” and discussions on “The Threat to Academic Freedom.” A soap opera seemed like the last sort of show they’d consider adding. But Rose was out of options.

She framed her and Jonas’ situation not as a case of creative differences but as illegal termination due to racial discrimination and capitalist exploitation of their labor, which a proudly union-supporting station like WEVD should be eager to denounce.

The programming director, who’d finally deigned to meet with Rose after over a week of near-hourly phone calls and messages which exhausted his secretary, wasn’t impressed. His main takeaway from the conversation was that Rose spent half a decade working for P&G and had relationships with their marketing departments. Did she think she could get them to buy time on WEVD?

It was all the opening Rose needed. “If I get a sponsor, will you put my show on the air?”

A  Yiddish shrug, head cocked to the side, palms in the air, and a noncommittal, “Nu….”

Close enough.

***

It was Hazel who made the match. As Rose had predicted, her walking out on Friday evening — she was still convinced Irna was bluffing and would have rehired her in an instant if Rose just dropped her insistence on keeping Jonas as Edmund — allowed Hazel, the only other person prepared to hit the ground running on Monday morning, to step into Rose’s producer role. Ike, Rose learned, after a few nights of needing to get his own dinner, was now permanently snacking on some nurse from his hospital. According to Hazel, “Better her than me.” Especially since Hazel’s new beau was the tall, handsome actor playing Edmund. Hazel gave credit for her good fortune to Rose, and was happy to make the introduction to a new associate in the P&G marketing department, who Hazel thought would be the most receptive to Rose’s pitch.

As soon as she stepped into his office, Rose understood why. The name on the door may have read: Mark Lewis, but Rose didn’t feel she needed to bother asking what it was before. Levy or Levin were her top guesses, but she supposed it could have been Levine, too. In any case, Rose could see why Hazel thought Mr. Lewis might be open to working with WEVD.

“No soap operas,” were the first words out of his mouth, even before Rose’s back hit the chair’s recline. This was destined to be a short meeting. “We have no interest in upsetting Miss Phillips.”

“Miss Phillips certainly can’t say the same about you,” Rose couldn’t help her retort as she thought of the screaming phone calls she’d witnessed between Irna and the “suits,” as she called them. “She fired your most popular radio actor. That wasn’t in P&G’s best interests.”

Lewis shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Once we were made aware of Mr. Cain’s –“

“Race?”

“Yes,” he shrugged, grateful Rose had been so blunt, so now he could be blunt in return. “We supported Miss Phillips’s decision.”

“All right. But now I’m offering you the chance to have it both ways. Irna recast Edmund for the television version of Find Your Light, but you can still use Jonas on the radio. Keep his old fans while attracting new ones by advertising on a different station.”

“WEVD?” Lewis’s wrinkled nose suggested he knew exactly who they were. 

“You’d have an exclusive on serials. No internal competition. And you could syndicate across the country, bring the voice of Jonas Cain to listeners who miss him as Edmund.”

He linked his fingers behind his neck, knocking his elbows together, staring up at the ceiling, thinking. Rose sat patiently, waiting for the brilliance to coalesce. Finally, Lewis said, “Kraft Television Theatre, Philco Television Playhouse, they get all the prestige shows.”

Rose nodded. She was familiar with both. Philco’s Marty, a play by Paddy Chayefsky about a lonely butcher looking for love, had proven so popular during its live airing that there were rumors of it being adapted for a feature film. Kraft’s offerings drew so many viewers that the programs aired on both NBC and ABC and featured actors like Anne Bancroft and James Dean, all in the name of selling Cheese Whiz.

“Critics say our Fireside Theatre doesn’t measure up.”

Maybe that was because while the others broadcast full productions based on original scripts, Fireside Theatre featured public domain tales which only ran a half hour, and sometimes those were broken into two different 15-minute stories, Rose did not say out loud.

“Ratings are going down. We’re looking for a new host, a new format. Some are starting to suggest television may just be a fad after all. Nobody wants to sit for hours at a time, staring at a screen. People want to move around, travel from room to room, get their chores done. They don’t want to feel like they’re being held hostage. Radio is ideal for that sort of freedom.”

“Yes,” Rose said. Because she’d learned agreeing with people who held your destiny in their hands was never a bad idea.

“So what I’ve been contemplating is we combine radio with prestige television, produce full-length plays, but break them up like soap operas. What do you think?”

***

Click here for Chapter #20!

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To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.

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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, out now! Only $.99 cents in January 2023!

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