WHEN RADIO WAS KING-PART 2

Kate Brew Vaughn was another early pioneer of the radio recipe program. I had the good fortune to be introduced some years ago to one of Ms. Vaughn’s granddaughters, who provided me with some insightful details to her incredible grandmother. Ms. Vaughn was a caterer in North Carolina, raising five children, when she happened to come to the attention of Mr. Gamble, of Proctor & Gamble fame. He suggested she make a trip to New York City for an interview, for the possible job of hostessing a radio recipe program on the west coast. Ms. Vaughn made the trip to New York, arriving there with twenty five cents to her name! She got the job, then proceeded to move to Los Angeles, with her five children and a typewriter. Along with hostessing a local radio program, which was sponsored by Proctor & Gamble, Ms. Vaughn wrote a number of cookbooks, including “UP TO THE MINUTE COOKBOOK” “CULINARY ECHOS FROM DIXIE” “ART OF PRESERVING AND CANNING” and “TABLE TREATS FOR WAR TIME”. She also worked as director of the Home Economics Department of the Los Angeles Evening Express which was, I am told, the forerunner of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

Then there was Aunt Susan. You may have seen a published, (1989) attractive black and white cookbook titled “Long Lost Recipes of Aunt Susan”, edited by Patty Vineyard MacDonald. Ms. MacDonald tells us how many of her favorite recipes in her recipe box were handed down from Aunt Susan, whom she assumed for years to be some elusive member of her family. When she questioned her mother, she discovered that Aunt Susan was everybody’s aunt and the recipes had been clipped from her newspaper column.
Writes Ms. MacDonald, “Aunt Susan was actually Edna Vance Adams Mueller who, along with serving as food editor of the Daily Oklahoman, at one time also hostessed a cooking school show on radio station WKY during the 30s and 40s. It was through her skill baking and selling Lady Baltimore cakes that Aunt Susan came to the attention of the managing editor of the Daily Oklahoman and Times; her career as Aunt Susan began in the late 1920s with a newspaper column. For fifteen years, Aunt Susan not only wrote a newspaper column but she also broadcast a radio program of recipes and tips on
homemaking over station WKY. Her program was considered “chatty”, as if she dictated her columns to her secretary who transcribed them exactly as they were told to her. Early columns were little more than recipe exchanges between her readers. In addition to all this, Aunt Susan conducted a popular cooking school, from 1931 to 1941, each autumn for eleven years, at a coliseum in Packingtown. A staff of 15 assistants helped stage what became the southwest’s most popular food fair, with an AVERAGE daily attendance of 5,000 -or 25,000 Oklahoma homemakers for the week. This annual cooking school brought phenomenal space and radio time sales with Aunt Susan endorsing hundreds of products”. In the 30s, in addition to traveling to England, where she met with the chef at Buckingham Palace (and received the Queen Mother’s favorite recipe for Strawberry souffle from the King’s chef, P.H. Pouport), Aunt Susan also made a trip to Washington D.C., for an interview with Henrietta Nesbitt, who was the Roosevelt’s housekeeper. Mrs. Nesbitt gave Aunt Susan President Roosevelt’s favorite recipe for corned beef hash and Eleanor Roosevelt invited her upstairs for tea.

Aunt Susan’s last column for the Oklahoman was in 1943, when she moved to New York, where she went to work at McCall’s Magazine as Associate Good Editor and then became Food Editor in 1946, writing under the name of Susan Adams. A hard to find book you may wish to look for was “Susan Adams’ How to Cook Book” In 1947, she resigned from McCalls to devote full time to supervising the “BETTY CROCKER MAGAZINE OF THE AIR”, a transcontinental radio show that aired five mornings a week over 192 ABC stations. One of her many tasks was to train an actress named Zella Layne to voice the role of Betty Crocker. Aunt Susan planned and prepared all the food scripts, supervised a staff of script writers and coordinated guest contracts. Her new test kitchen made it possible to give all shows a live audience, utilizing techniques she had been
devising over the years. Later Aunt Susan and her husband went on to co-produce television programs, including two television shows, “Kitchen Fare” and “Susan Adams’ Kitchen” which ran successfully on TV for 5 1/2 years. Sadly, years later after her husband died, Aunt Susan’s own health and income began to fail and she resorted to selling rare volumes from her cookbook collection to live. She died in Colorado of a heart condition in 1972. The editor of “LONG LOST RECIPES OF AUNT SUSAN”, Patty Vineyard MacDonald, does not indicate what became of the rest of Aunt Susan’s
collection. Her enormous contribution to radio and television recipe programs, and newspaper food columns, seem to have been largely forgotten over the decades.

Then, there was the Neighbor Lady! The Neighbor Lady was Wynn Speece -who first went on the air in 1941 as a kind of programming experiment. She was, amazingly, hardly more than a young girl when she became the Neighbor Lady. Wynn’s first job was reading Sunday funnies over station KRNT in Des Moines..in this role, she played Olive Oyl, Maggie (of Maggie & Jiggs) and one of the mischievous Katzenjammer kids..for which they earned $2.00 per show! However, Ed Barrett, head of the radio department at Drake, hosted the Sunday morning program as Uncle Bill and it was he who taught
Wynn the fine points of radio broadcasting and helped her fine-tune her skills. Meanwhile, Wynn worked for her theater degree, not sure what she was going to do with it, and thinking she might pursue teaching, she enrolled in education courses to prepare herself for that work. But, she writes, in her book, “THE BEST OF THE NEIGHBOR LADY”, one day at a theatre rehearsal, she overheard a conversation that abruptly changed her mind. Some of her classmates were discussing the all-too-common question, what do you want to be when you grow up? Several of them said-with defeatist finality-they were going to teach because “there’s nothing better to do with a theater major”. Wynn was, in her own words, appalled. She immediately dropped her education courses, because she didn’t want to be a teacher of young, impressionable children, simply because there was nothing better to do. She began to think more and more about radio. Job opportunities were developing; serials were attracting many listeners. Wynn obtained a $400 loan from a national women’s organization to get herself through her senior year, enabling her to concentrate on radio studies. Wynn used the last $25 of the loan money to travel to Yankton, South Dakota, to accept a position as a writer, encouraged by a fellow student from her university days. Wynn was just a young girl in her
early 20s when she accepted the job in Yankton, and radio was in its infancy…but growing fast. Meanwhile, Wynn was happy with her job, writing commercials and maintaining the daily advertising log. Her work included research to the various facilities of various sponsors where she learned more about them and their products. Sometime later, the radio manager gave her a 15-minute slot, every Saturday morning, to talk about special premiums offered by WNAX advertisers. It was a turning point.

In the early summer of 1941, impressed with the way she handled her program, WIN WITH WYNN, and needing a replacement for the WNAX women’s director, manager Phil Hoffman turned to Wynn again. She was given a 15-minute program, six days a week, patterned especially for homemakers. She had only a weekend to prepare for her debut program..but the Neighbor Lady was on her way! The show was an immediate success, reaching farm and ranch wives in ten states; many of them were isolated and lonely, so that her daily visits were eagerly awaited. Wynn asked her listeners to share their recipes, household hints and favorite quotations. She sent them Good Deed dollars for their contributions. It appears that, from the very beginning, WNAX knew they had a good thing going. Annual booklets were published, compiling the year’s best recipes
and household hints, letters and readers’ favorite verses. The oldest I have was published in 1943, and is titled “Another Year with the Neighbor Lady”. Many years of the Neighbor Lady would follow–there was even a 25th Anniversary booklet, published in 1966. The final edition was published in 1972. In all, there were 31 soft cover booklets, greatly cherished by Wynn’s faithful following. This tradition had its beginning in 1942, when numerous listeners requested copies of material from Wynn’s broadcasts. In the years that followed, the Neighbor Lady booklets became almost as important as the show itself–and from a beginning production of only 1,000 copies (limited by war time
restrictions), publication grew to 20,000 copies which sold eventually, for $1.00 a copy. And although it was never planned that way, the booklets became collector’s items, and were greatly sought-after in the WNAX broadcasting region. I have a few of the booklets; it’s easy to understand why they were in such great demand. Even today, they are great
fun to read. Wynn had been on the air less than five months when the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor took place…and the war that followed was reflected in the contents of Neighbor Lady shows, with recipes that stressed meat shortages and various ways to overcome shortages. Instead of Good Deed dollars, she sent war stamps for her listener’s contributions. I find that one of the most intriguing aspects of Wynn Speece’s life is that she carved out a career for herself in radio at a time when most women stayed at home to raise their families…not only that, but she built that career AROUND homemaking…and when she proposed to “retire” from radio to stay at home to raise her family, WNAX would have none of it-they took radio to her home, and from there Wynn continued to do her program. Wynn was so popular with her listeners that they often dropped in to visit her, unannounced. People considered her their personal friend, and although this was a burden at times, she never turned anyone away–can you imagine inviting fans into your home TODAY? How times have changed!

There were numerous other radio recipe personalities, like Wynn Speece, in various other parts of the country. It was an idea whose time had come–some other programs appear to be copy-cat imitations of Wynn Speece’s Neighbor Lady Program. For instance, in Colorado on station KOA, there was a program called “Hello Neighbor” which, like Wynn Speece’s neighbor lady, resulted in an annual recipe/household hint booklet. From KOIN radio in Portland Oregon, came Betty Davis’ program–with recipe booklets one could request by mail, and here in Los Angeles, chef Mike Roy hosted a program on KNX radio for a number of years, and authored numerous cookbooks. A penpal in Illinois ent me some recipe leaflets from station WMT in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Hosted by Jim Loyd, this program started in 1963, sending out 2600 recipe leaflets their first month on the air. Two years later, this number had increased to 7000, proving that even in the 1960s, radio recipe programs were still popular. Years later, television would attempt to mimic the success of radio recipe programs. There was, for instance, “Sunshine Home” with Keith & Maggie on TV station KEY-T in Santa Barbara in the early 50s; the booklets they published with recipe contributions from their viewers are reminiscent of the Best of the Neighbor Lady. Other programs would follow, but there was, perhaps, a lull between the fame of radio recipe programs and the advent of the hugely popular TV cooking shows today. However, I don’t think that anything we available to us today provides the kind of impact that Aunt Sammy or Aunt Susan or The Neighbor Lady imparted on this country way back… when radio was king.

(originally published in Cookbook Collectors Exchange as “Don’t Touch That Dial” by author).

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2 responses to “WHEN RADIO WAS KING-PART 2

  1. Hi, I just came across your blog and it just so happens that I also am doing some research on Kate Brew Vaughn. I was wondering if you have anymore information on her — I’d really appreciate any leads. Thanks! Ruth

    • Dear Ruth,
      Thank you for your interest! It is always the greatest pleasure, for me, to have a response to something I have written, a topic that means a lot to me.

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