Have you ever heard of The Neighbor Lady? How about Aunt Susan? Or Aunt Sammy? No? Well, how about Betty Davis at KOIN Kitchen? Or Jackie Olden at KNX? Perhaps, if you hail from the Denver area, you may remember the Pat Gay show on KLZ radio…or if you are really an old-timer, you may recall Frances Lee Barton and her “Cooking School of the Air”.
If none of these names ring a bell, maybe you have seen cookbooks by Ida Bailey Allen, or Kate Brew Vaughn, both radio recipe ladies who went on to publish a number of cookbooks, or perhaps the Mystery Chef or Mike Roy, two men who infiltrated this mainly female domain. These ladies (and sometimes gentlemen!) along with many others like them, were pioneers of another sort. They hosted radio recipe programs when radio was in its prime. Perhaps radio recipe programs is not the right term. It’s too limiting. They were friends, like neighbors, who came into your home and shared every day things with you, like recipes, or homemaking, or the trials and tribulations of every day living and making ends meet.
I am, fortunately, old enough to remember the halcyon years of radio. I say fortunately because it WAS a very special time, as anyone who remembers radio in its heyday can attest. It was nothing like the hours and hours of repetitious popular music you hear on every radio station today. Back then, radio began in the morning hours with various
breakfast clubs, such as Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club. The breakfast club on ABC and Arthur Godfrey on CBS were the two very popular programs on radio.
According to authors Sam J. Slate and Joe Cook in their book “IT SOUNDS MPOSSIBLE”, CBS scheduled daytime serials beginning at noon and running for three hours. The magic of these fifteen minute serials is that all the magic took place in your mind, in your imagination, as you ironed the clothes or waxed the kitchen floor. You could imagine the characters to look however you pleased, and you could think of them as friends coming daily to visit. The lineup went something like this: “Wendy Warren”, “Aunt Jenny”, “Helen Trent”, “Our Gal Sunday”, “Big Sister”, “Ma Perkins”,
“Young Doctor Malone”, “The Guiding Light”, “The Second Mrs. Burton”, “Perry Mason”, “This is Nora Drake”, “The Brighter Day”, “Nona from Nowhere”, “Hilltop House” and “House Party”.
Then, at 3 pm, NBC moved into first place with “Life can be Beautiful”, “Road to Life”, “Pepper Young’s Family”, “Right to Happiness”, “Backstage wife”, “Stella Dallas”, “Lorenzo Jones”, “Young Widder Brown”, “When a Girl Marries” “Portia
Faces Life”, “Just Plain Bill” and “Front-Page Farrell”. The soap opera, according to “IT SOUNDS IMPOSSIBLE”, was probably born in Chicago, which at one time was considered the heart and soul of network radio. From the Merchandise Mart and the Wrigley Building came a horde of new titles and tribulations, “Ma Perkins”, “Bachelor’s Children”, “Portia Faces life”, “The Guilding Light” and dozens more. By 1938 there were 78 such programs on the air, each with their own following.
Along with soaps, serials, comedy, western and detective programs, there were the occasional recipe shows, or something like a homemaker’s club. In Cincinnati, where I grew up, we had Ruth Lyon’s “Fifty Fifty Club” which began in radio on WLW and made a successful transistion to television. According to “THIS WAS RADIO”, in the mid-thirties, WLW Cincinnati was the most powerful radio station in the United States. It was owned and operated by Powell Crosley, President of the Crosley Radio Corporation and owner of the Cincinnati Reds (back then, we also had Crosley Field, where the Cincinnati Reds played when they were in town). WLW’s 500,000 watts nearly blanketed the country. Supposedly, the government allowed WLW that much power as an experiment. In any event, WLW became known as the “Cradle of the Stars”
and many big name stars spent fledgling years there…stars such as Doris Day and Andy Williams, Rod Serling and Rosemary Clooney.
But, getting back to radio programming. In the evening hours, there were dozens more radio shows-“Fibber McGee & Molly”, “Jack Benny” and “Burns and Allen”. There were shows like the Bickersons, Abbott & Costello, Bergan & McCarthy (to those of
you too young to remember, Edgar Bergan was CANDACE Bergan’s father, and a very popular ventriloquist. One of Edgar’s dummy’s was Charlie McCarthy). We had “The Green Hornet”, “The Lone Ranger”, “NBC’s University Theatre”, and “Lights
Out”. There was “Inner Sanctum Mystery” and “the Adventures of the Thin Man”, “Gangbusters”, and “Mr. District Attorney”. There was “Amos and Andy”, so popular that President Calvin Coolidge did not like to be interrupted when this favorite program was on. There were oh, so many! I was especially fond of Mr. & Mrs. North and, My Friend Irma., One of my favorites was “Baby Snooks”, played by actress Fanny Brice. I remember how we children all sat around the kitchen table, doing our homework, while listening to our favorite radio shows.
But for now, what I would like to do is walk with you down memory lane, saluting the radio recipe programs. As near as I can determine, Aunt Sammy may have been the true pioneer of the radio recipe program. Writes Martin Greif, in his 1975 “AUNT SAMMY’S RADIO RECIPES; THE GREAT DEPRESSION COOKBOOK” (which is, in part, a reproduction of the original Aunt Sammy cookbook), “Long Before Julia Child there was Aunt Sammy. From 1926 to 1944, for almost nineteen years, for
fifteen minutes a day, five days a week for over five thousand consecutive broadcasts..Aunt Sammy was there..this early star of the airwaves offered advice on what to feed the family for dinner, how to clean house, how to fix a leaky faucet…Sammy was everybody’s favorite aunt…and how did she come to write the best American cookbook of her day, a book unrivaled in popularity until The Joy of Cooking appeared later in the decade? Actually, Aunt Sammy was a fictitious character–the spouse of Uncle Sam–and the creation of the U.S. Government. Continues Mr. Greif, “Radio was still an infant in the spring of 1926, but already the rompers fit snugly and the youngster
had learned to stand up, holding on to the arms of chairs and tables in the homes of almost two million Americans, and began to take a step or two…great strides in both transmitters and receiving sets had been made in the little more than five years of broadcasting..radio was changing from amateurish beginnings, with batteries and boxes and gadgets
installed in a corner of the kitchen…to a thing of beauty that visitors might behold in the family living room.”
The average woman, in 1926, still did all of her own work, confined in her colorless, dreary, un-electrified kitchen. Comments Mr. Greif, “…In a day in which all foods were prepared in the kitchen from scratch and in which the wash was boiled and most clothing still handmade, the average American woman was too busy to reach out for new contacts or to feel the need for them…but then came the housewife’s electronic liberator–radio. On October 26, 1926, an announcement was made on about fifty radio stations across the United States, “This morning”, the announcer said, “we are going to introduce Aunt Sammy…” In the 15 minutes that followed, 50 women, standing before 50 primitive microphones in 50 radio studios across the country, and reading 50 identical scripts prepared by the Department of Agriculture’s Radio Service, were transformed into 50 Aunt Sammies. The American housewife put down her feather duster and listened. Aunt Sammy was a huge success, so much so that it soon became apparent that her recipes would have to be published in some kind of book form. For one thing, the program was receiving thousands of requests each week for printed recipes–more than 25,000 in the first month Aunt Sammy was on the air. For another, there was also the problem of static and station drift to contend with.
The job of putting together a cookbook was given to Ruth Van Deman, and Fanny Walker Yeatman. The Bureau of Home Economics printed 50,000 copies of the first Aunt Sammy cookbook. Within a month, it was forced to print another 50,000! For
the next four years they were never able to keep up with the demand; the “little green book” was constantly out of stock. It was also the first cookbook in the world to be press printed in Braille.
“With the advent of the Great Depression”, writes Martin Greif “which Aunt Sammy referred to as ‘this frugal period’, she taught the desperate poor to stay alive on grain products and milk, and those merely poor how to save and use every scrap for a nourishing meal, encouraging those who could to return to the soil and to preserve the fruits of the earth”. Aunt Sammy’s popularity was on a downslide in the later half of the 30s, and she officially “died” March 31, 1944….but she left a great legacy, and the stage had been set for followers.
At least throughout 1934, Frances Lee Barton conducted her “Cooking School of the Air”, sponsored by General Foods. It appears that printed recipes became available on a weekly basis; the lady of the house could put these together in a binder. Ida Bailey Allen, author of numerous cookbooks, including the one (and only) cookbook that my mother owned, “The Service Cookbook”, also hostessed a radio program. In one of her cookbooks, published by MacFadden Women’s Group (publishers of magazines such as True Romances, True Experiences, Movie Mirror and Radio Mirror), there is a photograph of Ms. Allen, standing before a microphone. Say the publishers, “Millions of radio listeners and followers of women’s pages in newspapers…have bestowed upon Mrs, Ida Bailey Allen…the affectionate title of “the Homemaker”. They continue, “Nearly two million women who have listened to her coast to coast Broadcasts over the Columbia network in the past two years have written to her…she is president and founder of the National Radio Home-Makers Club…thousands of radio listeners annually visit Mrs. Allen’s modern home atop 400 Madison Avenue, New York City, where they may see the latest developments in homemaking…and watch her staff…testing new recipes”.
(TO BE CONTINUED…..)