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This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.

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Save Our Stella

Poised for a comeback, she waited in the wings for a call that never came.

by Jim Cox, © 2004
(From Radio Recall, August 2004)

There was no conclusion to the tale that had waxed eloquently for almost two decades when NBC pulled the plug on its durable daytime drama Stella Dallas on a Friday afternoon near the end of 1955. The final chapter, in fact, set the tone for a model that broadcasting’s most prolific producers, Frank and Anne Hummert, would pursue when subsequent serials from their practically infinite arsenal of washboard weepers left the air.

Always thinking ahead, the Hummerts would never box themselves in a corner with no prospect of an intriguing story line to develop in the future. Maybe the national chains would abandon their plan to hand over large chunks of weekday programming to their affiliates, the producers reasoned optimistically. The webs were caving in to local station pressure to permit those outlets to sell that time more profitably than the networks. Yet if national radio ever returned to its prior levels, the moguls of matinee melodrama fully intended to be positioned to capitalize on their good fortune.

Stella Dallas was a sterling example of their confidence and perceptive enlightenment. As the narrative wound to a final few weeks on the air, its dialogue centered on a dangerous mission that threatened to annihilate the heroine and her ex-spouse, Steven Dallas. After an absence of nearly the entire run, he had returned to the story line for a climactic ending sequence.

It seems that, as a young husband many years earlier, he signed over some property he owned in South America as a gift to his bride Stella, and had promptly forgotten it. After having a daughter, Laurel—whom Stella habitually called “Lolly-Baby”—the parents split. Stella became the only soap opera queen to successfully make it as a divorcee at a time when that lifestyle ran counter to popular public opinion.

The longrunning epigraph that introduced the drama weekday afternoons stated that she “went out of Laurel’s life” but it was a misnomer; had she done so, there would have been no story for there would have been no complex plotting for a meddling mama to fix. Stella’s efforts were invariably rationalized as methods of protecting her troubled Lolly. Although the girl was a married adult, she was apparently unable to cope with the pressures of life, requiring the daily involvement of her overshadowing “mummy.” Stephen Dallas, however, did depart from Laurel’s life, abruptly leaving their home in Boston and returning to South America to spend his life and most of the serial’s existence. It was he who truly went out of Laurel’s life.

In that distant continent (the Hummerts made sure no particular country or city was ever cited) Dallas eventually crossed paths with an unscrupulous, bloodthirsty entrepreneur, Raymond Wiley, and his wife, Mildred. Wiley and Dallas formed a business partnership that was to develop Dallas’s real estate holdings into a phenomenal enterprise, eventually valued in the multimillions. At some point Wiley acquired an appetite for a larger share of the two men’s astounding success. He rationalized that if Dallas were permanently out of the picture, he (Wiley) would become sole legal owner of all of their extraordinary possessions, including mines, rubber plants, shipping and manufacturing interests. That’s when a crisis erupted.

Dallas revealed to his partner what Wiley had not suspected: that many years before, all of those commercial enterprises had been handed over to Stephen’s ex-wife, Stella. Wiley was aghast at the news and concocted a plan to acquire them. He, Mildred and Dallas would pay a visit to Stella at her Boston rooming house. Stephen would ask his ex to remarry him without telling her his motive—to regain ownership of the South American holdings. Unknown to both Dallases, however, Wiley intended to bump them off. In so doing, ownership would revert to him.

Posing as “Mrs. Hill,” Mildred Wiley aided and abetted her husband’s sadistic conspiracy by renting space next to Stella’s at Minnie Grady’s rooming house. There she unobtrusively witnessed exchanges between Stella and Steven, routinely informing her spouse of the actions their diabolical conniving prompted.

As the drama’s final week played out, Mildred convinced Stephen to send Stella a box of chocolates. But Mildred tampered with the box, infusing each piece with poison. The plan was for her (as Mrs. Hill) to be around as Stella received the gift delivered by courier, to watch her open it and eat some, then die. Mildred was to telephone Raymond at Stephen’s hotel suite to inform him of their success. With Stella out of the way, ownership would automatically transfer to her ex. Before a high window Wiley intended to push Stephen Dallas to his death after learning that news, thus taking control of the South American ventures.

But something went terribly wrong.When Mrs. Grosvenor, Laurel’s mother-in-law, dropped by the rooming house at about the time the chocolates arrived, her dog was with her. The dog loved candy. Before they could stop it the mongrel consumed several of the confections and instantly died. That’s when Stella realized things were dreadfully awry. She and landlady Minnie Grady discovered that Mrs. Hill had gathered her personal belongings and left the rooming house through a back window, obviously so her departure wouldn’t be detected.

Stella telephoned Stephen’s hotel suite to inform him what had transpired and to warn him against Raymond Wiley. Intercepting the call, Wiley revealed his wily plans for disposing of both Dallases to Stephen. “That empire is mine, it belongs to me!” Wiley shouted. “I’ll kill everybody in the world to get it.” He lunged at his partner and a fistfight ensued, lamps crashing to the floor as furniture was shoved about.

Studio organ bridge music indicated the passage of time. A few minutes later, according to announcer Howard Claney, Stella entered Stephen’s hotel suite. “She cries out, seeing him lying on the floor, the room a shambles around him, “ Claney advised. But Stephen Dallas would be all right while Wiley had gotten away. Stephen and Stella discussed what happened, who Mrs. Hill was and Stella learned of Raymond Wiley’s diabolical plot to kill them both and take control of the South American holdings.

“They’ll go underground, probably,” Stephen allowed. “But they won’t stop. They’ll stay right here in Boston until you and I are dead. Oh, Stella, you can get out of it! Return the empire to me and you get out of danger.”

But a misty-eyed Stella Dallas, her longwinded saga reaching possible finality, replied: “No, Stephen, I ain’t gonna do that. They’d try to kill you, anyway. No. We’ll stand together in this, against them, Stephen. It’s the only way we can keep the empire for our daughter, Lolly, to inherit. That’s why I’m in this—and that’s why I’ll stay in this—for Lolly. Wherever the Wileys are gonna hide in Boston—wherever they’ll strike from next—I’m gonna stay right in this with you, Stephen, for my Lolly’s sake!”

What an incredible foundation to launch a new generation of Stella Dallas serials on if the program resumed as the Hummerts hopefully anticipated. It was akin to the hanging endings in contemporary TV dramas as seasons concluded, fans waiting all summer for a resolution that wouldn’t arrive until fall (e.g., Who shot J. R.?). Frank and Anne Hummert made certain their characters remained intact with a story line promising the capability “to be continued” sometime in the future.

“Keep a heroine amorously identified with a single suitor over lengthy spells while preventing the star-crossed duo from traipsing downing the aisle.”

Stella Dallas wasn’t the only daytime series poised to carry forward without much effort, incidentally. A couple of other Hummert properties, The Romance of Helen Trent and Young Widder Brown, projected a like theme: how to keep a heroine amorously identified with a single suitor over lengthy spells while preventing the star-crossed duo from traipsing downing the aisle. If the pair got that far, the narrative’s thesis would forthrightly collapse.

Consequently, as both serials departed the airwaves for the final time, each woman expressed intent to wed. But a car wreck, illness or other malady could easily prevent her from getting to the church on time. The Hummerts weren’t about to let wedding bells ring when they had spent decades thwarting that possibility. If the principals said “I do” then the tale’s hypothesis would instantly evaporate, a provocative theme that had sustained millions of faithful listeners for years.

Regrettably, the networks’ decisions to end their soapy sagas stuck. Hundreds of actors, writers, directors, producers, musicians, sound techs and engineers were thrown out of work. Three decades of the daily misery mill ground to a halt.

Stella Dallas was based on Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel by that title that was reincarnated in 1925 and 1937 celluloid versions and adapted to radio by Frank and Anne Hummert. Ms. Prouty didn’t think much of the Hummerts’ efforts, however. For the broadcast story to encompass nearly two decades, they took many liberties with Prouty’s New England seamstress, including numerous alterations the author and her readers would never recognize.

The aural manifestation, with actress Anne Elstner always featured as Stella, arrived in late 1937 as a trial run over a New York station. Its reception was strong enough for Sterling Drugs, Inc. to back it for national exposure beginning June 6, 1938 over NBC. Stella Dallas was to become one of only a trio of serials occupying a single quarter-hour timeslot (in its case, 4:15 p.m. Eastern Time) on one chain beyond a decade, lasting to the end of its run (the other two were Our Gal Sunday and Wendy Warren and the News). The Dallas drama left the ether December 30, 1955, purportedly for a motive that totally flopped.

NBC was then committed to giving nearly its entire daytime schedule to Weekday, a magazine entry it hoped would make potent inroads against the competition by capitalizing on NBC’s similar successful weekend extravaganza, Monitor. But Weekday never caught on with milady as she went about her household chores, unlike the leisure-time crowd that populated Monitor’s audiences. By the time NBC fully calculated its mistake—yanking Weekday from its agenda in mid summer 1956, though never admitting it had made such a colossal blunder—millions of homemakers weren’t listening to NBC Radio any more: an enduring pattern surrounding the foibles of beleaguered heroines that existed for decades was irretrievably broken.

Women, the majority of the daytime audience, were no longer interested in yarns about Boston rooming houses and tearooms in Simpsonville (Young Widder Brown) and favoring small time inventors troubled by amnesia (Lorenzo Jones). By then legions were tuning in to longplaying stories on rival CBS Radio, to new soap operas on TV or finding other obligations to fill up their day. To the chagrin of people like Frank and Anne Hummert and their countless minions, the fact that NBC Radio would never regain its lost audience during the sunshine hours was a troubling reality.

Poor Stella. She escaped death in her final episode only to become a fatality in the rigors of daytime programming. Yet, if by some miracle her circumstances were reversed, the moguls of matinee melodrama had taken precautions to be able to pick up where they had left off as if nothing had happened.

Because time moved so slowly in the sudsy sagas, the fact that nothing would have transpired during the intervening lapse might have been the soap opera’s most telling expression.

Jim Cox, a MWOTRC member in Louisville, KY, is a popular OTR writer of several books. His most recent one is “Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.”