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FLASHBACK: The Hummert Radio Soap Opera Mill 1939

Radio: Hummerts' Mill

TIME
January 23, 1939

One of the oddest outfits in the very odd business of radio is Blackett-Sample-Hummert Inc. Not only is the company the No. 1 buyer of radio time, it is the No. 1 producer of radio material—and, incidentally, a big source of professional exasperation.

Figures available last week showed that in 1938 B-S-H had placed orders for $9,000,000 worth of air time. This was about one-eighth of all money paid for radio network time and over $3,700,000 more than B-S-H's nearest competitor spent. The commission on this sale was about $1,350,000 for B-S-H.

Practically all the time B-S-H bought was used for 15-and 30-minute dramatic serials spotted in the morning or afternoon to amuse housewives, and to push cereals, headache remedies, tooth paste, floor polish, cosmetics, etc. for 19 sponsors. For many of these spots B-S-H's great, straight-line script mill turned out at mass production prices JUST PLAIN BILL, SECOND HUSBAND, JOHN'S OTHER WIFE, ROMANCE OF HELEN TRENT, MR. KEEN, TRACER OF LOST PERSONS, LORENZO JONES, BACKSTAGE WIFE, OUR GAL SUNDAY, YOUNG WIDDER BROWN, STELLA DALLAS, ALIAS JIMMY VALENTINE, DAVID HARUM. All these were ghostwritten by some 14 anonymous authors in the names of Adman Frank Hummert and his wife, Anne.

Fifteen years ago the firm Blackett & Sample was organized by Chicago Admen Hill Blackett and John Glen Sample. In 1927 E. (for Edward) Frank Hummert, longtime newspaperman, Liberty Loan slogan writer ("Bonds or Bondage") and pressagent, joined the firm as copy writing chief. In 1930 pretty, brown-haired Anne Ashenhurst, newspaperwoman, was hired to help him. With his young new aide, Frank Hummert discovered that the jackpot in the radio business was the serial "script show."

Their first was Just Plain Bill, a village barber, who has been spouting homely homilies for eight years. Others followed in profusion. By 1935, when Frank married Anne after the death of his first wife, both were vice presidents of the company, Frank with salary and commissions totaling some $117,000, Anne drawing a modest $21,000.

The Hummert mill produces 50 serial scripts a week, a total of some 6,500,000 words a year. In their Greenwich, Conn. home Frank and Anne figure out the trends of their serials four to six weeks in advance, dictate outlines to a battery of stenographers. Outline for an episode (BACKSTAGE WIFE) may read something like this: "Suspecting that Cynthia Valcourt murdered Candy Dolan with Ward Ellman's gun, after Tess left the fiat, Mary, Larry and Ward rush to Tony Valcourt's penthouse to have a talk with Tony and Cynthia, having sent Tess Morgan to her apartment. Arriving at the penthouse, they are refused admittance by the butler. . . . If Cynthia gets away, Tess may take the rap for the crime. Can they save her? . . . What will Tess do?"

When a script is finished by the ghost writers it goes to an adjunct of the Hummert mill known as Air Features, Inc. for production. No Hummert ghost may even stick his nose inside Air Features' production studios.

By hiring dialogue writers, and not creators, the Hummerts save lots of money. Most serial writers in radio command $200 to $400 a week. For THE GOLDBERGS, Gertrude Berg gets about $2,000. The Hummerts pay a minimum $25 per 15-minute script. Since most Hummert ghosts are glad to add caviar to bread-&-butter from other jobs, they have seldom squawked.

Last year the Hummerts began sending scripts to London to be Anglicized and broadcast from Normandy and Luxemburg to British listeners. Anglicizing largely involved changing cops to bobbies, dollars to pounds, Manhattan Merry-Go-Round to London Merry-Go-Round, Lorenzo Jones to Marmaduke Brown, and most writers felt that some fame or profit from this rebroadcasting should come to them. But every script that went abroad was prudently marked, like those used in the U. S.: "Authors—Frank and Anne Hummert," and B-S-H picked up all the chips.

Not only writers but actors are concerned with B-S-H's system. Radio has no prescribed wage scale, although most big agency production units pay a basic wage of about $25 for a 15-minute stint, rehearsals included. Featured Artists Service, Inc., the Hummert casting agency, pays a basic $12.50 but rehearsals are briefer than most and great numbers of players get fairly steady work (a serial can hold out as long as a sponsor can). But American Federation of Radio Artists (A. F. of L. affiliated) insists that this is not reason enough for half-pay. Last week A. F. R. A., having failed for a year to negotiate minimums of $15 a 15-minute program, $6 for the first rehearsal hour and $3 for each half-hour thereafter, put the case before its entire membership.

This week, at meetings of A. F. R. A. locals all over the U. S., immediate strike action was being considered against all sponsored radio programs whose producers refuse to sign up.

RELATED:
- Today in Soap Opera History (December 4)

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