Ma, me and soap bubbles

Published 10:25 am Friday, August 5, 2016

No, I’m not crying. The tears running down my cheeks are from an Oxydol soap bubble that popped in my eyes. You see, I’ve been listening to the radio where Ma Perkins has just shared another morsel of her homespun philosophy. Oh, Ma! So wise, so motherly, so big hearted; she rips out my soul! How could I not cry? Why, listening to her save yet another troubled soul always leaves me plumb wrung dry.

Never one to be mumpish about her lot in life, did it ever occur to you that it must have been near impossible for Ma to have the energy and the time to minister to so many when she, in her solitary widowhood, had not only a family to run, but also a lumberyard? And, furthermore, didn’t it seem that she was related to every last one of the 4,000 residents of Rushville Center? (Though the word “incest” was never uttered, it did, nonetheless, leave me wondering.)

I’m not sure if this was intended, but Ma’s solicitous advice also brought solace to the entire listening audience. If a person had an issue, Ma had an answer. Another example of her caring was when Ma always identified everyone on the show by not only referring to the person by name, but also including their relationship to her … cousin this and brother-in-law that, ceaselessly letting the listeners know each individual’s place in the familial scheme of things.

Email newsletter signup

In 1933, “Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins” began on NBC. It ran for fifteen years before CBS picked it up for an additional eighteen years. But when the detergent company dropped its sponsorship in 1956, it left the show struggling for a new patron. How Oxydol could have done such a thing is beyond me. Where were their brains? Didn’t they know that within the bosom of this cherubic spouseless lady beat a heart of the purest gold; a heart that bled for not only the residents of Rushville Center, but for all of humanity? For gosh sakes, Ma was everyone’s ma? She didn’t get the title of “America’s Mother of the Airwaves,” for sitting around doing nothing, you know!

Widow Perkins was the consummate Mother Hen to her three offspring Evey, Fay and John, but under her wings was also enfolded every resident in her small southern town. There wasn’t a single radio episode devoid of either tears, crises, drama — or a combination of all three. Still, the program was not what you’d call fast-paced. In fact, in a typical year no more than three or four major upheavals occurred, each followed by a long quiet spell in which there was time for the listeners to recover from the trauma. Naturally, Ma Perkins wisely used these lulls by filling them with brutally protracted discussions of her meaning of life amid the ceaseless, ever-changing tapestry of Rushville Center.

Interestingly, early on in the program’s history, Ma was not the sweet woman we grew to love. Instead she was portrayed as combative and spiteful. I know … it doesn’t seem possible. But, with their snarky prime star being such an embittered wretch, Oxydol’s soap sales were poor, so they softened Ma into a kindhearted, sappy sage who ministered to the minions.

The story plots stayed pretty much within a small town’s understandings, but on two occasions they became not only memorable, but weird and far-fetched. One particularly noteworthy incident was when the loveable Ma exposed a black market baby-napping ring. What? Baby-nappers in Rushville Center? But as outrageous as this was, it didn’t hold a candle to the time Ma harbored two Soviet political dissidents within the walls of her very own home! Ma, I tell you, was a gutsy gal!

The series ran for a total of 7,065 episodes! (I’m pretty sure my mother listened to all 7,065!) Ma Perkins was played by Virginia Payne who began her on-air life as the matronly Ma when she was only 23 years old. And, get this. She never missed a single performance in the program’s amazing 27-year run! That’s what you call dedication. And who, I ask you, would you rather be dedicated to than our Ma?

Even though credit was given to all the actors at the end of each episode, Virginia Payne’s name was never mentioned throughout the entire 27 years. Never, that is, until the very last program. It was the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 25, 1960, when the audience finally learned Ma’s real name. Up until then, she was only mentioned as “Ma Perkins.” Finally, on the 7,065th program, Virginia Payne gave a farewell address in which she at last revealed her true self … and with that the door was closed on Rushville Center forever. Whomp!

As the studio lights faded, women all over America sighed their goodbyes to not only their “mother,” but also to such beloved characters as Shuffle Shover, Ma’s best friend. Abandoned and bereft, many a housewife seriously wondered how she could carry on without Ma, her commonsensical guide and homespun guru who made house calls to kitchens. Goodbye, so long, happy trails, Ma Perkins … and good luck selling lumber to Russia after secreting away their two skedaddling Soviet defectors!

It would be unfair to not expand on Oxydol here, for it was this product that put the word “soap” in soap opera — something for which many a lonely housewife was eternally grateful. Oxydol soap was created in England in 1914, and used for dishes and household cleaning. Later, in 1927, it was purchased by Proctor and Gamble who advertised it as a complete household soap.

Doing the laundry in those days was a monumental chore. Although washing machines existed, few could afford them for this was the time of the Great Depression. Therefore housewives across America did laundry in wash tubs with washboards and lots of elbow grease. Laundry soap came in various shapes: bar, flake and granulated — and not all soaps were equal.

Despite working their fingers to the bone, there were only marginal results. Laundry remained grimy due to these inferior soaps. Sore arms, chapped hands and aching backs were more common than sparkling clothes. The only happy campers in town were the liniment and hand cream companies.

Then along came Oxydol and many a hausfrau’s red hands vanished. Hanging outdoors in view of everyone, savvy Oxydol converts had the brightest, whitest and most dazzling laundry displays in the entire neighborhood!

Oxydol claimed that it eliminated dirt 25-40 percent faster than any other soap, plus it made whites four-to-five shades whiter. And with the whites getting whiter, there was no need to boil the clothes! Oxydol was throwing off laundry shackles right and left, setting women free!

Then as the Depression ended, folks had money to spend. Dilapidated washboards were joyously tossed out and replaced with washing machines. Ma Perkin’s announcer, Charlie Warren, proclaimed there was now a “New Lifetime Oxydol” which washed white clothes “white for life.” Imagine! Whites staying brilliantly white for the life of the clothes. Even when these garments were worn to shreds, they lived on as blindingly white dust cloths, sopping up unpleasant household messes everywhere.

By the 1950s, however, this boastful soap spiel had become old. After all, how could white get any whiter than white? That’s when Charlie Warren added that Oxydol was also deep cleaning. Moreover it washed away the toughest crammed-in dirt with only one rinse. Furthermore colored clothes remained “bright for life.” Still, all the hype wasn’t enough. Oxydol soap met its demise when laundry detergents began pushing it aside. So, in 1950, a transformed Oxydol went from being a soap to being a detergent, with a new color-safe oxygen bleach. Nothing extra was needed, it claimed, to rid laundry of its dirt and gunk. And what Hormel Hog Kill housewife didn’t want an end to her husband’s dirt and gunk?

To its credit, Oxydol was recognized as giving birth to the “soap opera.” For 23 long years it sponsored Ma Perkins and enjoyed the closest program/sponsor relationship that ever existed during the golden age of radio. Those were the days, my friend. I thought they’d never end.

I miss you, Ma.

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of two books: “Potato In A Rice Bowl” and “Wondahful Mammaries.” Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”