The birth of the soap opera

The cast of Painted Dreams
The cast of Painted Dreams

On 20 October 1930 the first episode of "Painted Dreams" was broadcast on WGN radio in Chicago. It is now widely recognised to be the first example of what became known as the "soap opera", now frequently shortened to "soap". The producer of the show was Frank Hummert, a vice-president of the Chicago advertising agency of Blackett & Sample which Hummert had joined three years earlier. The agency was jointly owned by Hill Blackett and John Glen Sample.

Hill Blackett was born in 1892 in Alaska, where his father was working as a lawyer, and christened Vernive Hill Blackett, (Hill was his mother’s maiden name), but was largely raised by an aunt in his parents’ home state of Iowa. After managing an advertising agency in California, in 1923 he teamed up with John Glen Sample to form the Blackett & Sample (later known as Blackett-Sample-Hummert) agency, which by the late 1930s was the largest buyer of radio time in the United States. It was also the largest producer of radio material in the country, specialising in 15 or 30 minute daytime radio dramas and serials, such as “Little Orphan Annie”. Among its clients who sponsored many of the serials was the giant consumer products firm of Procter & Gamble. By 1942 Time magazine was describing Blackett-Sample-Hummert as running “the biggest soap-opera factory in the world”.

Hill Blackett was also active in US politics (see Blacketts in Politics) but despite being a member of the Republican National Committee, did not let politics stand in the way of good business, and, in 1939, three years after the failure of the presidential campaign he had guided, Blackett-Sample-Hummert collaborated with the Democratic president’s son, Elliott Roosevelt, in attempting to place transcriptions of some of its cheaper CBS and NBC serials for night-time broadcasting on smaller stations, including Elliott Roosevelt’s Texas State Network. When they met with opposition Elliott Roosevelt decided to set up a new radio network, Transcontinental Broadcasting System (TBS). Unfortunately the venture failed and TBS went into receivership.

The Blackett-Sample-Hummert partnership was dissolved on 31 December 1943, but the agency continued under another name. Hill Blackett died in 1967 in Florida.

Blackett’s Ridge in Arizona (see Blacketts on the Map) is named after Hill’s son, Hill Blackett Junior.

Hill Blackett 1892-1967
Hill Blackett 1892-1967