Since our run of "American Family Robinson" is at an end, I'd like to introduce you to a new series we're starting, "Monticello Party Line". The show isn't very well documented, so I'm hoping some of you might be able to dig up some info on it beyond what I found on the web as we go through our run. I've got 43 episodes and I'll be posting two per week over the next few months. In addition, I'll be posting at least two of the recipe books offered as a mail-in premium on the series.
Sponsored by Dr. Caldwell's Syrup Pepsin, a patent laxative, "Monticello Party Line" was a soap opera based around the small-town lives of Monticello, Illinois, the location where the Dr. Caldwell company was headquartered. (Goldin, by the way, in his listings for two episodes of the series, incorrectly conjectures that the setting might be Monticello, California.) The program is based around a telephone "party line", though the actual party line itself is only used as a plot device on occasion in the episodes. The stories revolve around the problems of couples Curley and Aggie Peters and Clem and Sara Tuttle and people in the town. At times, the show sounds like it was influenced by character driven comedy serials, like "Vic and Sade" or "Lum and Abner", and, with other characters moving in and out of the town, more of a traditional women's soap opera.
The show offered as a mail-in premium, a recipe and household tips book supposedly authored by Sara and Aggie that featured photos and information on the town and characters. Some shows, like the set in my collection, have other offers for household items like aprons. Often, characters participate in the show's commercials or Syrup Pepsin or one of the mail-in premiums are mentioned in the context of the show's dramatic sections. The series was produced by the Cramer-Krasselt Company advertising agency in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The agency is still in business today with clients such as Corona, Corelle, and Career Builder - quite a distance away from patent laxatives.
"Monticello Party Line" was, oddly enough, written by Sandra Michael, who would go on to create "Against the Storm", the only radio soap to win a prestigious Peabody award in 1942. "Against the Storm" was known for it's more literate, intelligent quality - Poet Laureate John Masefield was once a guest on the program via a special shortwave link and Edgar Lee Masters guested and read from "Spoon River Anthology". The show tackled big topics like pacifism and the war in Europe and Michael strongly felt that housewives needed something with more depth than the typical dramas on daytime radio. According to Dunning, President Roosevelt was scheduled to be a guest on the show in December 1941, but he was a bit busy with Pearl Harbor and had to cancel.
With the integrated sponsor messages and typical soap opera storylines, I can imagine Sandra leaving "Monticello Party Line" in the late 30s, falling to her knees and declaring "I'll never shill for patent laxatives again!" as she looked for a more high-class outlet for her writing talents, though I'm not sure what Micheal really thought of the series later. For me at least, the 43 episodes were charming and inventive in their own way, a real glimpse of a lost era in broadcasting and of laid-back small town life with gossipy eccentric neighbors.
"Monticello Party Line" was syndicated to local stations that would typically the program five days per week in the morning or mid-morning soap opera block alongside shows like "Just Plain Bill", though I've seen some program listings for it in the late afternoon/early evening block. Internal references in the show indicate it might have been heard as early as 1934 or 1935. The Chicago Tribune first lists it in January 1936. The first reference to the program in the Los Angeles Times is the schedule for September 22, 1936 and the last is in 1937. There are no references to the program on radio schedules in New York or Washington, so it probably ran on smaller market stations or perhaps regionally in the West and mid-West where Syrup Pepsin was distributed. The Broadcasting Yearbook mentions the program as late as 1939. The dates for the shows I'll be posting come from pencil notations on the labels, verified with a 1938-39 calendar and internal references to days of the week and holidays in the show.
The series was broadcast without interruption through program 675, broadcast in March, 1938. At that point, the program went on a summer hiatus and picked up that fall where it left off a couple of months before. My run of the series includes this break, and the show helpfully includes some introductions to the characters and plot for listeners that might be tuning in for the first time.
"Monticello Party Line" might have gone off the air because of difficulties faced by the Dr. Caldwell company. Bottle collectors are very familiar with the product and both the sample size and full-size retail bottles are quite common on the market. One collector site cites a March 14, 1939 NY Times article reporting that the Federal Trade Commission clamped down on the company for its claims for Syrup Pepsin. The city of Monticello has a page outlining a history of the company and you can see an original document on the FTC case against Syrup Pepsin.
I noticed in looking at some of the original bottles and packaging online that Syrup Pepsin contained 4% alcohol "to prevent freezing", so perhaps if you were a regular user of Syrup Pepsin, consuming it in the way it's hawked on the radio show, you might not have really cared if you're regular or not. One of the cookbooks offered as a premium on the show even suggested Syrup Pepsin as an ingredient in a recipe.
Only a handful of random examples of "Monticello Party Line" are currently in circulation among collectors so it's been difficult to get a feel for what the series was really like. All but two of the programs I have are previously uncirculated and, since they date from the same period, give you a good sense of what the show sounded like day-to-day. I'm missing some shows here and there, but the plot moves at such a glacial pace that you can still keep up with the story pretty easily.
I'm doubtful that a full run of the series will turn up unless it's scurried away in some archival or personal collection of a company or personality connected with the show. Unlike other syndicated shows that might be re-run over many years, "Monticello Party Line" was intended to be broadcast only once, so there was no incentive to keep the transcriptions after they were heard on the air.
For our first post, let's take a listen to program 673 in the series, originally broadcast April 27, 1938. Clem and Curley talk about a mysterious new woman that's arrived in town with David Hunter. Meanwhile, Carlton Ross and his sister, the mysterious woman, inspect the old Brewster house with David. The show was transferred from an original Flexite transcription pressed by Columbia, matrix number 341815. The date is noted in pencil on the label.