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Clara, Lu 'n' Em (Radio program)



"Clara," "Lu," and "Em" were the stage names of the three women--all alumnae of Northwestern University--who portrayed the characters in one of the first radio sopa operas, which ran from 1930-1946.

Louise Starkey (1905-1969), from Des Moines, IA, graduated from Northwestern University’s School of Speech in 1927. Isobel Carothers (1900-1937), also from Des Moines, and Helen King (1904-1970), born in California but raised in Peoria, both graduated in 1926. The three participated in several of the many drama and literary societies at Northwestern and were members of the Zeta Phi Eta communications sorority. To entertain their sorority sisters, the three would drop their collegiate sophistication and carry on extempore humorous dialogues in the nasal twang characteristic of their relatives back home. They called themselves “Clara” (Louise), “Lu” (Isobel), and “Em” (Helen).

After graduation, they scattered across the country to pursue teaching or performing careers. When all three ended up back in Evanston by 1930, they put an act together, resurrecting the characters that had so amused the Zeta Phi Etas at NU, and choosing radio as their medium. The first radio station they approached turned them down without an audition, commenting that there was no place for women’s skits in radio. Next they tried WGN, Chicago’s NBC affiliate. Asked to describe their act, they said, “We talk.” The station manager asked what they talked about, and when they replied “Anything,” he told them to talk about Rudy Vallee—which they did with such charming chatter that they were offered a two-week trial on the local station, followed by a four-year contract, which, within a year, gave Clara, Lu ‘n’ Em a national audience on NBC stations (Blue Network).

Listeners soon became acquainted with the individual personalities of the girls--they were never called women--and with their families. Clara Roach (Starkey) was bossy, organized, rather large, and a staunch Republican. She and her husband, Charley, a mechanic who owned his own garage, had two children, Herman and August. Lulu Casey (Carothers), widow of the late George, with one daughter, Florabelle, was scatterbrained, dim, and flighty. She considered herself a member of the “Social” Party. Emma Krueger (King)—disorganized, impractical, forgetful, and a diehard Democrat--was married to the hapless Ernest, who had trouble holding a job; their six children were Junior, Esmeralda, Geraldine, Little Em, Archie, and Alvin.

Clara, Lu ‘n’ Em was an early adopter of the “show about nothing” style. The friends might comfortably discuss potatoes and politics in the same breath, or speculate at length about whether women make decisions based on “ductive reason” or “tuition.” The fact that Clara, Lu, and Em were portrayed by well-educated professional women was never hidden from the audience. Rather, the contrast between Louise, Isobel, and Helen and the “three chatterbox gals, those neighborhood nitwits, queens of the washtub” from Peoria, with their bad grammar, frumpy hats, and tenuous grasp of current affairs, was part of the appeal of the show, and often the focus of press releases and interviews.

In 1931, Colgate-Palmolive-Peet, manufacturer of personal and household products, and specifically, its Super Suds dishwashing detergent—was Clara, Lu ‘n’ Em’s first sponsor on NBC. For the next four years, Clara, Lu ‘n’ Em was the voice—and face—of Supersuds. The girls were featured in print ads—often in full-page serial-like story ads depicting the ladies from Peoria in typical situations, expressing their appreciation for the product in their inimitable homespun, malaprop-laden style. They also made public appearances in costume, in Chicago or New York, on behalf of the sponsor. In 1932, Colgate moved the program from its original late-night timeslot to midmorning; it was also the first soap company to sponsor a show with housewives as the target audience. Clara, Lu ‘n’ Em, with its daytime slot and its sponsorship by a manufacturer of detergent, had become the first “soap opera.”

By the early 1930's, all three of the women had married--becoming Louise Mead, Isobel Berolzheimer, and Helen Mitchell--and had children, while continuing to produce the show. When Colgate dropped its sponsorship in December 1935—citing the changing tastes of audiences—the program was immediately picked up by Frigidaire and moved to Friday evenings. Then, in January 1937 Clara, Lu ‘n’ Em went off the air after Berolzheimer (“Lu”) died of pneumonia.

In the late ’30s, Mead and Mitchell worked to revive the show. Their agent negotiated a contract with CBS and sponsorship by Pillsbury Flour. Harriet Allyn Crowley, another Northwestern School of Speech alumna, became the new Lu. In June 1942 the new program began airing three mornings a week, but despite the patriotic content of the wartime scripts, the show was pulled that December. After one last try in 1945–46 with a new cast—Harriet Crowley, Fran Allison (later of Kukla, Fran and Ollie), and Dorothy Day—and sponsorship by Kitchen Klenzer, Clara, Lu ‘n’ Em was finally canceled.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

Records of "Clara, Lu 'n' Em"

Identifier: 31/6/124

Clara, Lu ‘n’ Em, one of the first radio soap operas (1930-1946), was created, written, and performed by three Northwestern University alumnae (Louise Starkey Mead, Isobel Carothers Berolzheimer, and Helen King Mitchell), who assumed the roles of small-town housewives exchanging gossip and opinions. The records include scripts, clippings, photographs, artifacts, and promotional materials.

Dates: 1923 - 2014; Other: Majority of material found within 1930 - 1946; Other: Date acquired: 07/03/2013