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Anne Hummert  Radio Producer, Writer, Executive

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Courtesy of Chuck Schaden Radio Collection
 
During the 1930s and 1940s, half of all daytime radio advertising revenue was generated by the serial creations of Anne Hummert. Hummert’s soap operas pioneered many of the narrative plot devices and production processes that characterize the contemporary television serial. She was responsible for the character development and plotlines of more than forty serials during the golden age of radio. Her stories featured such now-common plot twists as strange diseases, amnesia, long-lost mates, murder trials, blackmail, and Friday cliffhangers—all employed by a variety of genres today. Hummert and her husband and partner, Frank, also devised the production process some have referred to as a “soap opera mill,” which later became the prototype for the writing of television serials. The couple was able to produce more than a dozen shows at a time because various aspects of scripts were written by different people. In short, Anne’s numerous talents—her intelligence, efficiency, knack for negotiating with sponsors, and ever-flowing fountain of ideas—coupled with what writer James Thurber called “a sound understanding of how to catch the ear of the woman radio listener,” revolutionized daytime programming.

Hummert was born Anne Schumacher in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1905. As a young woman she was accepted into Goucher College. But her father, a police lieutenant, believing it was a waste of money to educate a woman, refused to pay her tuition. Undaunted, she financed her own education by working as a college correspondent at the Baltimore Sun. She was a gifted student, graduating from Goucher with high honors in Latin. After her stint with the Sun, she took a job with the precursor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris. While in France, she married John Ashenhurst, a fellow reporter, who had been at one time the youngest city editor of any major metropolitan daily. The couple had one son and returned to the United States, settling in Chicago. Anne Ashenhurst was unable to find a job in journalism, but she took a position as an assistant to an advertising executive, Edward Frank Hummert. The young assistant quickly demonstrated her value; an observer noted how her superiors were awed by her “fount of ideas and organized efficiency.” Ashenhurst was quickly promoted at Blackett-Sample-Hummert to a position equal to Frank's as vice president. She was very well compensated, becoming one of the highest-paid women in the country, with a salary bordering on $100,000 a year. By 1933 she was a full partner—in the nation’s highest tax bracket—at only twenty-eight-years old. Hummert and Ashenhurst would make their mark developing the still-nascent genre pioneered by Irna Phillips, the soap opera.

In his New Yorker essay “O Pioneers!,” James Thurber discussed how Ashenhurst and Hummert recognized the potential that the serials that aired in the evenings would have if they were broadcast during the day instead. This simple move acknowledged that women at home were the primary decision makers when it came to purchasing, and rightly recognized that a women’s household routine might be supplemented with narrative escapism. Radio historian and biographer Jim Cox noted that the pair did even more: they “intended to seize the housewives’ attention and alter the pattern of their daily existence.” For sponsors and the female audience, it proved a match made in heaven.

Hummert and Ashenhurst’s first major success was the serial Just Plain Bill, focusing on humble barber who marries above himself. Media scholar Robert LaGuardia regards the program as “the first smash hit network soap.” This was quickly followed with other long-running sagas, including the classics Ma Perkins and Backstage Wife. Most of the Hummert plots underlined the gap between the wealthy and the aspiring middle class, bringing comfort to millions of listeners who were struggling with the reality of deprivation, first during the Depression years and then World War II. Ma Perkins was centered on the exceptionally wise matriarch of the Perkins clan, who guides her family through challenging times. Backstage Wife was the tale of a Midwestern girl who deals with tribulations after marrying a famous matinee idol. Several critics complained that the pair’s serials dealt exclusively with suffering over prolonged dilemmas. Anne responded, “Nobody can understand the phenomenal success of the soaps without knowing when they were born. It was during the Depression. The housewife was at home worrying about everything. Would her husband lose his job? Where was the family’s next meal coming from? They found escape in the lives of the people on the soaps.”

Ashenhurst’s brief and rocky marriage to fellow newspaper man John Ashenhurst ended in divorce. After the death of Adeline Hummert, Frank’s first wife, he and Anne both found themselves single. After five years of working together, Anne married Frank, a man more than two decades her senior, in 1935. The Hummerts moved to New York and founded Air Features, Inc., where they launched and oversaw numerous radio productions. Once the "factory" was running smoothly and the money was steadily rolling in, they settled in at a majestic estate in Greenwich, Connecticut. Over the years, they remained rather reclusive, managing their massive operation through numerous liaisons who worked for them in various capacities. Their behavior was described as reclusive, eccentric, and even bizarre, and the Hummerts secretly enjoyed cultivating such a mystique. The couple was known for their strict, but loyal, employee policies; during the McCarthy era, they refused to fire good writers who had been blacklisted. Anne continued to produce an incredible word count per week, outlining all of the plot developments for her programs. She had such an encyclopedic memory that, according to New York Times writer Robert Thomas, she “was renowned in the industry for her ability to remember each intricate twist of every one of their creations.” These synopses were filled out by a legion of employees referred to as “dialoguers.”

With their own company, the duo continued to churn out many hit serials, finding inspiration in other forms of entertainment. Their popular serial Stella Dallas was an adaptation of the eponymous Hollywood film starring Barbara Stanwyck. The Hummert version followed the working-class Stella as she moves into her son-in-law’s mansion to protect her daughter’s happiness. Another enduring Hummert classic was Young Widder Brown about an attractive widow supporting two children while suffering an unrequited love for the unattainable Dr. Anthony Loring. In addition to the flood of Hummert productions on the air, an influx of copycat shows began to proliferate. Popular radio actress of the time, Mary Jane Higby, said of the Hummerts, “Unquestionably, they had a profound influence on the whole literature of soap opera. They more than anyone else, determined the shape it took.”

In the early sixties when they lost their sponsors to television, the Hummerts tried to retire into a life of travel and leisure. They sold their mansion and relocated to a Park Avenue triplex. Anne, a lifelong workaholic, continued to work in some capacity until her husband’s death in 1966. She later reflected that “everyone said I couldn’t retire, but when Frank died I was ravaged. I was knocked for a loop. I thought I had worked enough. I didn’t slow down; I simply stopped.” She would enjoy her wealth and lifestyle, staying very active until her death in 1996 at the age of 91.

The accomplishments of Anne Hummert and her husband were so profound that they transcended the ranks of mere writer/producers; they were dubbed by one reporter as “the General Motors of daytime radio.” Her vision for the potential of daytime serials, supplemented by a rationalized production style marked by standardization, specialization, and delegation, radically changed broadcasting. Biographer Cox concluded, “Radio as Americans experienced it during its golden age likely would have been vastly different had Frank and Anne Hummert not been on the scene to influence it so pervasively.”

 

 


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