What Was Television’s First Soap Opera?

Like much of early television history, the identity of the very first soap opera (or serial) is debatable. Some sources point to DuMont’s Faraway Hill, broadcast from October to December 1946, as the very first soap opera. At the very least, Faraway hill is believed to be the first network soap opera. Another contender may be War Bride, broadcast by station WRGB in Schenectady, New York during the summer of 1946, beating Faraway Hill by several months. But it was only seen on one station. And there were earlier examples of local soap operas.

Take Theatre House, for example. A special preview of the new series aired on W2XWV (Channel 4) in New York City on Sunday, January 23rd, 1944 [1]. The true premiered came the following week on Sunday, January 30th. It ran from 9:40-10PM. W2XWV was the only TV station in New York City still airing regular programming; the others had reduced their output due to wartime restrictions. Jack Gound called Theatre House “television’s first serial” in The New York Times [2]. According to Gould, the series “deals with performers in search of success” [3].

Theatre House was written by Jay Strong and Will Baltin. The cast included Jean Lewis, Loretta Schere, Marian Gardner, Toni Darney, John Kullers and Milton Stewart. The series was scheduled to run 13 weeks, with a new episode every Sunday. However, television listings in The New York Times only list the series through Sunday, March 12th, which would have been just the seventh episode. If it did run for the full 13 weeks, the final episode would have been seen on April 23rd.

A letter to the editor published in the February 13th, 1944 edition of The New York Times insisted that Theatre House wasn’t actually the first serial seen on television:

Back in 1941-42, WPTZ, Philco’s station in Philadelphia, under about the same experimental conditions as I understand the DuMont people are working under at present, did a weekly show called “Last Year’s Nest.” It was frankly soap without the suds or a sponsor–but it did get fan mail. It ran for ten weeks until WPTZ finally had to drop all its live shows in June, 1942. [4]

According to the letter, Last Year’s Nest was an “exhilarating undertaking because the cast had to be made up from what could practically be called volunteer talent” [5]. The director, Ernest Walling, was able to gather from “little theatre groups and college societies some nuggets of pure gold which his fine handling beat into the shape of skilled television actors–something else again from stage, screen and radio actors, as anyone in the game can tell you” [6].

How did the letter’s author, Claire Wallis, know about Last Year’s Nest? She wrote “the darn stuff” [7].

Works Cited:

1 “Leading Events–Other Programs.” New York Times. 23 Jan. 1944: X9.
2 Gould, Jack. “One Thing And Another.” New York Times. 30 Jan. 1944: X9.
3 Ibid.
4 Wallis, Claire. “Other People’s Mail: Department of Corrections.” New York Times. 13 Feb. 1944: X9.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.

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5 Replies to “What Was Television’s First Soap Opera?”

  1. Over the years I have had inordinate requests for programmes that are simply no longer in existence nor in mine or anyone else’s possession possibly outside of UCLA. For instance, “Could you please send me a copy of an episode of AS THE WORLD TURNS from 1973?” As you know, these episodes were live and kinescoping was no longer done by then. Since there was no widespread use of home VCR’s, it would be almost impossible to find except in a museum.

    My stock reply has been, “Sure. I will be happy to send that to you just as soon as I can find it under my pile of tapes of FARAWAY HILL!”

  2. I won’t argue Faraway Hill being the first widely known soap, but are you positive that it only aired on DuMont? I remember watching the NBC 50th Anniversary “Big Event” in November, 1976, and NBC taking credit for it as well.

    1. I can’t definitively say that NBC wasn’t involved in some way with Faraway Hill, given how little is known about the show. But I’ve never come across any reference saying NBC had anything to do with it.

      1. Maybe NBC’s then-Philadelphia affiliate, WPTZ, carried “Faraway Hill” since they were the only TV station in town.

  3. There is one other soap opera you have not mentioned of. According to the book, “Please Stand By: A Prehistory of Television”, There is a mention of a fifty-two episode soap opera named “Vine Street” which was aired on Don Lee’s station W6XAO in Hollywood in 1938. More information on “Last Year’s Nest” in- cluding amateur video (surprisingly!) of an episode can be found on the “Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia” website at http://www.broadcastpioneers.com. Hope this reply has been a help to your website and your viewers.

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