Helen King Mitchell (1904-1970), along with Louise Starkey Mead and Isobel Berolzheimer, created the nation’s first soap opera, Clara, Lu and Em, of which she played Em. Portraying three gossiping (and funny) housewives concerned with everyday things, their radio show was a huge hit and a breakthrough for women in the business. First broadcast locally on WGN beginning in 1930, then nationally on NBC and CBS, the show was sponsored by various soap companies and ran for more than 10 years. Outside her radio career, Helen King Mitchell was active in many Evanston organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the Parent Teacher Association, and the YWCA. She was a founder and first president of the Mental Health Society of Evanston (currently known as the Mental Health Association of the North Shore), and was instrumental in establishing the Evanston Mental Health Board.
After graduating from Northwestern University, Helen along with two of her talented and artistic sorority sisters, named Louise Starkey Mead and Isobel Berolzheimer, wrote a script act which later became the first radio soap opera in the nation. They persisted in getting on Chicago radio despite being told there was no place for a woman’s script act as radio content at the time aimed at the female audience was limited to advice segments. By the 1930’s the experimental years of radio were over and radio networks were gaining momentum in becoming a wholesome form of entertainment for the masses. Although radio programming in the 1920’s consisted mainly of symphonic music segments, the 1930’s saw the introduction of variety shows, dominated largely by male comedians who bantered with the radio announcer over exaggerated gags, complete with live radio audiences who supplied vast amounts of laughter. The Clara, Lu and Em show was a serial romance drama which first aired on WGN radio June 16, 1930 in fifteen minute segments, five days a week at 10:15 am. In 1931 the show moved to NBC and debuted on a few stations at a 9:30 pm time slot were it stayed for a year. In February 1932 it moved to a 9:30 am time slot and was aired on NBCs largest network with 42 stations throughout the country. It ran for four years on this schedule. In 1936 it was moved to 9:15pm for thirty minutes just once per week. Clara, Lu and Em can attribute its success to the relief it provided for listeners who were experiencing the unprecedented social and economic dislocation that American families were facing due to the Great Depression. The content of the serial drama had humorous overtones while depicting real life issues.