Louise Starkey Mead (1905-1969), along with Isobel Carothers Berolzheimer and Helen King Mitchell, created the nation’s first soap opera, Clara, Lu and Em, of which she played Clara. 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.
Louise Starkey was born November 6, 1905 in Des Moines, Iowa to parents William Starkey and Jennie (Parrott) Starkey. The Starkey family was large with six or more siblings who moved around the Midwest from Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska and eventually to California. When Louise was in her late teens, she moved to Evanston, Illinois to attend Northwestern University to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Speech. After graduating, Louise along with two of her talented and artistic sorority sisters named Isobel Berolzheimer and Helen King wrote a script act, called Clara, Lu and Em, 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 on the radio for a woman’s script act. Radio content at the time was male dominated and the few programs aimed at female audiences were 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. This type of show was dominated largely by male comedians who would banter back and forth with the radio announcer, use over exaggerated gags, and had vast amounts of laughter supplied throughout the performance courtesy of a live radio audience. The Clara, Lu and Em show was a serial romance drama which first aired on Chicago radio on June 16, 1930 and ran in fifteen minute segments, five days a week at 10:15 am. Later, in 1935, the show was moved to an early evening timeslot, still airing five days a week for fifteen minutes but then in 1936 it was moved to 9:15 pm for thirty minutes just once per week. Then in 1942 the show was moved back to 11:00 am in its original fifteen minute segment three days a week. The final show aired December 4, 1942 and the show became syndicated in 1946. Clara, Lu and Em, can attribute its success to the relief it provided for listeners who were experiencing unprecedented social and economic dislocation due to the Great Depression. The content of the serial drama had humorous overtones while depicting real life issues and the depth of characters filtered into the real lives of the three women radio actors who continued to be good friends long after the radio show finished. When Isobel Berolzheimer died at the young age of 37 Louise and Helen King decided not to continue without her. However six years later they did attempt a comeback with a former Northwestern University classmate named Harriet Allyn but the show never regained the original popularity and the dated humor forced the ladies to end the show. Louise Starkey Mead died at the age of 64 in Evanston Hospital.