Yesterday's Magazette

7 – Ma Perkins

The Radio Voices Of Our Lives

Ma Perkins Was Radio’s “Iron Woman”

By Marshall J. Cook

Compared to Virginia Payne, baseball’s iconic ironman, Cal Ripken, Jr., was a slacker.

As any baseball fan knows, Ripken played almost every inning of 2,632 consecutive games, a amazing feat endurance, heart, and dedication. But he would have had to play another 4,433 games to match Virginia Payne’s record. 

Virginia Payne was radio’s beloved “mother of the air,” Ma Perkins, the conscience of Rushville Center and America, from the show’s debut, August 14, 1933, until the last broadcast, November 25, 1960. But you may not have known her name until now. 

Every episode of Ma ended with a listing of the cast but concluded with “and Ma Perkins” to maintain the illusion that Ma was a real person. Payne only received on-air credit on the last broadcast.

Yet this anonymous star never missed a broadcast in all those 27 years! Sick or injured, tired or just cranky, she was always there, always on. Holidays? Forget about it. America needed to know what Ma was serving for Christmas dinner. (Payne’s own Christmas feast was likely to be a ham sandwich in the ladies’ room between broadcasts.)

It wasn’t as if Payne were only working a few minutes a day. The cast rehearsed for hours for each 15-minute show and presented the show live three times each day, for different time zones. And Payne was likely to be working in five, six, even seven other shows the same day. She was Mama Schultz on Today’s Children, a lion tamer on Jack Armstrong; she appeared on First Nighter, Grand Hotel, Lights Out, Hot Copy, and dozens more. All together, she probably appeared on more than 15,000 broadcasts.

“If I’d realized how difficult it was,” she confided in a 1973 interview with Dick Bertel for The Golden Age of Radio, “I would have been more abashed.”

The show’s slow pace may have helped sustain her. Even slower then the average soap opera, the show featured no more than three or four major complications a year, with long quiet spells for listeners to digest. But those complications could get pretty wild. Ma exposed a black market baby-napping ring, harbored Soviet political dissidents, and endured the death of her radio son during the war.

Something else you may not have known about this wise grande dame of the airwaves: Virginia Payne was 23 years old when she won the role of Ma in an open audition!

That’s how good a voice actress Virginia Payne was.

As you can imagine, her youth presented a bit of a problem for personal appearances. Radio stars were expected to get out to greet their fans, in character and in costume. For Payne that involved donning wig, glasses, heavy makeup, frumpy dresses, and padded girdle. “I often felt like a great impostor,” she said.

But another of radio’s great ladies, Marion Jordan (Molly to husband Jim Jordan’s Fibber McGee), recognized Payne as the real deal. “You have a marvelous character there,” Jordan told her early on. “Don’t you change that character one iota. You have a million dollars in your pocket.”

Payne didn’t change Ma, who soothed and counseled generations of listeners. And she probably earned a million dollars, maybe more, pulling down literal top dollar on radio, $50,000 a year, at the peak of the show’s success.

But the gig was about a lot more than money for Payne.

“Ma Perkins has always been played by me, Virginia Payne,” the graceful, grateful actress told her devoted fans on that last broadcast in 1960. “If you’d like to write to me, I’ll try to answer you. Goodbye and God bless you.”

Answering fan mail was nothing new for Payne. She had always personally answered every letter she received– and she received tens of thousands over the years– and always wrote back as Ma Perkins.

“By dint of our voices alone, we were able to go into the homes of all those people,” she marveled, people who “remained our friends over all these many years.”

Marion Jordan (Molly McGee) felt like a good friend to millions of folks over the years, too, and many of us might have wished to have Constance Brooks (Eve Arden) for an English teacher in high school. 

In a future column, we’ll explore more of the great ladies of radio and their influence on all of us radio kids. If you’ve got a favorite old radio show or performer you’d like to learn more about, please write to Marshall Cook at mcook@dcs.wisc.edu.

Vol. 38 No. 3 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – Fall- 2011

1 Comment »

  1. WHERE IS MISS PAIN BURIED, AND WHEN DID SHE
    DIE
    FRED L. MAY
    CLEVELAND OHIO
    fredmay1741@yahoo.com

    Comment by fred may — December 4, 2012 @ 2:30 pm | Reply


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