Thursday, March 17, 2011

One Man's Family and the Urban Ethos

Back in the Pleistocene 1940s, my sister Sally would drop everything for her weekly fix of One Man's Family, the long-running radio soap opera.  It's all about decency and good sense and plugging away at the middle class life and so many things of no possible interest to an 11-year-old boy. One of many things I  didn't grasp--I could hardly have cared about--at the time was that it took place in San Francisco, then as now surely as atypical an American city as you could imagine.  When I grew up and got my mind round the point I found it amusing in the respect that San Francisco was, in the period under review, a pretty rancorous place, with a piratical aristocracy and an inflammatory underclass.  To present it from the standpoint of the palliative Barbours had to count as an irony. (if you think I'm making this up, go here).

I see now that Kevin Starr, in his history of California, saw the point more clearly and expressed it better:
Like other successful provincial cities, San Francisco had a way of promoting a sense of well-being and self-esteem in its citizenry.  Take, for example, the Barbour family of Seacliff, the neighborhood fronting the Golden Gate.  From 1932 to 1956, some 3,256 episodes in all, this fictional San Francisco family appeared daily on a national radio show called One Man’s Family, written by San Franciscan Carleton Morse and originating from San Francisco radio station KPO for the NBC network.

The Barbours embodied what later became known as family values—in an unmistakably San Franciscan contest.  The program was filled with local references, including the stunning vista of the Golden Gate, which the Barbours could see from their rear living room window, or gaze at from their garden wall, where members of the family were wont to take refuge for meditation at times of perplexity.  One Man’s Family postulated San Francisco as a unified, prosperous, middle-class city, struggling through the Depression in a middle-American way, sustained in significant measure by the city the Barbours called home.  A decade later, San Francisco writer Kathryn Forbes successfully attempted similar themes in Mama’s Bank Account (1943) which went to Broadway as I Remember Mama: the story of a Norwegian immigrant family coming of age in San Francisco, sustained by a similar sense of well-being.

For the previous two decades, the mayor of San Francisco, James (Sunny Jim) Rolph Jr., had been making a specialty of promoting this sense of identification and well-being that Carleton Morse was now using as the psychological and social context of One Man’s Family.  Partly out of necessity, Rolph had made himself the master of making San Francisco feel good about itself.   … [The legacy of his first term] led not to an era of good feeling but to the most bitter and paranoid period in San Francisco history since … the late 1870s.
-Kevin Starr, The Dream Endures:  California Enters the 1940s (1997).

Afterthought:  And it's not just the OMF and the Mama, is it?  There's a whole genre of these gentle comedies of middle class life.   And more: a number of them--not OMF but surely Mama--add a fillip of ethnic reconciliation.  I'm thinking The Goldbergs, and Life with Luigi, probably (though this may be a stretch) Duffy's Tavern.  Not quite ethnic, but I would want to add Amos 'n' Andy, where Andrew H. Brown (at least) leads a life of middle-class striving much like all of the others.

Another afterthought:  Yes, I am aware that Amos 'n' Andy were voiced on radio by white actors.  FWIW, "Luigi" was an Irish-American, J. Carroll Naish.

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