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Sara Minabelle Abbott
Those were all names associated over the years with Cincinnati Radio Legend, Minabelle Abbott.
Sara Minabelle Abbott was born in October 1909. While some sources say she was born in Kentucky, U.S. Census records point to Indiana as her birthplace. The 1910 census indicated the family was living in Washington, Indiana, a town north of Evansville on today's I-69 and a bit northwest of Louisville, Kentucky. Her parents were Harry and Bessie Abbott. Later, the family moved to Aurora, Indiana, a town just west of Cincinnati, Ohio.
By 1933, Minabelle had a fifteen minute program that aired over radio station WSAI in Cincinnati. She was promoted as a soprano.
After Minabelle graduated from a business college in Cincinnati around 1930, she took a job as secretary to John L. Clark, then the general manager of the Crosley Radio stations WLW and WSAI. In 1935, it was announced that she would marry Ralph P. Hutchins (formerly of Kokomo, IN) in April. At the time, Minabelle had been working at the Crosley stations as a singer and a member of the cast of dramatic players for about five years. As her radio career blossomed, she resigned from her position as secretary to John L. Clark, then General Manager of the stations. Her husband was part of the chemical engineering department of the Proctor & Gamble company.
In an interview by Ruth Reed in the Piqua Daily Call newspaper on the occasion of her 25th year on the air at WPTW in Piqua, Minabelle tells of how she came to be a singer on WLW. After she began as secretary, she was invited to a station party where each guest was asked to perform. She said she had learned some country songs from their Kentucky tenants and sang a few of those as her 'bit' to the entertainment. She did so well, she was hired immediately to sing on the air.
She said there were times when a radio performer did not show up for their scheduled program and that caused them to 'hot foot' it down to her office and get her to sing in that person's place on the air. She said she did personal appearances at county fairs. She was also offered the starring role in the first soap opera in the U.S.A. That program was "Ma Perkins"; she was to portray an old lady. But she had a different mind set - she auditioned for the leading role in the first romantic soap opera - "The Life of Mary Sothern."
Sara / Sary Wayne — Hillbilly Singer
While she was secretary, it was known she "...had a yen for singing and an understanding of hill country folk." She was first heard over the air on WSAI around 1931 as a guest of the McCormick Fiddlers. The fiddlers were led by Pa (Clarence) and Ma (Alice) McCormick. They were part of a program on WLW - "Top o' The Morning" and when one saw them in person, it was said to be like watching the radio program in person. Other members of the group around 1937 were Eldon Baker, Floyd Baker, Wade Baker, Brownie Reynolds, Ray Gulley and Fiddlin' Charlie Linville. In 1931, research shows that the "fiddlers" included Frank Miller, fiddler; Omer Castleman, banjo; and Jack Foy, guitar.
Around 1935, Oklahoma Bob Albright had her on the WSAI Barn Dance as a guest soloist and gagster. She went over so well with the listening audience as this hill billy character, she was paired with another singer, Charlie Dameron as "Charlie and Sary Wayne." They were also stars on the "Cousin Bob and His Kinfolks" with Albright.
In the summer of 1935, articles were promoting her as Sara (Sary) Wayne. She was said to be
"...one of radio's foremost exponent of hill-country melody. No synthetic "hill-billy," she is a native of the Kentucky Cumberland mountain country. She has won for herself a warm sot in the hearts of radio listeners through her singing over WLW and WSAI. With her brother Charlie (Wayne) she has her own program "Little Eva Gazette" every morning at 9:45. She is also on "Morning In The Mountains" program. Sary is believed to be radio's only woman master of ceremonies of radio barn dance programs."
The description of Sara Wayne and her 'brother' were more than likely about the 'characters' they assumed with those names. Her 'brother' was actually Charlie Dameron, a well-known singer of that era.
It was her success in this character role that led her to resign as secretary. She continued to study voice and did a program of ballads over WSAI that also won praise from critics.
Mary Sothern — Radio Soap Opera Star
WLW had a radio serial program called "Life of Mary Sothern" that went on a three month break in the summer of 1935. When it returned to the air in October of 1935, Minabelle Abbott was cast in the role of "Mary Sothern." She was one of 25 other women who auditioned for the role. The show aired Monday through Friday at 4:15 pm.
Even in her new role was "Mary Sothern," the station continued the myth of her being from Kentucky as a 1937 article shows, "...she still spends her vacations in the hills of Kentucky mingling with the hill country folk she loves so well."
The show aired over the Mutual Broadcasting System and was thus, heard on many stations around the country. Various newspapers would run her picture along with a promotional blurb for the show.
But in September 1936, she had a health scare — an appendectomy that hospitalized her for a time. Her role in "Mary Sothern" was to be rewritten to omit Minabelle's role until she was able to get behind the microphone again.
While in the hospital, fans in the listening audience sent her get well wishes. In fact, they had to be delivered to her in the hospital literally by the bushel.
The show grew in popularity. So much so that Minabelle had to do the show from New York for a time. Fans in Cincinnati were disappointed with that move. Six other cast members went to New York with her. Columnist Mildred Leo wrote that while the show's origins had moved east, the change did not affect the basics of the show. Other stars that went with Minabelle were Palmer Ward, Stanley Waxman, Chic Vincent, Florence Golden and Joseph Julian. Minabelle did have occasion to fly with her friend, Florence Golden, back to Cincinnati when she developed an illness.
She told Ruth Reed she left the program after her marriage to Ralph Hutchins. She had gotten tired of commuting. She quit the role of Mary Sothern and traveled with her husband who lived in Cincinnati. But after one of those trips, WLW contacted her to fill another role, taking the place of a postmistress on the "Mailbag Club."
During the time she was broadcasting for the "Mailbag Club," in 1944 she began appearing over WKRC with Sid Cornell (B: March 5, 1913 — D: May 14, 1993) in a 15-minute program that was sponsored by Cincinnati Gas and Electric called "At Your Service." She was using the name, "Suzanne Russell." For three consecutive years, the radio service program won an award as the best in the country. For a time, the she did the broadcast from her home so she could be with her young daughter. Their show had quite an audience. During a broadcast in 1946, they mentioned a booklet during seven short announcements. Over 8,250 listeners wrote in requesting that booklet.
In April of 1939, Cincinnati columnist Paul Kennedy wrote that "Mary Sothern" was coming back to Cincinnati, but in transcription form. In addition, Minabelle Abbott would not be in the lead role.
In July of 1939, Minabelle did indeed return to the air waves on WLW. This time she would be a commentator on the "Mail Bag" program. She got to talk with Bill Bailey, who was by then chief of the WLW-WSAI news room. Bailey was also the writer of an early radio show that Minabelle was a part of - "Miners' Children."
The Mailbag show was quite popular on WLW. Minabelle was considered the "Postmistress" on the program. The show had a club with over 3,000 members. Dues? Writing letters. In addition to their letter writing, members also took part in social service efforts in various chapters around the midwest.
Fred Emery told readers of the show's history. It started innocently in 1928 as a program that was devoted to the reading of the many miscellaneous letters the station received. By 1940, the show had broadened to a regular 45-minute broadcast on Saturdays with the same format of reading letters.
The 'program' evolved into a 'community.' The letters did not follow a theme or format. The letters were of people needing encouragement, something that personal correspondence could help. Some were bedridden, aged or just seeking a kind gesture to brighten their day. The "mailbaggers" as they were known began to write to these folks.
That led to the "mailbaggers" forming their own chapters in their home communities. One adopted a blind girl; another a tubercular woman; another a paralyzed girl. People with such needs became 'special charges.' Each chapter had a "cheer up" chairperson appointed. The appointed person had a duty to see that no shut-in "...went without at least a card when birthdays and holidays came around."
Mr. Emery wrote, "Behind all the letters read on the Mailbag program nowadays is a friendliness and intimacy. The Mailbaggers unaffectedly write about their famalies, their trips, their worries — all under pseudonyms — and, without pretentiousness of the neighbors who they're able to help. They don't feel they're doing anything spectacular."
The Mailbaggers lived in various states throughout the Middle West and except for the Saturday morning program over WLW, had no contact. With one exception. They had an annual picnic at Sharon Woods near Cincinnati. On the designated day, thousands would meet at the picnic grounds. "...They have a radio program and a mutual idea to which they're devoted and to watch them you have a sensation that something other than a picnic is going on. It's more like a family reunion."
Columnist Jack Carr discovered that unbeknownst to him, the Mailbaggers had a chapter in his town - Dayton. He learned of it when the WLW announcer Jim Cassidy noted that a show would be broadcast from Dayton. The show was to air from the Dayton Industries Building and the show's "postmistress" Minabelle Abbott would be on hand. Mr. Carr said the organization had been described as "an interdenominational missionary society sending cheer to all it comes in contact with by letter or person."
The local chapters had 'cheer-up' funds - contributions usually made up of the extra pennies members wished to donate. The letters read over the air showed the broad spectrum of their touch on their fellow persons. One might hear from a blind graduate of the University of Louisville, a blind doctor in Springfield, IL, a school teacher specializing in "problem children," and, a handicapped girl in Glencoe, KY who earned a living by making flowers and greeting cards from used stamps, the stamps she used were sent to her by other Mailbaggers. The Dayton broadcast was to be the first one the show did away from the WLW studios.
Minabelle also did several short-wave radio broadcasts of the Mailbag program. From those broadcasts, Mailbag chapters were formed in England, Scotland, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
By 1949, the new postmistress was Hilda Weaver. A newspaper article wrote of her appearance before the National Council of Catholic Women. She showed color slides from her trip to London, Holland, Belgium, France and Switzerland. Her husband as well as Minabelle Abbott Hutchins were along on that trip as well. They had to have ration books for fuel and were limited to three gallons of gas a month. The three of them made use of buses where they could as well as other transportation forms, including walking.
In 1964, Bill Fox interviewed Minabelle. He noted that she "...sang folk songs in the early days of radio." She told him, "I can out hillbilly them all."
During her participation in the Mailbag program, Minabelle had returned to radio serial programs. She was one of the stars in a program called "Earthborn" that was aired over WLW.
During her years in Piqua, she involved herself in other ways in the community. She took up bird identifying, needle point and plant life. She was on the Piqua Board of Zoning Appeals and the Fine Arts Foundation. She was a member of the local Salvation Army Advisory Board as well as serving on the United Fund board of directors for a number of years. Other organizations she participated in were the Miami Valley Council for the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society and Citizens Committee for Schools. She was named Piqua Woman of the Year by the Piqua Business and Professional Women's Club in 1958 as well.
After she passed away, it was discovered that Minabelle was a bit of a pack rat. Quite possibly she kept that tendency away from her husband. Her daughter, Sue, told Marrianne McMullen in an 1985 article, "My mother was the world's most accomplished pack rat. And my dad doesn't like anything around he's not using." For example, Sue recalled when she was about 13, a chauffeur drove up with several trunks that he was going to leave on the porch. But Minabelle told him to take them to the basement instead. She labelled them all "Old Receipts and Bills."
The collection of costumes were not all bought by Minabelle. When she moved to Piqua in 1946, she worked with the Piqua Players and was involved with the local radio station until 1976. She befriended a local wealthy woman, Mrs. William Wood, Sr. Mrs. Wood had saved all her custom-made dresses, ranging from the 189's to the 1930's. Mrs. Wood offered Minabelle her many trunks of clothing in the mid-1950's.
It was in the summer of 1984 or 1985 that her father, Ralph (still living in Piqua) called her to help him clean out things in the basement. She wanted to get there before her father disposed of the clothing. By the time she got there, he had already opened all the trunks and asked her, "Did you know about all this stuff?" His intent was to give it to Goodwill. But Sue thought most was worth preserving. She took the task off her father's hand. A 15-passenger van was packed along with two heaping luggage racks, many hat boxes and trunks were sent on their way to Sue's home in Richmond, IN. Once there, the decision was made to give it to the RCT (Richmond Civic Theatre). One of the first productions that used those costumes was "Mame" that opened in September 1985.
Her husband, Ralph, sat down and compiled his notes into a book about his wife, Minabelle. Annette Warfel wrote in 1993, "...A tribute to his wife's artistic and philanthropic giftedness and their 47-year marriage, "Minabelle" is Hutchins' account of a woman whose determination enabled her to achieve stardom at an early age, becoming known as the "First Lady of Cincinnati Radio. ... She also believed, as Hutchins puts it, "that place was very special and second to nothing or no one in importance," and that led her to give up the limelight of radio fiction and use radio talk shows as a medium for social benevolence."
Ms. Warfel notes that her husband wrote that Minabelle was growing disenchanted with life in New York City. The show had become so popular, it was moved to New York by Trans American Broadcasting and she became one of the country's highest paid radio actresses. Radio Daily reported in September 1937 that she was "...now receiving a weekly check in the neighborhood of $150 with promise of an increase each year for the next five." Using an inflation calculator, that weekly amount in 1937 converts to nearly $3,000 per week. Money was not the issue. But she saw friends and coworkers constantly battling for parts, auditions and sometimes not working for weeks. The show was cancelled by Trans American when a major advertising sponsor dropped their support. Minabelle decided to 'retire.'
Minabelle's daughter, Sue, told Ms. Warfel, "I grew up seeing her as a person who was responsible in the community, who was never afraid to stand alone, never afraid to speak out. 'You breathe air. You eat food. You owe,' she used to say. That, in a nutshell, was her philosophy of community service."
Ralph did a personal appearance in Richmond in 1993 and spoke of Minabelle's life. Their daughter, Sue, got to attend and hear her father talk about her mom.
The book "Minabelle — The First Glamorous Soap Opera Queen" can still be found on Amazon, ebay and other used book outlets.
On April 6, 1997, Minabelle Abott Hutchins along with Goodrich giles and Jacob Schmidlapp were inducted into the Civic Hall of Fame at the Piqua Historical Museum.
Recordings of the "Life of Mary Sothern" shows can be found on the web site, www.archives.org.
Minabelle married Ralph P. Hutchins at her parents' home in Aurora, IN on Sunday, April 7, 1935. Mr. Hutchins was a member of the chemical engineering staff of the Procter-Gamble company. They had a daughter, Susan and a son, Patrick.
Minabelle passed away in October 1981. Her husband Ralph died in 2005.
Credits & Sources