Mary Worth, the queen of the soap opera comic strips, had a humble beginning in 1934 when she was known as Apple Mary. Martha Orr created the Apple Mary feature for the Publishers Syndicate, obviously inspired by the character of Apple Annie in Frank Capra's hit comedy of the previous year, Lady for a Day. By the late 1930s, with a new artist and a new writer, Mary was dispensing advice to the lovelorn and the strip had changed its title to Mary Worth's Family. In the early 1940s yet another artist took over and a few years later the title was shortened to just plain Mary Worth.
In its earliest incarnation, the strip dealt with the efforts of a kindly, motherly, street corner apple peddler to survive the stresses of the Depression, look after her crippled young nephew Denny, and act as a Good Samaritan to her friends and neighbors. The strip was successful in its original form, picking up a satisfactory list of papers. When Orr retired in 1939, however, the new scriptwriter decided it was time for a streamlining. Allen Saunders was a veteran newspaper-man, already writing Big Chief Wahoo (later changed to Steve Roper). He took Mary off the streets and moved the continuities closer to those that could be heard on such soap-sponsored daytime radio serials as Ma Perkins, Life Can Be Beautiful, and Young Dr. Malone. Orr's longtime assistant and sometimes ghost, Dale Conner Ulrey, drew Mary Worth's Family in a slicker illustrative style that fit the new, more sophisticated storylines. Mary moved somewhat into the background, acting now as a sort of homespun therapist and occasional catalyst. Saunders wanted her to become "a linking character who provides continuity by tirelessly meeting interesting people." Now and then she also behaved like the classic busybody. The refurbished comic strip prospered. It is probably not a coincidence that Mary Worth was invented in Chicago, the town where many of the early radio soap operas originated.
Dale Ulrey quit in 1942, unhappy with what she considered the tawdry content of the strip and eager to try a feature of her own. Saunders continued to mastermind the stories, bringing in as artist the gifted Ken Ernst. A prolific comic book artist, using a style inspired by that of his mentors Milton Caniff and Noel Sickles, Ernst had also been ghosting the Don Winslow of the Navy newspaper strip. His style was well suited to the ever more worldly stories Saunders was fashioning. Mary Worth was now frequently moving in upper class circles. "For soap opera suffering," Saunders later explained about the further changes he brought about in the 1940s, "we decided to substitute romantic novelettes about glossy girls in more glamorous professions." He put Mary Worth in contact with actors and actresses, models, and powerful business tycoons, all of them tangled up with complex, and entertaining, romantic problems. Ernst did a good job of illustrating the glossy world that the former Apple Mary began frequenting.
The look and content of Mary Worth influenced a whole string of soap opera funnies, including Rex Morgan, M.D., Judge Parker, and The Heart of Juliet Jones. While almost all of the other story strips have ceased to be, the soapers continue to thrive and Mary Worth can still be seen in papers across the country. In the late 1990s it was being written by John Saunders, Allen's son, and drawn by Joe Giella.
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Waugh, Coulton. The Comics. New York, Macmillan Company, 1947.