Ruth Lyons was invited into 7 million homes every weekday at noon. First on the radio, then on television on WLWT’s “The 50-50 Club,” she enlisted her audience at home – and the lucky few in the studio audience – to join her in a conversation on whatever topic she felt like talking about. Just being herself, she created the daytime talk show.
“To her millions of fans, Ruth Lyons was mother, homemaker, businesswoman, entertainer, and friend,” Michael Banks wrote in “Before Oprah: Ruth Lyons, the Woman Who Created Talk TV.”
Banks highlighted her maternal nature throughout his book. Her fans relied on her guidance and advice on matters from homemaking and the quality of her sponsor’s products to politics and race issues. Her staff and audience called her “Mother,” as she was fiercely protective and supportive of the people around her.
To one person, she was Mother.
Candy Newman grew up on her mother’s show and in the 1960s joined the cast, which included Bob Braun, Bonnie Lou and Ruby Wright.
“Ruth … never put business ahead of family,” Banks wrote. “She was, first and foremost, a mother to her daughter Candy. As she once told an interviewer, ‘I have only two major interests in life: my family and my job, in that order.’”
Those were the two sides of Ruth Lyons. The broadcast pioneer, a sharp businesswoman who brought in more than a million dollars a year in advertising revenue and created the most popular daytime show in the Midwest. Yet, she described herself as “just a housewife with a radio program.”
Mother of the TV talk show
Lyons was born Ruth Reeves in 1905 and grew up in the East End. She got work playing piano and organ at radio station WKRC. Fate stepped in one day in May 1929 when the woman who hosted “A Woman’s Hour” was ill. As the only woman in the studio not on the switchboard, Lyons was enlisted to sit in, but she found the script boring.
“I rattled on about everything and anything that came into my mind,” she wrote in her memoir, “Remember With Me.” “The script was forgotten, and I felt as though I was talking to people out there in radio land, who were interested in as many things as I was.”
No one went without a script on radio. She was summoned to the manager’s office, sure she was going to be fired. He told her the sponsor had called and wanted her to do the show every day.
Lyons was a reassuring voice during the devastating flood of 1937. WKRC broadcasted from the Hotel Alms in Walnut Hills where Lyons stayed at the microphone around the clock for days reporting bulletins from City Hall, telling listeners where to evacuate and how to donate to the Red Cross.
“It seemed I had gained, through a disaster, the confidence of the public,” Lyons wrote.
Having moved to WLW radio, in 1946 Lyons introduce her signature show, “The 50 Club,” in which 50 women were invited to be in the audience and interact with her. The show moved to television on WLWT in 1949, and then doubled the audience and became “The 50-50 Club.” Tickets sold out four years in advance.
Lyons called her show “a daily visit with thousands and thousands of people who have the same experiences, problems, pleasures and anxieties that I have. And what is more therapeutic than to sit down with good friends and discuss whatever subject comes to mind?”
Her candid ad-libbing was refreshing, a forerunner to the talk shows of Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey. She engaged the audience and made interviews with celebrities open conversations, seated on a rocking couch, speaking into a microphone concealed in a bouquet of flowers.
“I’ve never really enjoyed an interview so much. It was like nothing else I’ve ever done on TV,” said “Bonanza” star Lorne Greene. “I felt like a member of Ruth’s family and talked about things I’ve never talked about on TV before. How does she do it?”
Thousands of children have been recipients of her nurturing nature since 1939, when Lyons visited Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to put on a show for the sick children. “I was shocked at the cold, sad interior, with no toys or pictures for these dear little children who were sick and away from their parents,” she wrote.
Those kids were still on her mind at Christmas. “So I begged my audience to send me a nickel, a dime, or whatever they could spare, and we would really make it Christmas for these little children in the hospital.”
Her listeners sent in $1,002. She went to Arnold’s Fairyland toy shop and bought dolls, trucks, games and books – no guns, tanks or weapons of war included – and delivered them to the children at the hospital.
That was the beginning of Ruth Lyons’ Christmas Fund, which still launches every Oct. 4 – her birthday – and has raised more than $22 million.
‘Dearly beloved Candy’
Ruth married Herman Newman in 1942. He was a supportive husband who remained quietly in the background. They both loved children.
“On August 27, 1944, at 7:34 in the morning, our dearly beloved Candace Laird Newman was born. We called her Candy,” Lyons wrote in her memoir. “Several weeks after Candy’s birth, I broadcast from home, and daughter made her debut at the mike at the age of six weeks.”
What wasn’t public knowledge is that Lyons, six months pregnant, had gone to Jewish Hospital on Aug. 29 where her daughter was stillborn. The couple was stricken with grief. At her doctor’s suggestion, they adopted a girl who had been born at the hospital two days earlier.
Fans who did the math may have realized Candy was adopted, but Lyons didn’t even discuss that in her memoir.
“I’ve been with Mother in the spotlight as long as I can remember, and considering everything, I’m very glad that I’m her daughter,” Candy told Cincinnati Post television columnist Mary Wood.
Lyons suffered a minor stroke in December 1964 and took a leave of absence from the program. A few weeks later, Candy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Candy wouldn’t let her mother retire, and she joined the “50-50 Club” staff as a regular.
When the family knew Candy’s illness was terminal, they took one last family trip to Italy. Candy died aboard the ship in June 1966 at age 21. Ruth and Herman were shattered. “My darling is gone – my love – my heart,” Lyons wrote on “the saddest of all nights.”
“It seemed so sadly ironic that Ruth, who had done so much for children, had lost her own child,” Wood wrote.
Lyons returned to the show for the Christmas fund because she thought Candy would want her to, but she was heartbroken. She quietly retired in January 1967 when her farewell letter was read on the air. She never appeared on camera again.
Lyons died Nov. 7, 1988, and has been remembered as a broadcasting legend, but more so as Mother to the millions who adored her.
Additional sources: “Mother: Cincinnati’s Million-Dollar Housewife” by Cynthia Keller, “Ruth Lyons: A Living Legend” by Mary Wood, WLWT Channel 5 and Enquirer archives