Star of radio drama ‘Dulcimina’ reflects on her role
Last week, Jamaica lost a cultural giant, Elaine Perkins, who was indisputably the queen of Jamaican radio drama for over two decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s. Elaine, 84, the widow of the late popular radio host and Gleaner columnist Wilmot Perkins, died in Kingston, Jamaica, following a brief illness.
Elaine was fiercely passionate about all aspects of Jamaica’s culture. She loved the theatre, art, music, and she had a keen understanding of many of the folk traditions that excite Jamaicans. She was part of a generation of bright and assertive women who excelled in media and public relations in the ‘70s and’ 80s and beyond, that included the late Winnie Risden-Hunter and Marcella Martinez, and broadcaster and playwright Barbara Gloudon.
While Mrs Perkins served as director of public relations for the Jamaica Tourist Board in the early 1980s, she worked tirelessly to promote the indigenous creativity of our artisans, and to celebrate some of the simple but exciting island pleasures-visiting fruit stalls, beach and river outings, roast yam on Melrose Hill, and feasting on pepper shrimp in Middle Quarters.
But radio was Elaine’s real creative playground. In the late 60s, when very few Jamaican families had television sets, radio was the all-important medium to connect with Jamaican families island wide. Elaine Perkins possessed the extraordinary gift of engaging Jamaicans from all walks of life by way of radio dramas. She penned a number of gripping serials back then including Life in Hopeful Village, Naseberry Street and Mimosa Hotel.
All were popular, but it was Dulcimina, the story of an alluring country girl of humble means who moved to Kingston in search of opportunity that hooked Jamaica for 13 years. Each weekday episode of the 15-minute drama was as insanely delicious as it was addictive. The show started on JBC Radio and later moved to RJR. Media specialists who were around at that time recall that many Jamaicans rushed out to buy transistor radios so they wouldn’t miss Dulcimina. And marketers say that at its peak, Dulcimina had an audience of 500,000 listeners, or one in four Jamaicans, making it a certified sensational smash. Even now, Jamaicans at home and across the diaspora who grew up on island during the Dulcimina years of 1967 to 1980 will quickly remember the programme, reeling off names like Presser Foot, Cyclops, Miss Pinny, Daisy Deepsea, Ramgeet, Roxy, and Miss Needle in two shakes of a mongoose tail.
Who was ‘real life’ Dulcimina?
But who was the real-life Dulcimina from the radio drama that is embedded in the collective consciousness of so many Jamaicans?
Her name is Joan Walter, (née Stewart) and when she landed the starring role, she was not yet an accomplished actress or radio personality, but a 14-year-old third form student at St Hugh’s High School for Girls in Kingston. She was an outstanding drama student at school in the same group as Fae Ellington. It was by chance that Joan heard about the opportunity on the radio serial, and she was urged to stop by JBC Radio on South Odeon Avenue in Half Way Tree to audition.
“Jamaican patois is easy to speak, but it is not so easy to read,” Joan confessed. “But after the first three takes, I settled into the part and Jamaicans all across the island waited with bated breath each week to see what would happen next,” the radio legend who now lives in St. Mary recalls. And Joan Walter pointed out, too, that a lot of hard work went into creating the iconic drama.
“Elaine Perkins was a hard task master who did not subscribe to mediocrity,” Joan shared. “She was extremely creative. Her pen flowed smoothly and quickly. She was a stickler for punctuality, and if someone was late, she would adjust the script to remove that person’s lines on the spot, replacing them with another character.”
Dulcimina was acclaimed for being the JBC serial that listeners could ‘watch’ on radio, and Elaine’s genius brought that visualisation to life.
“If there were romantic scenes on a beach, Elaine would use a basin of water in studio to create the sound of the waves, with cast members using their hands to wade through the water, and walking on the beach would be created by using a box of gravel, and we would actually walk on the gravel to dramatically bring the story to life”, Joan Walter, who later became a banking executive, revealed.
For 12 years, Jamaicans lapped up every last drop of Dulcimina. The show stopped abruptly in 1980 due to undisclosed issues, but the story never really ended. People still talk about the ‘Dulcimina grip’, a reference to a popular 1960s brown-coloured suitcase, and a ‘Dulcimina trip’, a journey from country to town. The memories of Dulcimina and the other beloved characters who shared their jaw-dropping, real-life adventures with generations of Jamaicans will be cherished and discussed for many years to come.