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OBITUARIES : Lucille Wall, Star of Radio Show 'Portia'

July 16, 1986|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Lucille Wall, who as Portia Blake faced life on radio for nearly 12 years, much to the delight and concern of millions of die-hard soap opera fans, has died.

The veteran actress who later established herself on television as the venerable head nurse on "General Hospital" was 87 when she died in a Reno convalescent home on Friday. And although she won a special Emmy for her portrayal of nurse Lucille March in the early 1970s at an age when most actors would have been happily retired, it was as Portia in the long-running "Portia Faces Life" that she will be long remembered.

"We got hundreds of letters and calls when she first went on television," said Kylie Masterson, a former associate producer of "General Hospital."

"People had never seen her face but they recognized her voice from radio and wrote to ask if she had indeed been Portia."

And indeed she had.

From 1940 until the show went off the air, Wall was briefly the supportive wife and then grieving widow of an idealistic young attorney who battled the base elements in control of the mythical city of Parkerstown.

But her husband was mysteriously killed (after a single episode) while warring with Parkerstown's corrupt political boss, and Portia--herself an attorney--was left not just to continue the crusade but to raise their young son, Dickie.

It was, as the announcer said five days a week, "a story reflecting the courage, spirit and integrity of American women everywhere."

From 1940 until 1952, when television doomed radio serials to the entertainment archives, Portia survived a remarriage (to the "brilliant, handsome" journalist Walter Manning); World War II and accusations that she was carrying a child fathered by another man.

A lesser woman would not have endured, but Portia (named after the heroine in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice") not only endured but proved a master of deception.

For 45 minutes before she became the sophisticated Portia, Lucille Wall had been heard as the uncomplicated Belle Jones, wife of "Lorenzo Jones," a garage mechanic whose simple, comedic homilies brought mirth to late-afternoon America.

Both programs originated at the NBC studios and ran for about the same number of years. Wall said that none of her millions of listeners ever realized that she played both the completely disparate roles.

In the early 1970s, she was interviewed by Richard Lamparski for his "Whatever Became Of . . . ? anthologies.

She disclosed that when the network sounded the death knell for Portia in 1952, the writers concocted a scheme in an attempt to keep the show on the air.

They contrived a situation in which Portia, who had saved the lives and fortunes of countless hundreds over the years, would be framed and convicted on trumped- up charges.

Surely, the writers reasoned, the public outcry would force the series back on the air, if only long enough to free the source of their income from prison.

The ploy failed to work.

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