I love this picture of Irna Phillips. It looks like she’s talking about something good, maybe a story, maybe a deal to get another one of her shows on television. Whatever it is, she’s got something going on, you can tell. I also love the fact in this picture she looks so ordinary. That might sound odd, but it’s not when you think that this is the woman who created the soap opera genre, one of the first women to create something in the new medium known as radio. If there were no Irna Phillips there would be no Desperate Housewives, Grey’s Anatomy, Brothers and Sisters. She paved a new way of storytelling, and no one messed with her.
The youngest of ten children, Irna Phillips escaped into books growing up, and graduated from the University of Illinois. She taught for a while, but was discouraged. She didn’t go to college to get her MRS., she wanted something more. According to Shemadeit.com, her professors dampened her spirits about becoming an actress—maybe she could become something else. She ended up in her hometown Chicago and started reading for a radio show called Thought for the Day on Chicago’s WGN network. Soon they said to her hey, we’re trying something new. We want you to write for a show about a family. It’s called Painted Dreams. Phillips thought sure, why not? Gentle Readers, this is how soap operas were born.
After she started writing the show, Phillips convinced them they needed something to sell. If you have entertainment on a medium like radio, sell something connected to the show. How about soap? Bingo! We have a soap opera!
Eventually there was a dispute about Painted Dreams, and Phillips left the show. She then created Today's Children, and then she started to create more shows: Women in White, The Road to Happiness, and The Brighter Day. She wrote the shows, produced them, and worked hard. Yet there was another show she had an idea for, a show that had personal meaning to her.
While in college, Phillips became pregnant at nineteen. According to Proctor and Gamble's Classic Soaps blog, she was unmarried at the time, and in 1920 she probably felt like the most isolated person in the world. The baby was stillborn, and she sought guidance from the medium that would make her famous, the radio. In her wikipedia entry, it states that Irna listened to sermons about how we weren’t all alone, that there must be light somewhere, and we had to help others just as much we had to help ourselves. She called her new show The Guiding Light.
The show premiered on January 25, 1937, and at first centered on the town of Selby Flats with Reverend Ruthledge and the Holden family. Mercedes McCambridge, who later won an Oscar for her performance in All The King’s Men, got her first role as Mary Ruthledge Holden. While writing and producing the radio shows, Phillips adopted two children, on her own, no husband. In 1947, Phillips changed the focus of The Guiding Light to the Bauer family.
The Bauers were an ordinary family, of German heritage. There was Papa Bauer, who everyone looked to for advice and strength. He had three children: Trudy, Meta, and Bill. Meta was one of the first unwed mothers on a soap opera. Bill was one of the first alcoholics to be shown on any medium, and he had to deal with his wife Bert who wanted him to make more money so she could have more things. The transition to the Bauers was a hit, and the show continued on the radio for another five years.
Then television beckoned. Television! Where you could see what everyone looked like; it was an experimental medium, and no one knew what would be a hit and what wouldn’t. Phillips knew that there was a chance to be taken, so The Guiding Light made its debut on June 30, 1952; however, they still did a radio show in the afternoons. The T.V. shows were fifteen minutes each, so they had to pack a lot in. Irna Phillips continued as head writer and made sure she was in charge in every way.
In 1956, Phillips left the show to start another soap opera, As the World Turns. She left the head writing duties to protégée Agnes Nixon; however, she kept giving advice about what she thought was best for the show, so much so that according to wikipedia then executive producer Luci Ferri Rittenberg stopped taking Phillips’s collect calls.
Phillips went on to create Another World, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, and was a story consultant for the prime time soap opera Peyton Place. She helped her daughter Katherine get her own soap opera off on the ground. It was called A World Apart, and starred a young Susan Sarandon. In 1971, Irna Phillips was asked to come back to As The World Turns, which was faltering in the ratings. This proved to be a bad mistake all around.
Robert LaGuardia writes in his 1983 book Soap World that Phillips killed off popular character Elizabeth Stewart by having her fall up the stairs. (Yes, you read that right—she fell up the stairs. How she did it, I have no idea.) She then had a new character, Kim Reynolds (Kathryn Hays), have an affair with Dr. Bob Hughes (Don Hastings), who was married to Kim’s sister Jennifer at the time. This was too much for people to take. If there'd been an internet back then, no doubt there would’ve been websites titled IhateIrnaPhillips.com. CBS fired Phillips from the show she created.
She never worked on soaps again except for some consulting work for Another World. She started to write her memoirs, and was working on them the night of December 22nd, 1973. According to Soap World, when she was found in the morning, she wasn’t breathing. The woman who created soap operas was gone.
Phillips asked there would be no obituary, nothing. Harding Lemay, the head writer on Another World wrote one for her anyway. Yet her presence is still felt—as the first woman to create and write television shows, a woman who knew what she wanted and got it. As mentioned on answers.com, when Eileen Fulton (Lisa) on As The World Turns once dropped her script, Don McLaughin (Chris Hughes) quickly picked it up and gave it back to her. "[A] Phillips script, like the American flag, could never touch the ground,” he said. Irna Phillips’s story was an American one, one that should be heard for years to come.
A special thanks to shemadeit.com, wikipedia, answers.com, and P&G's Classic Soaps Blog for all the information provided here.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries