where the writers are
irna, advertisers, race and soaps...

Fans of All My Children and One Life to Live are certainly not letting their shows go quietly into the good night. And they’ve been quite savvy about their tactics – targeting advertisers. Shortly after last month’s announcement, Hoover pulled ALL their advertising from ABC (and likely sold a few vacuums in the process). On 17 May, when advertisers arrive at Lincoln Center for ABC’s Upfront Presentation, they will be greeted by protestors in a demonstration organized by Soap Fans United.

Whether these protests will actually have any impact on ABC’s decision to cancel AMC and OLTL remains to be seen. But targeting advertisers is hardly a new tactic; it’s been used often by conservative groups unhappy with sexual content on television. But decades ago, when married couples on television still slept in twin beds, it was race that created a minefield for television producers, daytime and primetime (witness the controversial “touch” between singers Harry Belafonte and Petula Clark in 1968), networks and advertisers.

When Harding Lemay, took over as Another World’s headwriter in 1970, Procter & Gamble Productions hired Irna Phillips as his tutor. Two years ago, Lemay discussed race, Irna and soaps in an interview with We Love Soaps:

When I first took the show over, Irna said, “You can’t have a black person have lunch with a white person, or you’d lose everyone in the South.” And so one of the first things I did was to have a white nurse have lunch with a black nurse, and build up a black character. And nobody turned it off, it was just as popular as it always had been. There were a lot of myths about what people would watch or wouldn’t tolerate. There were all these things that they felt very strongly about. And this was way back in 1970...People go on clichés about what other people think and what they want to see on television. I think that’s why television is so bad. Nobody takes a chance on anything.

Taken a face value, Irna’s comment suggests, well, let’s call it complacence on her part. At the time, I wondered if Lemay was aware of Irna’s departure from Love is a Many Splendored Thing after CBS censors nixed an interracial relationship between a white man and Amerasian woman. Now, it turns out that on Guiding Light back in 1966  a black character did indeed have lunch with a white person. As zurge noted, Agnes Nixon not Irna Phillips, was writing GL at the time. Nixon would soon leave GL, along with the restrictions imposed by both P&G and CBS, to create the groundbreaking One Life to Live for the more adventuresome ABC. However, when it came to integrating soaps, Irna was no idle bystander.

A 2 June 1965 letter from the arts chapter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) to Irna Phillips expressed “our deep gratitude to you for your candid remarks; they are very helpful in supporting our aims.” Those “remarks” referred to a 12 May 1965 piece in Variety titled “Irna’s ‘Unhappy P&G Script” which detailed Irna’s 8 May appearance on the Chicago talk show hosted by Irv Kupcinet. Irna talked about a proposed storyline – “looking at divorce through the eyes of a Negro child, though not particularly from a racial viewpoint” – that P&G had rejected. Irna went on to say “I would like to integrate my shows, but I will not use Negros for filler, I have no Negro performers now because I cannot use them as I want to.”

None of this should come as a surprise. In her unpublished autobiography, she talked about, Dr. Preston Bradley, her model for The Guiding Light’s Reverend John Ruthledge. As pastor of The People’s Church of Chicago, Bradley marched with Jane Adams, and led protests against the Ku Klux Klan. Arthur Peterson, who originated Reverend Ruthledge on radio (and would later play The Major on Soap), described the experience, “the people were so real and Irna Phillips, who was Jewish, was very good at ferreting out any hint of prejudice.”

So, while Irna very likely told Harding Lemay that “You can’t have a black person have lunch with a white person, or you’d lose everyone in the South,” he may not have heard the irony or sarcasm, perhaps even some lingering frustration after the Love is a Many Splendored Thing incident, that had to have been in her voice. Or perhaps, so many years later, he’s forgotten.

As for the signatory of the CORE letter, Frances Foster made her stage debut in a 1955 City Center Theatre production of The Wisteria Trees. She was a founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company. And, in 1968, shortly after its premiere, she joined the cast of One Life to Live as Grace Trainor, the first of several soap opera roles she would play until her death in 1997.



© 2011 Lynn Liccardo


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