PHILLIPS, IRNA

U.S. Producer

The universally recognized originator of one of television's most enduring--and profitable--television genres, Irna Phillips is responsible for the daytime drama as we know it today. Her contributions to one format are unprecedented in television history. Television comedy had many parents-- Ernie Kovacs, Jackie Gleason; TV drama had early shapers in Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Reginald Rose and others. But the soap opera had only one mother and she was it. She founded an entire industry based on her techniques, beliefs and the ongoing, interlocking stories that she dreamed.

Born in Chicago in 1901, youngest of ten children, legend has it that Phillips endured her poverty-stricken, lonely childhood by reading and concocting elaborate lives for her dolls. When she started college she dreamed of an acting career but school administrators doubted that her looks would get her far. So she turned to teaching. After graduation, she taught in Missouri and Ohio for several years before returning to Chicago.

There she fumbled her way into a job with radio station WGN as a voice-over artist and actress. Soon after, the station asked her to concoct a daily program "about a family." Phillips's program Painted Dreams premiered on 20 October 1930. Dreams is usually recognized as the radio's first soap opera. It ran with Phillips both writing and acting in it until 1932 when she left WGN over an ownership dispute. At WGN's competition, WMAQ, Phillips created Today's Children which aired for seven years. Other highly successful dramas followed: The Guiding Light in 1937, The Road of Life in 1938, The Right to Happiness in 1939. By this time Phillips had given up acting to devote her time to writing. She had also sold the shows to national networks.

By 1943, just over ten years from her beginning, Phillips had five programs on the air. Her yearly income was in excess of $250,000 and her writing output was around two million words a year. It was at this phase that she developed the need for assistants to create dialogue for the stories she created. To keep her scripts accurate she also kept a lawyer and doctor on retainer.

Not one to put pen to paper, Phillips created her stories by acting them out as a secretary jotted down what she spoke. Her process of creating by assuming the identities of her characters was so successful it was later adopted by many of Phillips's protégés, including William Bell who would go on to create The Young and the Restless.

Phillips pioneered in radio many of the devices she would later put to successful (eventually cliched) use in television. She was the first to use organ music to blend one scene into the next. She was the first to employ cliff-hanger endings to keep audiences coming back and to develop the casual pace of these shows--she wanted the busy house wife to be able to run to the kitchen or see to the baby and not miss anything. She was the first to address social concerns in her storylines. She was also the first to shift the focus of serials from blue-collar to white-collar characters; under Phillips, doctors and lawyers became soap staples. In fact, hospital settings and stories about illness were vintage Phillips. A hypochondriac who visited doctors daily. Phillips brought her fascination with medicine to her work.

Other eccentricities influenced and contradicted her work. Though her shows were eventually produced in New York, Phillips refused to leave Chicago. She stayed involved in all aspects of her programs with frequent phone calls to the East. Surprisingly, Phillips, who based her stories on nuclear families, never married though late in her life she adopted two children.

When Phillips brought her creations to television (somewhat reluctantly), she brought all her devices with her. The Guiding Light premiered on TV in 1952. The Brighter Day and The Road of Life came to the small screen in 1954.

In the early 1950s, Phillips began a long association with Proctor and Gamble, longtime sponsors of soap operas. All Phillips shows, and all she would create, would be under the umbrella of Proctor and Gamble Productions.

On 2 April 1956, Phillips premiered what was to become her most successful (and some say favorite) show, As the World Turns. Until the 1980s phenomenon of General Hospital, it was the most successful soap in history. At its ratings peak in the 1960s, it was regularly viewed by 50% of the daytime audience. As the World Turns has broken much historical ground during its existence. It was daytime's first half-hour soap (previous shows lasted fifteen minutes). And it was the first to introduce a scheming female character: Lisa Miller, played by Eileen Fulton, used feminine wiles to catch unavailable men and generate havoc. The show's popularity even inspired a prime time spin-off; Our Private World aired for a few months in 1965.

 


Irna Phillips

In 1964, Phillips created daytime's Another World, TV's first hour-long soap and the first to broach the subject of abortion. (Phillips never shied away from controversy--when writing for the soap Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, she attempted to introduce an interracial romance. When the network balked, Phillips quit the show.)

Also in 1964, Phillips began working as a consultant on the prime time soap Peyton Place. Phillips now had control over shows running on all three networks. And in 1965, she created another long-lasting daytime drama Days of Our Lives.

But despite Phillips legendary golden touch and her importance to the daytime drama, by the 1970s the times and the genre were leaving her behind. Soaps were important profit centers for networks and they needed to become more sensational to keep ratings. Phillips's simpler stories were now out of fashion. She was fired by Proctor and Gamble in 1973 and died in December of that year.

Today daytime is populated with the programs she created: As the World Turns, Another World, Days of Our Lives, and The Guiding Light. Guiding Light has now set the record as the longest running series in broadcasting history. Many other soaps on the air were created by those who began their careers working for Phillips: Bill Bell and All My Children creator Agnes Nixon.

Phillips believed her success was based on her focus on character rather than on overly complicated plots and her exploration of universal themes: self-preservation, sex, and family. She said in 1965, "None of us is different, except in degree. None of us is a stranger to success and failure, life and death, the need to be loved, the struggle to communicate."

-Cary O'Dell

IRNA PHILLIPS. Born in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., 1 July 1901. Educated at University of Illinois, B.S. in education 1923. Children: Thomas Dirk and Katherine Louise. Began career as junior college speech and drama instructor, Fulton, Missouri, 1924; teacher, Dayton, Ohio, 1924-29; first writing job with WGN, Chicago radio station, hired to write ten-minute family drama, Painted Dreams, 1930; launched the soap, Guiding Light, 1937; Guiding Light switched to TV, 1952; consultant, Peyton Place, first successful evening serial, 1964; continued writing soaps until a year before her death. Died in Chicago, 22 December 1973.

TELEVISION

1952 The Guiding Light
1954 The Brighter Day
1954-55 The Road of Life
1956- As the World Turns
1964-99 Another World
1964-69 Peyton Place (consultant)
1965 Our Private World
1965- Days of Our Lives
1967-73 Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing

RADIO

Painted Dreams, 1930-32; Today's Children, 1932-38; The Guiding Light, 1937-52; The Road of Life, 1937; Woman in White, 1938; The Right to Happiness, 1939; Lonely Women, 1942, later became Today's Children, 1943; Masquerade, 1946-47; Young Doctor Malone, 1939-60; The Brighter Day, 1948-56.

FURTHER READING

Allen, Robert C. Speaking of Soap Opera. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

LaGuardia, Robert. Soap World. New York: Arbor House, 1983.

Matelski, Marilyn J. The Soap Opera Evolution: America's Enduring Romance with Daytime Drama. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1988.

O'Dell, Cary. Women Pioneers in Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1996.

Soares, Manuela. The Soap Opera Book. New York: Harmony, 1978.

 

See also Peyton Place; Soap Opera