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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
Robert C. Speaking of Soap Opera. Chapel Hill: University
of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Robert. Soap World. New York: Arbor House, 1983.
Marilyn J. The Soap Opera Evolution: America's Enduring Romance
with Daytime Drama. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1988.
Cary. Women Pioneers in Television. Jefferson, North Carolina:
Manuela. The Soap Opera Book. New York: Harmony, 1978.
also Peyton Place;