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The Queen of Soaps Speaks…for Herself

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                                       Irna Phillips

You may not know the name Irna Phillips (1901-1973), but you know her work and influence. She pioneered the soap opera genre in radio and is widely regarded as a key creative figure in radio and television serialized entertainment. Phillips was the creator (and, for years, the primary scriptwriter) of “As the World Turns,” “Guiding Light,” “Another World,” and “One Life to Live,” along with a host of other very successful and long-running radio and television daytime dramas.

“Guiding Light” (originally, “The Guiding Light”) has the distinction of being the longest-running scripted program in American broadcast history. It began on radio in 1937, and didn’t end its run on television until 2009. Put another way, that was a story told over 72 years!

How important is Irna Phillips? Among other markers, it is illustrative to note that the other two most important names in the history of daytime drama—Agnes Nixon, who created “All My Children,” and Bill Bell, creator of “The Young and the Restless”—both began their careers working for her.

Phillips was born in 1901 in Chicago, Illinois. She launched her first soap, “Painted Dreams,” over WGN radio in 1930. “Dreams” went national in 1932. Other programs she created soon followed, including “Woman in White,” “Lonely Women,” “Today’s Children,” “The Right to Happiness” and “The Guiding Light.”

By 1943, only about 10 years after she began her writing career, Phillips was responsible for five different daytime dramas. She was writing them all; her literary output was estimated to be about two million words a year, the equivalent of 40 novels.

This past year, Phillips was enshrined in the Library’s National Recording Registry when the Librarian of Congress selected a 1945 episode of “The Guiding Light” for inclusion in the 2020 Registry. This episode is described in detail here:

Leading up to the announcement earlier that year, the Library reached out to Phillips’ son, Tom D. Phillips, who was kind enough to donate to the Library a copy of his mother’s unpublished memoir.

The manuscript

Composed in the early 1970s–with, according to Mr. Phillips, the working title of “All My Worlds”—the manuscript is a fascinating record and insight into one of the most important names and creative minds in the history of American broadcasting.

It includes many intriguing stories and recollections—for instance, Phillips’ explanation of her work methods. She writes:

When ‘Today’s Children’ [begun 1932] was first aired I wrote my scripts in the evening at home. I dictated my scripts to my brother Arno. I learned to dictate rapidly because Arno would always look at his watch and remind me that he had to be home at a certain time.

To some people my approach to writing scripts might have seemed chaotic, but to me it had its own sense of organization. There was, of course, a general long term story outline for the program. This gave me a basic sense of direction. But the outline was always flexible, and in fact, it was frequently modified and sometimes changed completely. Shortly after I began writing “Today’s Children” I developed what I call my “square” system. It’s one that I still use. Each sheet of squares represented one month of episodes and each square one day’s episode. In each I would write the names of the characters who would appear in that episode. Since I believe that story flowed from character, once I had written the names of the character in the square, I knew how I would develop that day’s story. I usually had scripts written between one and two weeks before their actual broadcast. This gave everyone connected with the show from the network to the cast, ample time to study the scripts.

I was able to dictate at least one and often two scripts in a few hours. I know I am one of the few serial writers who dictates rather than types their scripts. But instead of being a detriment to me, dictating has been one of my strongest assets as a writer. When I dictate I, in fact, act out the entire episode. People who have watched me work have commented that when dictating I change my voice to fit each character, that I used certain gestures when speaking the lines intended for this character or that [one]. In fact, one observer called my work routine “a one-woman repertory company.” Secretaries have no problem knowing which character is speaking when I dictate .

After her spectacular success in radio, Phillips brought her talents, and many of her series, to the new medium of television beginning in the early 1950s.

In her memoir Phillips described her entry into the new medium:

By 1951 television was already taking its place as one of the most important media of communication and entertainment. I, like everyone else in broadcasting, had closely followed the progress of television. In fact, I had seen David Sarnoff’s first public display of television at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. It wasn’t until the late 1940’s, however, that I began to think seriously about writing a dramatic serial for this new medium.

It may come as a surprise to many readers, but there was really very little difference between writing for radio and writing for television. In radio, of course, one didn’t have to be concerned with action or sets. This was left to the imagination of the listener. To me the imagination of the audience was the magic of radio. Television, for all its power and importance, robbed the viewer of that magic and has not replaced it.

Phillips in action. (Note the squares on the paper in her hand.)

There is little difference between writing dialog for a radio script and a television script. I had to make some adjustments such as indicating the setting for scenes, and suggesting any action that might heighten the dramatic impact of the scene. As director it was Norman [Felton]’s responsibility to stage each show. Like myself, Norman was also a newcomer to television. It was necessary for both of us to do a considerable amount of experimentation. The major challenge for me in writing for television was to write scripts that called for action. For nineteen years I had written scripts for actors who talked into a microphone. Now scenes had to be written with a visual concept in mind. Television also brought another major change to the dramatic serial. It was now of paramount importance how actors looked.

Just about everything connected with [my first TV serial] “These Are My Children” was in the nature of experimentation. The show, of course, was broadcast live. I don’t recall that we had teleprompters—or cue cards. The cast were veteran radio actors, but some of them experienced difficulty in memorizing their lines as well as following stage directions. Those actors with theatre experience had the easiest time making the transition from radio to television….

“These Are My Children” had a very low budget and I’m sure actors received no more than twenty dollars a performance. I was paid only two hundred dollars a month for writing all the scripts.

Despite the short lifespan of her first attempt at TV, Phillips would soon find massive success in the new medium. She relates when “The Guiding Light” came to the small screen:

The first television episode of “The Guiding Light” was broadcast in the Fall of 1952. Aggie [Agnes Nixon] and I were co-writers, David Lesan [was] the producer and Ted Corday was the director. With the exception of one actor, the entire radio cast moved to television.

The program, however, was still on radio, and we would do simultaneous broadcasts. This meant that while the show was being performed live in front of the television cameras, the dialogue was being broadcast over the radio. There was only one change made for radio. The television introduction to the show consisted of a picture of a shaft of light illuminating the titles of the program. For radio I wrote a brief introduction which set the scene and was read by an announcer. I was paid for both the radio and television scripts, although they were for the most part alike.

Phillips’ manuscript goes on to document some of her later creations, including the very long-running and successful serial “As the World Turns.”

Phillips’ book, however, is not just about business. Along with being a creative force, she also reveals herself to be a pretty savvy businesswoman—willing and able to take on sponsors and networks if need be. She gets personal sometimes too, especially in documenting her choice to, as a single woman, adopt two children. She adopted her son, Thomas, in 1943, and her daughter, Katherine, in 1944. (Katherine would later follow in her mother’s footsteps as a TV scribe; she passed away in 2009.) She has some political and sociological thoughts as well—about the nature of the family and about “women’s lib.”

Frustratingly, the manuscript ends around 1964, the year that Phillips’ highly successful daytime drama “Another World” debuted on the air. Mr. Phillips does not know why it ends there. It is quite possible that Phillips’ death (she died in December of 1973) prevented her from finishing it.

But, as we’ve learned at the Library of Congress, rather than lament what no longer exists, we are grateful for what we have. And, in this case, it is a first-person account by one of broadcasting’s truly great storytellers.

Comments (5)

  1. Interesting about her preferring to dictate. Some of the really prolific novelists had similar habits — Edgar Wallace liked to talk into a dictaphone writing his crime stories, while Barbara Cartland would lie down on a couch and dictate her romances to her secretary.

  2. I found this very fascinating! I loved watching Guiding Light back in the 80s. I did NOT know that it was no longer on tv now. This article was absolutely wonderful to read about Irna. I wish I could have heard all the radio broadcasts of The Guiding Light. Anyway, thank you for putting up this wonderful information!

  3. Fascinating! I’ve been hearing things about this unfinished memoir for years. Love getting to read some quotes & a good picture about it overall. I’ve read before that she had her papers with her working on it the night before, in bed which is where she died, in her sleep. And, people also wonder if she died “of a broken heart” since she had been fired by P&G not too much before her death. I love it that she is called an auteur. I hate it that she didn’t get much recognition.

  4. Irna Phillips was a pioneer in the genre of serialized drama (or soap opera) spanning radio and TV. Phillips also serving as a mentor to other soap opera genre pioneers like Agnes Nixon, the creative mind behind All My Children and One Life To Live, William J. Bell, the creative mind behind The Young & The Restless and The Bold & The Beautiful, and Ted & Betty Corday, the creative minds behind Days Of Our Lives. Phillips having her creations, such as Guiding Light, As The World Turns, and Another World, to name a few.
    Soap operas have come a long way, from development of iconic characters (be it Nancy Hughes on As The World Turns played by Helen Wagner, Katherine Chancellor on The Young & The Restless played by Jeanne Cooper, Tom & Alice Horton on Days Of Our Lives played by Macdonald Carey and Francis Reid, respectively, Erica Kane on All My Children played by Susan Lucci, etc.), to socially relevant and societal issues being incorporated into the storylines that would’ve otherwise been considered taboo, and presenting stories in an honest and compelling manner.

  5. To add to my previous comment above.
    The soap opera genre had additional icons, including Roy Winsor, the creative mind behind Search For Tomorrow, Love Of Life, and The Secret Storm, as well as Irving Vindig, the creative mind behind The Edge Of Night, Dan Curtis, the creative mind behind Dark Shadows, Frank & Doris Hursley, the creative minds behind General Hospital, and Stephen & Elinor Karpf, the creative minds behind Capitol, etc.
    Another daytime TV icon who reinvigorated the Irna Phillips soaps and also worked with Agnes Nixon during most of the 1970s and 1980s would be none other than Douglas Marland. Marland gave As The World Turns its best years during his 8 years there as head writer, to helping save General Hospital from being cancelled, and his work on other shows.
    The soap opera genre also benefited from having actors and actresses from cinemas golden era to help make them successful, including Joan Bennett, best known for her portrayal of Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on Dark Shadows, and Ruth Warrick (of Citizen Kane fame), best known for her portrayal of Phoebe English Tyler Wallingford on All My Children and Edith Hughes on As The World Turns. Also up and coming actors and actresses that went on to successful movie and TV careers got their start on soap operas, including names like Julianne Moore, Meg Ryan, Nathan Fillion, Eva Longoria, Melina Kanakaredes, Josh Duhamel, Lori Loughlin, Wendy Mallick, Christine Boranski, Justin Hartley, and many others.
    Ultimately, Irna Phillips created quite a legacy in her work, and other named who are part of a great legacy.

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