This blog post was written by Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section.
On September 18, 2009, The Guiding Light ended a television run that began June 30, 1952, and a broadcast history that began on radio on January 25, 1937. The show’s run covered 72 Thanksgivings in all, but as we’ll see, the 1945 episode stands out.
For more than fifty years, the show was centered on the generations of the Bauer family. But when The Guiding Light—the definite article was dropped in 1975– started in the fictitious multi-ethnic Chicago suburb of “Five Points”, the series was built around the Reverend Dr. John Ruthledge, played by Arthur “Art” Peterson, Jr. Serving as pastor of “the Little Church of Five Points,” Dr. Ruthledge gives his best counsel to a wide array of characters. The NBC Collection at the Library of Congress has 64 episodes of The Guiding Light radio program from 1942 to 1946. Most are from 1944, including continuous runs of 12, 16, and 18 episodes from June, July and August, 1944.
The program was the creation of Irna Phillips (1901-1973), who by 1937 was a powerhouse of daytime dramas, already known as “soap operas,” a genre she largely created and defined from her somewhat accidental entry into the field of radio writing in Chicago in 1930. Though her early recorded legacy is slim, most of Phillips’ scripts survive with her papers at the University of Wisconsin.
Her early life was not easy. Born into a family of ten, she lost her father, a grocer, at the age of eight. At the age of 19, she became pregnant by a man she thought would marry her but did not. She lost the child to a miscarriage and subsequently was unable to conceive. She credited the broadcast sermons of Dr. Preston Bradley (1888 – 1983) of the Peoples Church, a popular Chicago preacher with an expansive view of Christianity and humanity, as her inspiration to carry on in the world. After several years teaching English and drama, she began playing small parts in programs over Chicago’s radio station WGN, and ultimately gravitated towards writing radio dramas. Painted Dreams, a 15 minute daily series, was launched in 1930.
Painted Dreams was a hit, but after a dispute with WGN in 1932, she moved to NBC and started Today’s Children, keeping her office and production in Chicago. Her scripts and characters were often drawn from her own life, and Today’s Children revolved around a character based on her own mother. When her mother died in 1938, Phillips had the character die as well and ended the series.
Her writing output was prodigious. By the Fall of 1937, she was responsible for three daily dramas and was dictating more than 30,000 words a week to her secretary. Eventually, she would preside over a shop of writers who would finish her initial scripts and describe herself as the “script supervisor and plottist” for her programs, which continued to address social issues.
In 1937, she premiered The Guiding Light. Phillips made Dr Ruthledge a voice of comfort and reason, a perfect vehicle for her own social beliefs with Five Points as the perfect stage. Dr. Ruthledge’s ideals and eloquence were established early in the run when he read Edwin Markham’s poem A Creed on the first program to great effect. His sermons for key days in the calendar were a fixture of the series and a book of them was published.
In 1939, Phillips was profiled in Radio and Television Mirror. “There are only a few things that I absolutely never do in my series,” she told them. “One is never to tear down or hold up to ridicule any institution that people can find comfort in—the law, medicine, government, the church. I never let a character commit perjury because that argues contempt for the law. I like to take many of my characters from the poor and middle classes, because they seem real and human to me. These are about all the rules I have for writing.”[i]
Much of her own life was mirrored in The Guiding Light. Though she never married, she adopted a boy and girl in 1941 and 1943, and many of the 1944 episodes revolve around a single woman with an adopted son who goes on to unwittingly marry the boy’s father.
Dr. Ruthledge was always a presence, if not a voice in the programs. The January 5, 1944, episode opens with his prayer for sailors, his only appearance in the show that day. In other episodes, characters recall his sermons and maxims.
The actor Art Peterson joined the Army in early 1944, and so did Dr. John Ruthledge as a chaplain. Dr. Richard Gaylord (John A. Barclay), took his place at the church on February 25, 1944, but was written out of the show a year later. Peterson as Ruthledge would return to the show in April 1946. Taking his place for the duration was the Reverend Dr. Frank Tuttle, an older man than Ruthledge or Gaylord.
Dr. Tuttle struggled with the board of the church who thought he should retire. Four episodes from his tenure survive, the most exceptional being the one that aired on the afternoon of Thursday, November 22, 1945. This was the first Thanksgiving holiday observed after the end of World War II. Though Dr. Ruthledge was still overseas, it was the perfect opportunity for Phillips to distill the lessons of the war years in the voice of Dr. Tuttle. As the November 22 show opens, Dr. Tuttle is preparing to walk the short distance from his home to the church. He has poured his heart into a Thanksgiving sermon but despairs to his assistant that few will come to church to hear it and his quarrels with the board will continue. When he reaches the church, it is packed. With great conviction he tells them:
We’re all proud of our American way of life. Of our American system of government. Our American way of doing things. We’re all more or less conscious that it is the great reservoir from which all our blessings flow. But what will happen to that reservoir, let me ask you, if the springs of faith, effort and self-reliance which nourish it are allowed to dry up? No. We owe a lot to the past, friends, and the wisdom and courage and resourcefulness of our fathers, our grandfathers and forefathers. But in the last analysis, we must find within ourselves the means of our own salvation.
Our American way of life will work only as long as you and I make it work. The blessings we enjoy will continue only as long as we appreciate their value, and prove worthy of them.
And now, just one other thought. You know our ancestors at Plymouth who started this Thanksgiving Day custom took an oath when they set out to conquer the wilderness, to cling together as brothers whatever fortune might bring. The community spirit was very strong among them, and among all the other pioneers who opened up and settled this country. And that bond of brotherhood endures today and must endure tomorrow. It was the source of our greatest strength during the war. And now that peace has come, it must continue to serve us and be our mainstay for the future. We cannot live as hermits, friends, each going his way apart. We cannot live for ourselves alone, forsaking the common good.
My neighbor and I are in league together. Whatever affects him must affect in the end affect me, be it good or bad. His needs, his welfare, his success or failure are mine, and mine are his. We shall stand or fall together. Our country shall prosper or sicken depending on our mutual sympathy and good will.
For believe me, it is so: the brotherhood of man is not an idle dream, but the only practical hope and certain safeguard of our community, our nation and the world.
Reverend Tuttle then returns to the Edwin Markham poem that defined the outlook of Irna Phillips and her “Dr. Ruthledge” when the show premiered, “As my good friend Dr. Ruthledge of Five Points used to say,”
There is a destiny that makes us brothers; none goes his way alone;
All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.
Interested in listening to Guiding Light or other daytime serials in our NBC Radio Collection or want to learn how to find other recorded sound resources? Don’t hesitate to contact our reference staff at the Recorded Sound Research Center or contact us through the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian.
[i] “Expert on Happiness,” Norton Russell. Radio and Television Mirror, November, 1939, pp 69
[ii] The locale was later moved to the midwestern city of “Springfield.” The state was never identified.