Irna Phillips

Irna Phillips

Irna Phillips (July 1, 1901December 22, 1973) was an American actress and most notably writer who created and scripted many of the first American soap operas. She is considered by many to be the "mother" of the genre.

Phillips is best known for creating radio and TV soap operas. She created or co-created the following series:
* "Another World" (1964-1999)
* "As the World Turns" (1956-present)
* "Days of our Lives" (1965-present)
* "The Brighter Day" (1948-1956 on radio and 1954-1962 on television)
* "Guiding Light" (1937-1956 on radio, and 1952-present on television)
* "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" (1967-1973),
* "Our Private World" (1965, on primetime television - a spinoff of As The World Turns)
* The radio version of "Young Dr. Malone"

Phillips also was a creative consultant on "Peyton Place" (1964-1969), and was the co-creator and story editor for "Days of Our Lives" (1965-present). She was an unofficial consultant on "A World Apart", which was created by her adopted daughter Katherine (some of the story elements were reportedly based on Phillips' own life).

She is recognized as one of the most important pioneers in television history, and as the originator of the daytime TV drama (i.e. television soap opera). She was also the mentor to Agnes Nixon, the creator of "All My Children" and "One Life to Live", and William J. Bell, the creator of "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful".

Early life

Phillips was one of ten children born to a German Jewish family in Chicago. She studied drama at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where she became a member of Phi Sigma Sigma sorority), receiving a Master of Arts degree before going on to earn a master's degree in journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Phillips wanted to be an actress, but quickly realized she was not attractive enough to have a successful career. From 1925 to 1930 she worked as a school teacher in Dayton, Ohio teaching drama and theatre history to schoolchildren. While working in this capacity she continued to attempt a career as an actress, and after performing several acting roles for radio productions at WGN in Chicago, she left her career as a teacher.

She said she was in love only once, and she once had an affair with a man who refused to marry her when he learned she could not conceive a child. At 42, she adopted a son, Thomas Dirk Phillips. A year later, she adopted a daughter, Katherine. Phillips is rumored to have suffered a still-born child at the age of 19.

Early radio career

After working as a staff writer on a daytime talk show, Phillips created the serial "Painted Dreams". Historians now believe the show to have been the first daytime serial specifically targeted for women. On this show Phillips wrote every episode, in addition to starring in the show as family matriarch "Mother Moynihan". It is believed that this serial incorporated much auto-biographical material, with Phillips' immigrant Jewish family portrayed as an Irish immigrant family.

Although this show began as an unsponsored program, Phillips quickly recognized that a radio series must be a "utility to its sponsors" and that it must "actually sell merchandise; otherwise the object of radio advertising has failed." [quoted in "Worlds Without End" published by the Museum of Television & Radio in 1997 on pages 17-18] With this in mind, she wrote in an engagement and a wedding which provided the possibility of product tie-ins.

Dispute about "Painted Dreams"

By 1932 "Painted Dreams" had become so successful that Phillips urged the local Chicago station WGN to sell the show to a national network. When they refused, Phillips took them to court claiming the show as her own property.

In the meantime Phillips created a new show "Today's Children", which was little more than a thinly disguised version of "Painted Dreams". For example, Mother Moynihan became "Mother Moran". Much of the storyline remained the same. Historians believe that "Today's Children" represents the first instance of a broadcast network soap opera - thereby crediting Phillips with inventing the genre.

By 1938 "Today's Children" was a massive hit on NBC radio. Later that year "Painted Dreams" emerged from the courts and was purchased by CBS. The nature of the court settlement prohibited Phillips from any future involvement with the series, however, the national broadcast of "Painted Dreams" never matched the popularity of "Today's Children".

In 1938 Phillips' mother, who had been the inspiration for the matriarch character, died and Phillips demanded that "Today's Children" be discontinued out of respect. Instead of taking legal action, NBC agreed and replaced it with her new series "Woman in White".

"Woman in White"

"Woman in White" was another early creation, and one of the first serials to focus on the internal workings of a hospital. It has been suggested by many individuals ranging from soap opera historians to Agnes Nixon and Harding Lemay that Phillips was hypochondriac; she allegedly consulted a doctor every day. (In the 1970s, shortly before Phillips' death, Nixon and Lemay both recalled an incident where Phillips had finally decided to take a trip to Europe - she had booked passage on a hospital ship docked in the harbor.)

It was on "Woman in White" that Phillips first became involved with a young Agnes Nixon, then known by her maiden name Agnes Eckhardt. Nixon remembered entering an interview with Phillips carrying a script she had written which Phillips proceeded to act out in front of her. When she was finished she offered Agnes a job. William J. Bell, too, began his apprenticeship under Phillips during her radio days.

Radio and television success

In the 1940s, Phillips wrote two million words a year, dictated six to eight hours a day, and earned $250,000 a year. [This is reprinted in several sources but appears to have originated from Irna Phillips' obituary in the New York Times.] Other successful shows beyond "Woman in White" included "The Road to Happiness" (1939-1960), "The Brighter Day", and "The Guiding Light" which began in 1937.

In 1938 Phillips supervised the creation of the tie in book "The Guiding Light" published by "The Guiding Light Co. (not incorporated) of 360 North Michigan Avenue Chicago, Illinois". The book traced the backstory of the radio series, told from the point of view of the "keeper of the guiding light", Reverend John Ruthledge.

In a segment of "The General Mills Hour", characters from various Phillips radio dramas interacted. This can be seen as somewhat surprising as Phillips would later hold the belief that viewers would not follow crossover storylines well, a belief debunked in 1965 when Agnes Nixon brought two of "The Guiding Light"'s main characters to "Another World" to visit a friend.

In 1949 Phillips created the first serial broadcast on a major television network, "These Are My Children". The show, which ran on NBC for a month, was a rehash of "Today's Children" and "Painted Dreams", and attracted negative reviews. Undaunted, Phillips brought "The Guiding Light" to TV in 1952, with "The Brighter Day" following in 1954. Both shows gained a following - "Brighter Day" ended in 1962 and "The Guiding Light" (later shortened to "Guiding Light") remains on the air to this day, making it the longest running program in broadcast history.

In 1956 Phillips broke new ground by creating "As the World Turns", the first daytime drama to run a half-hour. The show was one of the first to employ deeper character studies and extended closeups. Although some were skeptical, within 2 years "As the World Turns" became the highest-rated drama, a position it would retain for over a decade.

Phillips co-created "Another World" in 1964. Originally planned as a sister show to "As the World Turns" this proved next to impossible. Although Procter & Gamble owned both shows, CBS had no room for the program and it was brought to rival NBC. Both shows did contain crossovers from background character Mitchell Dru (Geoffery Lumb), a lawyer character she first used on The Brighter Day (although as is stated he was only used as a background character, never involved in integral storylines). "Another World"'s fast-paced melodrama, which included the first (albeit illegal) abortion ever on a soap opera, proved to not be her forte. Phillips & Bell gave the show over to James Lipton who quickly passed it onto Agnes Nixon.

She co-created "Days of Our Lives" in 1965, was a story consultant on "Peyton Place", and then co-created "Our Private World", the first (and so far only) primetime series to be spun off from a daytime show. The series featured the wildly popular "As the World Turns" vixen Lisa Miller and ran for several months.

Personality and temperament

Phillips gained a reputation for being very challenging to work with, and would often make seemingly arbitrary decisions about story and cast.
* Within six months of the debut of "As the World Turns", Phillips fired lead actress Helen Wagner because Phillips said she did not like the way she poured coffee. Procter & Gamble and CBS both backed Wagner, and Phillips was forced to re-hire her. Wagner is still with the show, over fifty years later.
* In his memoir "Eight Years in Another World", writer Harding Lemay recalled an anecdote about Phillips calling the production offices at "As the World Turns", after an episode had aired that she did not particularly like. The receptionist answered the phone: "As the World Turns". Phillips angrily replied, "Not today it didn't!" and hung up the receiver.
* Phillips demanded her stars never go by their real names in public.
* Her interference became so bad that by the mid-1960s "Guiding Light" executive producer Lucy Ferri Rittenberg refused to accept Phillips' collect phone calls, made from her home in Chicago to the show's New York studio.
* During one production day, "As the World Turns" actress Eileen Fulton accidentally dropped her script on the floor; actor Don McLaughlin (Chris Hughes) hurriedly picked it up and told Fulton that "a Phillips script, like the American flag, could never touch the ground".
* Agnes Nixon, one of her many protégées, said of Phillips, "Irna was her own best creation."

Phillips could be very challenging to actors; she fired actor John Beal from "Another World" after only one episode and actress Fran Sharon (Susan Matthews) after two weeks. [From "The Ultimate Another World Trivia Book" by Gerald J. Waggett page 39] Phillips frequently clashed with actors, particularly with "As The World Turns" lead Rosemary Prinz. In a 1976 interview, actress Kay Campbell recalled "I'll never forget once on "As the World Turns", Rosemary Prinz did a scene and when we were only off the air five minutes Irna was on the phone and tore her to pieces. I don't think Irna liked actors". ["All Her Children" by Dan Wakefield page 36-37] This experience made such an impression with Campbell to the point that when she was offered a role on "Guiding Light" she declined, until she learned that Agnes Nixon would be in charge. This experience cemented her already long friendship with Nixon, and in her later years Campbell accepted the role of Kate Martin on "All My Children".

In the mid-1950s CBS informed Irna that they wanted to experiment with a new color technique and would film and broadcast a live episode of "The Guiding Light" in color. Although many at "TGL" were pleased with the idea, Irna was miffed at any element which was out of her control. She made sure the entire episode took place in an operating room, ensuring that most of the colors were bright white, drowning out any of the positive effects of the new system. CBS got the hint and stayed away. By contrast, "Search for Tomorrow" happily complied with the process and was given a number of color episodes in the 1950s and early 1960s).

In 1958, she had a popular "Guiding Light" character, Kathy Roberts, killed off via kids accidentally pushing her wheelchair into oncoming traffic. Rumor had it she did it to make "As the World Turns", which was faltering in the ratings, more successful. The ratings moved up that year and took the top spot for the first time that fall, but there has been no solid proof of a direct correlation. When grief-stricken fans barraged CBS with protest letters, Phillips responded with a form letter: "You have only to look around you, read your daily papers, to realize that we cannot, any of us, live with life alone..."

She left "Love is a Many Splendored Thing" abruptly when CBS censors refused to fully tell a love story involving an Amerasian woman (born out of the love affair in the original film) and a white man. CBS and Twentieth Century-Fox Television were co producers of the show. Phillips' resignation led to the show being moved from Fox's New York studios (and the end of Fox's role as co-producer and distributor) to CBS Broadcasting Center, and the change of the music base from studio-orchestral to organ and piano based.

Final years

Phillips was the unofficial story editor for "A World Apart", an ABC soap opera that was created by her daughter Katherine, but the show was not a success. Of all the Irna Phillips soap opera this was the most autobiographical. One of the main characters was a soap opera writer who lived in Chicago and was in charge of a soap opera in New York.

Around this time that "As the World Turns" asked her to come back to write for them. The show, which had faltered in the ratings slightly, needed a boost to make sure that it could keep the #1 slot. The ratings went back up, but over time, the stories failed to compete with rival soap "Another World" (which was co-created by Phillips), and in November 1971, "As the World Turns" fell out of first place for the first time since 1959.

Phillips introduced a number of characters to the show and integrated them with the core Hughes family. However,"ATWT" was now in competition with both "Another World"and "General Hospital" for the top slot, and Procter & Gamble, the show's sponsor, made it clear that Irna's days would be numbered if she did not succeed in driving the show's ratings up again.

Phillips had been in the midst of a feud with actress Jane House (who played Liz Talbot) because House was appearing on Broadway by night doing nude scenes (in "Lenny"). She tried to have Liz die via pneumonia, but fans flooded the switchboards and CBS ordered a miracle for Liz. House left the show, but Phillips transferred her hatred onto the character and had Liz, who was since replaced by actress Judith McGilligan, die due to a ruptured spleen as a result of "falling up the stairs" (a rarity in medical history).

Further controversy centered around Phillips' new story, and the show's new heroine, Kimberly Sullivan (Kathryn Hays), who became involved with longtime hero, Bob Hughes (Don Hastings). Bob was married to Kim's sister Jennifer, but Phillips, who had created the strong and independent Kim from the shreds of her own life, had Kim seduce Bob. She became pregnant. Fans were outraged and CBS/P&G demanded Kim be "punished" via miscarriage or another melodramatic route. Phillips refused, planning to have Bob divorce Jennifer and marry Kim. P&G fired Phillips in early 1973; it was to be her last writing gig. (Ironically, Bob and Kim would go on to become one of the show's more popular couples, and is now the "tentpole" couple of the show.) In the early 80s a storyline consisted of Bob and Kim finding their child had lived. The actress to play the role was Julianne Moore as Sabrina who looked identical to Julianne Moore's other character Bob and Jennifer's child Frannie.

Recollections of Phillips in her final months can be found in Harding Lemay's 1980 memoir, "Eight Years in Another World". Irna had been doing consultant work for "Another World" and her ideas clashed with new headwriter Lemay's, but he grew to respect her. When she died in 1973, he learned that Phillips had requested that her family not write an obituary upon her death. Feeling she deserved better, Lemay wrote her obituary and he and his wife paid to have the words placed in the "New York Times". Agnes Nixon learned of Irna's death when she called her mentor to wish her well on Christmas Day. According to Nixon, Phillips had not wanted anyone to know that she had passed on.

Memories of Irna Phillips from the point of Agnes Nixon and several other "behind the scenes" individuals can be found in the book "All Her Children" by Dan Wakefield published in 1976.


On January 25, 2007, in an episode celebrating the 70th Anniversary of Guiding Light, the current cast portrayed actors and behind-the-scenes personnel from the early years of the series (Radio and TV). Beth Ehlers played Phillips, and several incidents in her life are fictionalized in the show.

Currently, a play is being written based on her life. It is called Irna.



*"Painted Dreams"
*"Today's Children" (1932-1938, 1943-1950)
*"Judy and Jane" (1932-1943)
*"Woman in White" (1938-1942)
*"Joyce Jordan, Girl Intern" (aka "Joyce Jordan, MD")
*"The Road of Life" (1937-1959)
*"The Guiding Light" (1937-1956)
*"Lonely Woman" (1942-1943)
*"Masquerade" (1948-1952)
*"The Brighter Day" (1948-1952)


*"These Are My Children" (1949)
*"(The) Guiding Light" (1952-present)
*"The Brighter Day" (1954-1962)
*"As the World Turns" (1956-present)
*"Another World" (1964-1999)
*"Our Private World" (1965)
*"Days of our Lives" (1965-present)
*"Love is a Many Splendored Thing" (1967-1973)


External links

* [ Museum of Broadcast Communications: Irna Phillips]
* [ Video clip of Agnes Nixon discussing Phillips]
* [ Irna Philips Bio: Arcane Radio Trivia]

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