Born 1 July 1901, Chicago, Illinois; died 23 December 1973, Chicago, Illinois
Daughter of William and Betty Phillips; children: two
Irna Phillips was the 10th and youngest child of a Chicago grocer. Her interest in dramatics began in childhood and continued through her years at the universities of Illinois and Wisconsin. Phillips taught school in Missouri and Ohio. With her mother as a sturdy model of single parenthood (her father died in 1910), Phillips adopted two children in 1941.
Phillips began her radio career as an unpaid actress on Chicago's WGN in 1930. She broadcast a daily program of poetry and philosophical commentary entitled "Thought for Today." Phillips was then asked to write a serial. The result was Painted Dreams (1930-32), the story of Mother Monaran, a widow modeled after Phillips's mother, and her daughter Irene. The central theme was the fulfillment of womanhood through marriage, love, and motherhood. All six female characters (and the sound effects) were played by Phillips and Irene Wicker.
Phillips later went to work for NBC. The daytime serial Today's Children (1932-38) was Painted Dreams with new names. The Guiding Light (1937-) featured the male equivalent of Mother Monahan in Dr. Rutledge, pastor of the nonsectarian Little Church of Five Points. Dr. Rutledge's mission was to teach people how to live the good life. Scenes made up of long, slow discussions between two characters in sparse settings became a Phillips trademark. Guiding Light went on television in 1952. Although Phillips eventually turned the television version over to Agnes E. Nixon, the program continued to bear the stamp of Phillips' devotion to professionals as heroes.
The Road of Life (1937-59) gave the soap opera its first physician for a main character. The program's standard opening, "Dr. Brent, call surgery! Dr. Brent, call surgery!" was its most memorable aspect. Woman in White (1938-42) was notable for its relative independence in treating subjects usually taboo in radio programs of the period.
The Right to Happiness (1939-60) was the original program spinoff. The central characters were Guiding Light 's most popular family, the Kranskys. In The Right to Happiness, they became the Kramers, each of whom was certain of a God-given right to happiness. An innovation in this program was the voice of "The Past," a haunting voice of conscience used regularly from 1941 to 1944, which Phillips later used in Today's Children and Guiding Light.
In The General Mills Hour (1944-48), Phillips introduced a concept that has since been employed in television soap operas and primetime series. Characters from Today's Children, Woman in White, and Guiding Light interacted with one another.
In 1941 Phillips created television's first soap opera, These Are My Children. It was a resounding failure, but two later television serials were highly successful. The first, As the World Turns (1956-) carried several conventions of the daytime radio serial into television, including the use of organ music for mood enhancement and transitions, and the "glacierlike" progress of the plot. The show continues to this day on CBS. Her second major television serial, Another World (1964-99), concerned Ada Matthews McGowan, who regularly wrestled with the problem of how to guide her children's lives without seeming to interfere. Another World, like As the World Turns went on to deal forth-rightly with such issues as drugs, alcoholism, rape, and homosexuality. In 1999, after 35 years on the air, Another World was cancelled and replaced by a "new" soap opera.
Phillips' penchant for philosophizing in her scripts grew out of her identification of three themes basic to successful daytime serials: appeals to self-preservation, sex, and family instinct. As a writer, Phillips saw herself as "part mechanic, part psychologist, and part dialogist." In the early 1940s, when she had five dramatic serials on radio at one time, she kept their 60 characters and multiple plots straight with elaborate charts. This "veteran script carpenter" disdained voiceover narration and flashbacks as "lazy devices." Rather, she built the review necessary to the serial form into the dialogue.
Technically speaking, Phillips did not write her scripts. She acted them before secretaries who recognized the characters by Phillips' interpretation of their voices. When something elicited the wrong reaction, Phillips edited the script on the spot. The typed scripts were sent into production without her seeing them. In the interest of authenticity, Phillips retained a lawyer and two doctors for technical advice. She invited police officers, mail carriers, and policemen into her office as live models. Phillips once said, "Everybody is a serial story. We're reporters."
Phillips was radio's most prolific writer, at one point turning out 2,000,000 words (the equivalent of 40 novels) per year. To radio script technique, Phillips contributed the provocative "tease" ending, used to keep audiences interested from day to day, and the use of organ music to establish mood and to bridge breaks in the narrative. She also is credited with the introduction of amnesia as a plot device. Phillips was the only daytime radio dramatist to make a successful transition to television. In addition to the serials she created, Phillips regularly advised producers of other serials. She is recognized as the single most important influence on daytime television serials.
Judy and Jane (1932). Lonely Women (1941). The Brighter Day (1944-1948). Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1967-1973). Bright Promise (1969-1971).
Edmondson, M., and D. Rounds, From Mary Noble to Mary Hartman: The Complete Soap Opera Book (1976). Stedman, R., The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment (1971). Wakefield, D., All Her Children (1976).
The Big Broadcast, 1920-1950 (1966). CB (1944). Tune Into Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio 1925-1976 (1976).
Broadcasting (6 Nov. 1972). Fortune (June 1938). Newsweek (13 July 1942, 11 May 1964). NYT (30 Dec. 1973). Saturday Evening Post (25 June 1960). Time (10 June 1940). Variety (2 Jan. 1974).
—CAREN J. DEMING