Irna Phillips is credited with creating an entire programming genre, the soap opera, and introducing many of the conventions that define its structure, such as its serial narrative and cliffhanger endings. Her career as a writer was one of the most prolific and successful in the history of broadcasting, giving wing to eleven soap operas for radio and eight for television—including The Guiding Light, the longest running program in the history of broadcasting, which will celebrate its seventieth birthday in 2007. She cocreated As the World Turns (1956) and Days of Our Lives (1965), still running on television, and inspired the careers of many soap opera writer/producers, most notably Agnes Nixon and William J. Bell. She had an astute business mind as well, declaring that radio shows “must actually sell merchandise.” Despite her achievements, Phillips did not always receive the respect she deserved. In her 1973 obituary, the New York Times went so far as to describe her as an “elderly, wispy spinster.” But in recent years, praise has been more forthcoming. In 1991, when TV Guide published a special commemorative issue that included a section on “The Creators,” Phillips was the lone woman on the list of twenty names.
Phillips was born in Chicago in 1901, the youngest of ten children, and was, by her own description, “a plain, sickly, silent child, with hand-me-down clothes and no friends.” Books and her vivid imagination were Phillips’s primary forms of entertainment. Her father, who owned a small grocery store, died when she was eight. Her mother held the family together, literally serving as inspiration to her youngest child who would create more than one indomitable maternal figure in her daytime serials.
She attended Northwestern and graduated from the University of Illinois, changing her original professional goal from acting to teaching when professors told her that she was not attractive enough to make it as an actress. She taught at a community college, did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, and eventually moved to Dayton, Ohio, where she taught for five years at a normal school.
According to her unfinished and unpublished autobiography, it was also in Dayton that Phillips became pregnant by a local doctor. When he refused to acknowledge paternity, Phillips went to court and won, but the child was stillborn. She later used the experience on Guiding Light.
Phillips ended up back in her hometown of Chicago and in her first broadcast job. Like fellow pioneer Gertrude Berg, she was first required to read, not write, for radio. On Thought for the Day on Chicago’s WGN, Phillips spouted poetry and other inspirational words. Within weeks she was fired, then rehired for a meatier assignment—writing and acting in a ten-minute daily program about, simply, “a family.” Painted Dreams premiered on October 20, 1930, and is considered the first daytime serial—later known as a soap opera in homage to its sponsors. After a successful two years, Phillips hoped to take Painted Dreams to a national network, but WGN nixed the idea. She quit and sued the station. Though eventually on the losing end of a lengthy legal battle, Phillips from that moment on personally held the copyright on all her shows and scripts.
There was a plethora of them, as Phillips quickly evolved into a creative machine, turning out one soap after another. She was the first to utilize professionals as characters—lawyers, doctors, and ministers. Aware that shows would not survive without sponsors, Phillips developed concepts that would appeal to specific commercial entities, including Masquerade—a short-lived show involving glamorous women that was designed to sell cosmetics.
Once Phillips began working on multiple programs, she was no longer able to perform in them. But her working method allowed her to exercise her acting muscle. Rather than face the typewriter herself, Phillips each morning sat at a card table in her Chicago living room with a predetermined story line and dictated dialogue to her secretary, changing accents or vocal styles for each character. Eventually, with so many of the fifteen-minute episodes crying out for dialogue at the same time, Phillips had to hire other writers to assist. At the height of her career, she was producing two million words a year—the equivalent of about thirty novels.
At first Phillips was reluctant to delve into the new medium of television, yet, for a time, some of her programs, like The Guiding Light, were available on both media. But in 1956, when she did create her first original television soap, it was a smash. As the World Turns was TV’s first half-hour (later an hour) soap and the first to inspire a prime-time spin-off, albeit a short-lived one. As the World Turns also introduced a character type that has become a soap staple—the scheming villainess. Eileen Fulton, who originated the role of Lisa in 1960, continues to play the part today. Phillips later created two long-running serials: Another World, with William J. Bell, and Days of Our Lives, with Ted Corday and Allan Chase. She also served as a consultant on the prime-time melodrama Peyton Place.
Phillips had her quirks. Among them, she was a hypochondriac (which proved helpful in researching plots involving doctors); she and her mother shared a bedroom until her mother’s death; and she never owned her own home, despite her wealth. These eccentricities did not hinder—and probably helped her construct—her soap opera empire. “Irna was her own best creation,” said her protégée, Agnes Nixon.