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Irna Phillips

Irna Phillips
Born (1901-07-01)July 1, 1901
Chicago, Illinois
Died December 23, 1973(1973-12-23) (aged 72)

Irna Phillips (July 1, 1901 – December 23, 1973) was an American actress and writer who created and scripted many of the first American soap operas.

Phillips created (and co-created) radio and TV soap operas including:

Phillips also was a creative consultant on Peyton Place (1964–1969), and was an unofficial consultant on A World Apart, which was created by her adopted daughter Katherine. Irna Phillips was also a story editor on Days of Our Lives.

She was also the mentor to Agnes Nixon, the creator of All My Children and One Life to Live, William J. Bell, the creator of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, and James Lipton who acted for over ten years on "The Guiding Light" and was head writer for "Another World", "The Edge of Night", "The Guiding Light", "Return to Peyton Place" and the creator of "The Best of Everything" and "Capitol".


  • Personal life 1
  • Career 2
    • Early radio career 2.1
    • Dispute over Painted Dreams 2.2
    • Woman in White 2.3
    • Radio and television series 2.4
  • Death 3
  • Tributes 4
  • Credits 5
    • Radio 5.1
    • Television 5.2
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Personal life

Phillips was one of 10 children born to a German Jewish family in Chicago. Her father died when she was 8, leaving her mother alone to raise the children. She claimed to be a lonely child always given hand-me-down clothes and making up long and involved stores for her dolls to live out. At 19 she was pregnant, abandoned by her boyfriend, and then gave birth to a still-born baby.[1] 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, however, her teachers told her she was too plain to have any real success. 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. At the age of 42, Phillips adopted a son, Thomas Dirk Phillips. A year later, she adopted a daughter, Katherine Louise Phillips.


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" and "Sue Morton". Mother Moynihan was a widowed matriarch of a large Irish-American family. Phillips based Mother Moynihan’s struggles on her own mother’s obstacles.[2] The Serial ran daily except Sundays until April 1932. Irna Phillips is credited with innovating a daytime serial format for radio geared toward women.

Later known as “Queen of the Soaps,” she introduced techniques such as the organ bridge to give a smooth flow between scenes and the cliff-hanger ending to each episode.[3]

She started with her trial serial series Painted Dreams over Chicago’s WGN during daytime. WGN manager, Henry Selinger claimed to have come up with the original daytime serial to sell products for women. However, Phillips was hired to write as well as perform in this first series. Disputes of ownership over the innovative serial ended Phillip’s association with WGN and she was picked up by opponent station WMAQ. Painted Dreams was then changed to Today’s Children featuring the same plot and debate over starting a career or starting a family. Phillips had then learned to retain all rights and ownership to her newly titled show and the many that followed in her career.

Phillips endured much disapproval for her writing, especially from sponsors like Procter & Gamble. Critics and the radio business during the 1930s were mostly made up of men. Many had claimed Phillips serial series audiences were childlike, unrealistic, vulgar, and distasteful. This claim made from the male industry was a personal attack on the female characters Phillips produced. In reality, these female characters were depicted as strong women with options, education, and personality. Phillips characters were not something of the ordinary for the stereotypical 1930’s women.[4]

No regular male roles were introduced until later in the series run. The conflict most basic to the programs dramatic structure was that between traditional and changing gender roles-Irene Moynihan, the daughter was characterized as the “aspiring modern girl, with ambitions toward a career,” against Mother Moynihan’s and Sue Morton’s more traditional views.[5] Although this show began as an unsponsored program, Phillips believed 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".[6] With this in mind, she wrote in an engagement and a wedding which provided the possibility of product tie-ins.

Dispute over Painted Dreams

By 1932 Phillips urged the local Chicago station WGN to sell Painted Dreams to a national network. When they refused, Phillips took them to court, claiming the show as her own property. In the meantime, Phillips changed the show Today's Children which was found on WMAQ. 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, 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.

In 1938, Phillips's mother died, and Phillips demanded that Today's Children be discontinued out of respect. 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. Agnes Nixon and Harding Lemay have suggested that Phillips was hypochondriac.

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 Nixon a job. William J. Bell also began his apprenticeship under Phillips during her radio days.

Radio and television series

In the 1940s, Phillips wrote two million words a year, dictated six to eight hours a day, and earned $250,000 a year.[7] Other shows 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. 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.

In 1949 Phillips created the first serial broadcast on a major television network, These Are My Children. The show ran on NBC for a month. Phillips brought The Guiding Light to TV in 1952, with The Brighter Day following in 1954. Brighter Day ended in 1962 and The Guiding Light (later shortened to Guiding Light) ended its run on September 18, 2009, making it the longest running program in broadcast history having a 72-year run on radio and television.

In 1956 Phillips created As the World Turns, one of the first two daytime dramas to run a half-hour in length (the other being The Edge of Night, which premiered on CBS the same day). Within two years As the World Turns had become the highest-rated drama, a position it would retain for over two decades. 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 rehire her. Wagner remained with the show until her death in 2010, just months before the show's ending.

Phillips co-created Another World in 1964, originally planned as a sister show to As the World Turns. Although Procter & Gamble owned both shows, CBS had no room for the program and it was brought to rival network NBC. Both shows did contain crossovers from background character Mitchell Dru, a lawyer character from The Brighter Day. Phillips fired veteran actor John Beal from Another World after only one episode, and actress Fran Sharon (who played Susan Matthews) after two weeks.[8] Phillips & Bell gave Another World over to James Lipton, who passed it onto Agnes Nixon.

Actress 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."[9]

She was story editor for Days of Our Lives, in 1965, was a story consultant on Peyton Place, and then co-created Our Private World, the first primetime series to be spun off from a daytime show. The series featured the As the World Turns character Lisa Miller; the series ran during the spring, summer and early fall of 1965, before being canceled. In 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.

She left Love is a Many Splendored Thing 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. All 1,430 episodes of Love Is a Many Splendored Thing were recorded on videotape at CBS Broadcast Center Studio 41 in New York.

Phillips was the unofficial story editor for A World Apart, an ABC soap opera that was created by her daughter, Katherine. 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 As the World Turns (ATWT) asked her to come back and write for them. Phillips introduced a number of characters to the show and integrated them with the core Hughes family.

Phillips' new story, and the show's new heroine, Kimberly Sullivan (Kathryn Hays), became involved with longtime hero, Bob Hughes (Don Hastings). Bob was married to Kim's sister Jennifer, but Phillips, had Kim seduce Bob. She became pregnant. P&G fired Phillips in early 1973; it was to be her last writing gig. Phillips was a fiercely independent entrepreneur who retained ownership rights to all her shows, producing through Carl Wester and Company and allowing agencies, sponsors, and networks little control over her soap opera empire


Irna Phillips died on December 23, 1973, aged 72, from undisclosed causes.

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.


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 (both radio and TV). Beth Ehlers played Phillips, and several incidents in her life were fictionalized in the show.





  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Hilmes, M. (1997). Radio voices american broadcasting, 1922-1952. Minnesota Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. ^ As quoted on pages 157-158 of "Radio Voices American Broadcating 1922-1952", published in 1997 by the University of Minnesota Press.
  6. ^ As quoted on pages 17–18 of Worlds Without End, published in 1997 by the Museum of Television & Radio.
  7. ^ This is reprinted in several sources but appears to have originated from Irna Phillips' obituary in the New York Times.
  8. ^ Waggett, Gerald J., The Ultimate Another World Trivia Book, p. 39
  9. ^ Wakefield, Dan. All Her Children, pp. 36–37

External links

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