Queen of Days

Queen of Days

The inventor of soap opera, Irna Phillips, lived a life worthy of her famous creations.

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“Imperial Soap Opera” by Les White, in The Common Review (Spring 2005),
35 E. Wacker Dr., Ste. 2300, Chicago, Ill. 60601–2298.

Ever feel that if you’ve seen one soap opera, you’ve seen them all? That’s because many were the brainchild of one woman, Irna Phillips, mother of Another World, As the World Turns, Days of Our Lives, and the world’s longest-running show today, The Guiding Light. The shows live on, but Phillips died in obscurity in 1973 after a career as turbulent as any of her creations. Her gender was one handicap; her personality and her independence by turns helped and hobbled her.

Born in Chicago in 1901 into a large, poor, Jewish family, Phillips took the rare step—for a woman—of attending college, where a theater teacher said she had more talent than looks. Then came a series of dramatic plot twists. After graduation, an affair with a married doctor left her pregnant and  syphilitic, and a botched abortion made her sterile, says White, a Chicago writer and clinical psychologist.

She volunteered at Chicago Tribune–owned radio station WGN, and station manager Henry Selinger hired her to write and act in his “playlet” Painted Dreams, a generation-gap–themed drama aimed at housewives. Selinger, the creator of the hot evening show Amos ’n’ Andy, hoped to duplicate his success with daytime audiences, but left for another job shortly after Painted Dreams premiered in 1930.

Phillips wrote six 10-minute Painted Dreams episodes a week. In the process, she developed the three (seemingly autobiographical) plot lines she would recycle throughout her career: (1) the love triangle, in which a career-minded heroine involved with a married man loses out; (2) single motherhood, in which a heroine risks community scorn to raise a child out of wedlock; and (3) obscure identity, in which a hero or heroine searches for family roots. Phillips never married, but reputedly had a thing for doctors and lawyers, which may explain why they continue to populate daytime screens.

Just when Painted Dreams finally began to succeed, WGN and Phillips crossed swords, and she was fired. Meanwhile, Chicago Tribune ad man Frank Hummert took notice of Painted Dreams’ success and began churning out knockoffs, and he, rather than Phillips, became known as the creator of the soap opera.

Phillips finally began making money with Today’s Children, a Painted Dreams-esque serial that first aired on Chicago’s NBC affiliate. Then, in 1937, came The Guiding Light, “a smash right from the gate.” Soon Phillips was earning $250,000 a year. Her career was itself the stuff of melodrama, filled with double-dealing, lawsuits, and rumors of financing from a mysterious mobster lover. In 1941, her cocreator on The Guiding Light brought a long and bitter suit against her, which revealed Phillips’s harsh words about her sponsors and competitors, as well as a willingness to lie on the stand. She lost $250,000.

In 1949, she intrepidly leaped into television, premiering the first major network soap, These Are My Children. She pioneered the TV close-up, and in 1964 had hits on all three television networks. She made many enemies in the industry and unwisely insisted on negotiating her own contracts. In her seventies, she refused to join the Writers Guild union, forcing the producers of As the World Turns—considered the most successful soap of all time—to fire her. Six months later, she was dead.

Whether Selinger, Hummert, or Phillips deserves the credit for creation of the daytime soap opera, there’s no denying the leading role Phillips played in its wild success. Like one of her own characters, she overcame long odds. The soaps themselves now face the same odds, as cable television and reality shows threaten to kill the entire genre. Phillips’s name no longer appears in the credits of the shows she created, but her marriage of commerce and drama represents a lasting union.

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