Birthplace: Chicago, IL
Location of death: Chicago, IL
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Acacia Park Cemetery, Chicago, IL
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Film/TV Producer, Author
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Queen of soap operas
Irna Phillips invented soap operas -- so nicknamed for their long-time sponsorship by Proctor & Gamble, and operatic levels of emotion and intrigue. Her own life had no shortage of drama -- her father died when she was eight years old, and her mother raised ten children alone, of which Phillips was the youngest. She was said to have constructed elaborate lives for her dolls, and later described herself as "a plain, sickly, silent child, with hand-me-down clothes and no friends". At 19 she found herself pregnant but unmarried, abandoned by her boyfriend, and her child was stillborn.
She wanted to be an actress, but was told she was too plain, so she worked as a school teacher for several years before finding work as an actress and writer in the new medium of radio. At Chicago's WGN, she devised Painted Dreams, radio's first serialized daytime drama, a daily ten-minute program about family life that proved popular with housewives and sponsors. It debuted on 20 October 1930, with Phillips as head writer and playing the role of Mother Moynihan, widowed matriarch of an Irish-American family. Two years later, when WGN was reluctant to sell the program to a national network, Phillips left and sued the station, and created Today's Children for cross-town rival WMAQ. Then came such nationwide hits as The Brighter Day, Road of Life, Right to Happiness (a spin-off of The Guiding Light), Woman in White, and Young Dr. Malone.
Phillips said that as a young woman she gained strength from the soothing radio ministry of Chicago preacher Preston Bradley. As a tribute to him, she constructed The Guiding Light around the fictional Reverend John Ruthledge, and in the show's first decade, Rev. Ruthledge always left a lamp burning in his study overnight, as a beacon or "guiding light" for friends, family, and strangers. The program premiered on radio on 25 January 1937, came to television in 1952, lost its The in 1977, and aired Monday through Friday on CBS until 2009, making it the longest-running program in any genre of broadcasting. Rev. Ruthledge faded away in the mid-1940s.
She created the first network TV soap opera, These Are My Children in 1949. Her As the World Turns debuted on 2 April 1956 as television's first half-hour daily soap. She was also co-creator of Days of Our Lives (1965) and gave two other soap opera stalwarts their first work -- Agnes Nixon, creator of All My Children and One Life to Live, and William J. Bell, creator of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful. She served as creative consultant for the prime time soap Peyton Place, then created her own prime time soap, Our Private World (a spin-off of As the World Turns).
Phillips was 37 when her mother died, and the two had shared a bedroom until that day. Despite earning millions from her work she kept a modest two-and-a-half-room apartment, and never bought her own home. She did not dispute it when she was repeatedly reported to be a hypochondriac. Of her great success, she told Time in 1940, "I'd give it all up if the right man came along." He never did, and she was routinely referred to in cruel media accounts as a "shrewd spinster" or "pigeon-plump". She was nominated for Daytime Emmys in 1974 and 1975, but never won. Phillips died in 1973, and was the first inductee at the Soap Opera Hall of Fame in 1994.
Father: (grocery store owner)
Son: Thomas Dirk Phillips (adopted 1943)
Daughter: Katherine Louise Phillips (adopted 1944, created soap A World Apart)
University: Northwestern University (attended)
University: BS Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1923)
University: University of Wisconsin at Madison (attended, 1924)
Teacher: Drama, Dayton Junior Teachers College
The Guiding Light Writer-creator (1952; from 1937 radio series)
As the World Turns Writer-creator (1956)
Young Dr. Malone Writer-creator (1958; from 1939 radio series)
Another World Writer-creator (1964)
Peyton Place Creative consultant (1964)
Days of Our Lives Writer-creator (1965)
Love is a Many Splendored Thing Writer-creator (1967)
A World Apart Writer-creator (1970)
Author of books:
The Guiding Light (1938)
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