Soap opera legend has it that when Days of Our Lives was created, Irna Phillips, Ted Corday, and Alan Chase sat on the porch in Southampton cottage discussing the bible for the series. Considered the mother of what we consider daytime television, Irna created or co-created nearly 30 series, including current day sudsers Guiding Light, As the World Turns, and Days of Our Lives. Much like the stories she told on a daily basis, Irna's own life was filled with the same complex characterization and surprising plot twists. Here is the story of Irna Phillips.
Irna was born in Chicago on July 1, 1901. A sickly child, Irna spent her days making houses out of milk cartons and day-dreaming about others with lives seemingly more wonderful than her own. At the age of nineteen, Irna became pregnant from an affair she had with a doctor. When he found out, the doctor refused to acknowledge that he was the father. Irna fought back by getting a court order against him; alas Irna's baby was stillborn. In a story she later wrote on The Guiding Light, she drew upon the experience when she had Rose Kransky become pregnant with daytime's first illegitimate child.
Dreaming to become an actress, Irna was hired by the radio station WGN in 1929 to host a new talk-show entitled "Thought for a Day." Irna began her life-long career in soaps in 1930 when she was asked to create a new show. "Painted Dreams" is considered by many to be the first soap opera, a term endearingly coined as many of daytime's early sponsors were soap companies, most prominently was Procter and Gamble. In 1937, The Guiding Light was born. The premise of the show was simple. Irna stated in 1937, 'I created Guiding Light with one fundamental theme in mind: the brotherhood of man'. The Guiding Light epitomized what became Irna's style of writing. While other soaps plunged viewers into flights of fantasy, Irna Phillips wrote ordinary people in realistic, everyday stories. The show focused on the kindly Reverend Ruthledge. The Reverend's sermons became so popular that Phillips compiled a book of different sermons from the show. The show centered on the quiet town of Five Points, the origins of which Phillips drew from her own background.
Irna was dealt a surprising blow in 1946 when she was sued by a man named Emmons Carlson. Carlson claimed that he had a hand in creating 'TGL', but Irna claimed that he merely wrote a few early scripts and was paid his wages, which Irna neglected to report to the government. Although she was advised to settle out of court, Irna refused saying, 'I wouldn't pay that lying bastard a dime'. Irna eventually lost her court case and a $250,000 settlement.
On June 30, 1952 Guiding Light replaced The First Hundred Years on CBS television. It only took four years before the show rose to the top of the Nielsen ratings heap, where it would stay for three years before being overtaken by another Phillips creation: As the World Turns.
ATWT, much like GL before it, focused on the well-to-do, middle class families of the Hughes and Lowells. Daytime's first soap to debut at thirty minutes, ATWT spent over twenty years at the top of the ratings. Within weeks of the show's beginning, the ever-fickle Irna actually fired Helen Wagner. However, as the ratings dwindled and complaints came in, Irna reluctantly hired Wagner back. When Irna killed off the character Jim Lowell in 1957, fans flooded the studio mailroom with letters of protest. Irna would respond with words which would become immortalized in soap legend. 'As the world turns, we know the bleakness of winter, the promise of spring, the fullness of summer, and the harvest of autumn...The cycle of life is complete...What is true of the world, nature, is also true of man. He too has his cycle'.
Irna had written both ATWT and GL at the same time, but in 1958, she left GL in Agnes Nixon's capable hands to focus solely on ATWT where she would stay until the late 1960s.
On May 4, 1964, another Irna Phillips creation (co-created with Bill Bell) was born, Another World. What was supposed to be a spin-off of ATWT, (Irna shelved that idea after CBS opted against airing the show and instead went to NBC) focused on the Matthews clan. Unlike many of her former serials, this one emphasized melodramatic situations instead of characterization. Irna left AW after the first year leaving James Lipton (of Inside the Actor's Studio fame) as head-writer.
Meanwhile back in ATWT's Oakdale, resident hellion Lisa took a train to a soap land to call her own. She was spun off into soaps first primetime spin-off, Our Private World. Irna was not credited with the creation of this series, but her mark was certainly there, as the premise for the show was based on her own life. OPW lasted less than a year, and Lisa was brought back to ATWT.
Back in daytime in the same year, discussions with NBC would bring Days of Our Lives to the world. Ted Corday, who worked with Irna on GL and later ATWT created the show with his wife Betty, Irna, and Allen Chase. In his original pitch to the network, Corday exclaimed that 'The story elements of Days of Our Lives are many, our characters varied and abundant and our canvas large--to make a most exciting picture of life in America today. DAYS would premiere its first episode on November 8, 1965.
Irna, to those who knew her and worked with her, she ruled her soap empire with an iron fist, and numerous phone calls dictating story, quite simply she was 'a pain' to work with. Irna was also a hypochondriac who called the doctor who lives in the apartment below her at least three times a day. She was known to switch seats in restaurants as she didn't want to sit next to the air-conditioner, and stopped trains to summon a doctor.
After Agnes Nixon left GL for Another World, the show went through a variety of head-writers, including Irna herself. Executive Producer Lucy Rittenburg was not a happy camper. 'When Irna came back aboard, I was very unhappy....and I was not about to put up with her shenanigans'. Irna left to go back to ATWT shortly thereafter, but made the decision to kill off the popular Robin Lang in a car accident (she did the same with Robin's mother Kathy many years before).
Irna's tenure at ATWT was also short-lived, yet full of blunders. Irna was fired, and died shortly after. A chapter in daytime history had been closed.
Guiding Light: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (1987) By Christopher Schemmering
Days of Our Lives: A Complete History of the Long-Running Soap Opera (1994) By Maureen Russell
The As the World Turns Trivia Book (1996) By Gerard J. Waggett
The Encyclopedia of Daytime Television (1997) By Wesley Wyatt
As the World Turns: A Complete Family Scrapbook (1996) By Julie Poll