Jump to content

Irna Phillips article from 1960

Recommended Posts

  • Members

Each weekday at 12:30 P,M, a small, birdlike lady named Irna Phillips makes herself comfortable on the couch of her Chicago apartment and watches a television soap opera called As The World Turns.

Between 7,000,000 and 6,000,000 other viewers, mostly women, tune in daily on the same CBS show. It is questionable, however,whether any of them follow its characters across the screen with the dedication exhibited by Miss Phillips. She frowns. She sighs. She smiles. Not infrequently she sheds a tear or two. Obviously the torments suffered by the TV characters are as real to her as if they were her closest friends. In a way they are. Miss Phillips is the show's author. But she is not just another flack fabricator of soap-opera agony. At fifty-seven she is the Little Orphan Annie, the Dorothy Dix and the Leo Tolstoy of her trade. Next fall she will have practiced it, on radio and television, for thirty years. During all this time there has never been a weekday when the heartaches of a Phillips serial have not poured across the nation's air waves; and there was one period when she was responsible for five soapers a day. This required her to juggle more than sixty characters and to produce wordage equivalent to a couple dozen novels a year.

Like World, as her current hit about the complex lives of several suburban families is known among insiders, many of her shows were for months or years rated among the top rated daytime programs. “I was competing with myself," she recalls. Her gross income,now exceeds §150,000 a year and has at times hit $35O,O00 In the $65,000,000-a-year soap opera industry her record for earnings, durability and emotional self-involvement with the medium has never been approached by anyone else,

"Getting Irna for a show is like buying an insurance policy," says Larry White, director of daytime programs for CBS.

The youngest of ten children of a struggling grocer who died when she was eight, the heroine of this tour de force viewed herself from infancy as an unwanted ugly duckling. Demonstrably, she has little in common with the cstitmated 37,000,000 presumably sturdy "homemakers" who are believed to consititutc the steady audience for what the professionals prefer to call '"daytime serials." Moreover, her sheltered way of life would seem to allow little exposure to the raw material required by most writers—reality. Miss Phillips has weathered several unhappy romances, but never married. Much of her life she has been sickly and she sometimes considers herself ailing when she is not; a thermometer is rarely out of her reach. She almost never enters a kitchen except to confer with the cook, but likes to consult fortune tellers. She reads little beyond newspaper headlines and mystery stories and squirrels away most of her money in insurance policies and annuities. She owns no car and never learned to drive. In fact, she does not often leave her apartment. Her friends testify unanimously that she is lonely and unhappy; her relations with them are warm, but she sees them infrequently because nearly all are married and she fancies herself a fifth wheel on their social wagon. She has often said that she would gladly trade her success for a husband. Nevertheless, Miss Phillips has never known boredom. The voids in her life are filled to the bursting point by the exigencies of daytime TV—a frantic. semi-autonomous sphere largely unknown to anyone who is away from home until the eowboys take charge at dinnertime. She does not simply compose serials.

She has given up acting, but for years she was her own star. She still gives birth to new shows which she owns and nurses through spells of sickly Nielsen ratings. She has defended her brain children through costly lawsuits and against the unceasing apprehensions of her bosses - "the client" and "the agency," as personified by numerous easily unnerved types who peer over her shoulder in behalf of sponsors and their advertising agencies. She has given up serials in fits of fatigue or pique and has lost others in deals as sticky as her densest plots. Since the notion that old soapers never die is mere folk- lore, she has occasionally been forced to preside at their funerals too. Miss Phillips makes up somewhat for her lack of worldly contacts by her ability to recall just about anything that ever happened to her. with dialogue to match, and—well, by watching a lot of television. None of her faculties, however, is as productive as her capacity for sustained and vivid worrying. She turns into scripts what others turn into ulcers.

For example, her two adopted children, Tom, eighteen, and Kathy, seventeen, are experiencing problems normal to teenagers. To Miss Phillips, each difficulty assumes the proportions of major tragedy. She weighs it at length with whoever is handy and sighs, "Ah, that's the stuff soap opera is made of." If Tom fails to materialize at an appointed time, she does not become just vaguely uneasy. Her concern is translated into imaginary but stark disaster—he's been run over, his body is lying at the curb, he is bleeding badly. As she puts it, "I do quite a bit of projecting," Similarly, Miss Phillips is sometimes upset by what she sees on the legitimate stage, especially happy endings. The play Middle of the Night.wherein a soul-searching elderly man finally marries a young blonde, sent her out of the theater in a sleevcs-up mood. "What happened to the girl?" she demands. "Is she going to be happy with him? How is she going to integrate into the family? How are their lives going to be changed? Boy, what I couldn't do with this!"

Some serial writers manipulate their actors with the ease of marionettes and have been known to run out of plot. This is not likely to happen to Miss Phillips. She worries too much and too deeply. Luckily she concentrates almost exclusively on such timeless worries as birth, love, health, death and intermediate stops. This makes it possible for thirteen- year-old Phillips scripts to be aired this year on Australian radio. It also keeps her solidly in tune with her characters, "They are her family," says Brian J. Buckley, a Chicago attorney who is on constant call to supply authentic material for their legal involvements, "This is Irna's life." The research director of a large advertising agency puts it differently. "It's the same damn thing over and over again," he says. "But it's real for that woman. It's just one big public psychoanalysis." Her working habits bear out both observations. "1 really don't think 1 write," she says. "I act," Each weekday at nine A.M. she sits down in her living room on the same chair at the same card table she has used for nineteen years. The general destiny of her characters has already been charted—in story conferences with sponsor and agency—for six months to a year in advance. Her current output is two to four weeks ahead of air time.

Fixing her gaze out the window at the apartment house next door, she begins dictating dialogue to Miss Rose Cooperman, her secretary and confidante for twenty-two years. The lines tend to be brief, and she never announces who utters them. "Rosie" recognizes the speakers by the boss's ever switching voice and expressions—now deep and gruff, now girlish and soulful. Miss Cooperman also deduces punctuation from Miss Phillips's tone and gestures.

A 2000-word script for a half-hour show like World is thus polished off in about one hour and forty-five minutes, or slightly more than it takes Rosie to type it,.Miss Phillips never sees her manu-scripts. As soon as she is through dictating. Miss Cooperman reads back her notes, and Miss Phillips edits on the spot.As she dictates, she has in front of her a sheet filled with squares, each containing the first names of characters required for one day's show. She almost never refers to the actors any way other than as the characters they portray. Sometimes she can't even remember their real names. Many of her characters are given to rather general philosophizing. "Our world is just as small or large as we make it," one will remark. Or, "I suppose in some instances a handicap can be a sort of a spur." Or "Human nature is very strange, my dear. From time to time such homilies recur in scripts, but Miss Phillips usually knows this. "As 1 dictate, 1 stop myself and say, 'I'm sure I said this before,' " she observes. "But then I'll add, 'It bears repetition.'

About twenty years ago. Miss Phillips found it necessary to hire "dialoguers." They block in tbe conversation for some of her scripts while she restricts herself to "plotting"—or fashioning detailed outlines—and rigorous editing. Her full scale writing effort is thus restricted to one or two shows at a time. She has employed up to three writers simultaneously and paid them each as much as $50,000 a year. Two former assistants who now have their own programs learned the business from Miss Phillips. So did William Bell, a well-tailored thirty-three- year-old former advertising-agency account executive who, for $25,000 a year,does most of the dialoguing for World. This keeps him occupied for seven hours a day. Simultaneously, at the request of her sponsor, Procter and Gamble, Miss Phillips also spent several months souping up a faltering P&G soaper, a somber eollege campus drama called The Brighter Day, for a healthier rating.

Writing, plotting and editing consume most of her mornings. Occasionally emergencies develop. In radio an actor who was suddenly taken ill could be replaced by someone with a similar voice. On TV no replacement can learn the day's lines just before showtime, and Miss Phillips has had to "write out" characters from scripts by dictating changes at the last minute over long-distance telephone. When no major crises materialize, she or her producers or directors always discover lesser calamities to consider during their lengthy phone conferences. Producing a show like World requires some sixty persons daily, and Miss Phillips takes a proprietary interest in all. She likes to be known as a difficult citizen, and her fellow toilers have learned that her temperament can best be coped with by consulting Irna the minute a problem begins to raise its horns. Most writers, for example,have no voice in cast changes. But when Miss Phillips does not approve of a new actor, she will not give him any lines. "If she says, I can't write for him,' you have to replace him," says an associate.

In the afternoon she watches her own TV shows and those of competitors. She rests and checks on the state of her health. Her household runs itself with the aid of a cook and a maid, and the dinner menus almost never vary—leg of lamb on Sunday, chicken on Monday, steak on Tuesday, meat loaf on Wednesday, lamb chops on Thursday, spaghetti on Friday and stew on Saturday. She studies fanmail and sometimes changes the direction of a plot because of audience"clamor." Ratings, which are phoned to her like battle bulletins twice a month, may also inspire script modifications. Years ago she changed her name from Erna to Irna because a numerologist assured her that the stars would like it and ease her life. But her worries about her plots and characters never lessened.

Her preoccupation with no more than two shows does not mean that Miss Phillips is slowing down. It signifies that much like her hardiest characters, sbe is one of the tiny band of veterans who managed what the experts said couldn't be done—breathing a second dimension into the voices of radio soap opera and transferring their misery, full-bodied,to the infinitely more demanding TV screen. Previously, during the '4O's, Miss Phillips had escaped equally unscarred from broadsides from psychiatrists and other researchers who had suddenly discovered in soap opera a mortal peril to the emotional fiber of the American female.

“Pandering to perversity and playing out destructive conflicts," wrote a psychiatrist. Dr. Louis I. Berg, in one of the most publicized of these charges, “these serials furnish the same release for the emotionally distorted that is supplied to those who derive satisfaction from a lynching bee, who lick their chops at a salacious crime passionel, who in the unregretted past cried out in ecstasy at witch burnings.”Doctor Berg drew his diagnosis from his study of two programs—The Woman In White and Right to Happiness. Both were Phillips products. Both ground on for years afterward. To Miss Phillips the doctor's findings proved only that he did not not appreciate the authenticity of the art form pursued by her and her colleagues,"Everybody is a serial story," she says "We're reporters." The conflict between these viewpoints generated several learned studies and a one-year survey for a series in The New Yorker by James Thurber, the humorist, who emerged from the task admittedlyshaken. The differences were never resolved, but the attacks have ceased,“I think the intellectuals just got bored," says Jack Gould, radio and TV critic of The New York Times. He is convinced that the soapers will march on and on. "They're a basic narcotic," he says, adding on reflection. "1 don't think they do any great harm."

They do sell loads of soap and, in the case of Miss Phillips's World, they also move carloads of cleansers, cat food, aspirin, cocoa, devil's-food eake mix— "with incredible new moistness"—and other goodies for Proctor and Gamble, TV's biggest spender, and eight co-sponsors.This helps explain why the medium was able to bridge the chasm from radio to TV despite enormously increased costs. Before World War II some sixty-five soapers were heard weekdays on radio. Now there are only three broad cast by the networks. It used to cost about $3000 a week for production and talent, plus S15,000 for time to put on one of these quarter-hour dramas. Most of today's ten TV soapers run half an hour each costing around $125,000 for time, plus 525,000 for production and talent every week.

By standards of prime evening shows this is mere carfare. For the daytime, the underbelly of TV, it is a lot of money. Yet, no matter what the networks try as predinner fare—quizzes, giveaways or relentless reruns of situation comedies previously shown at night—and no matter how acidly the eggheads attack serials or how completely tbey ignore them, the soapers reign supreme. As agroup, they consistently outrate every other form of daytime TV.

Part 2 to follow...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

Part 2

No proof exists that an unhappy childhood is essential to soap-opera success. For Miss Phillips, though, it was a help. Her father, William, was born in Chicago of Polish immigrant parents. Her mother, Betty, had come to Chicago from Germany. By the time Irna was born, Betty was forty-two and worked with William, who had moved his groceries from a horse-drawn wagon to a store. The family lived in the apartment above it. Irna slept on a folding bed in the dining room. She detested school "I didn't go unless some body came and got me dressed." She had few clothes and.being sickly and sensitive, almost no playmates. When a ring was stolen in the fancy private school which she attended briefly to settle bills owed her father, she was wrongly accused oft he theft.

“I lived in a world of pretense and make-believe," she remembers. It was a world of old boxes which she tumed into stage sets. Each set was a home inhabited by a family of paper dolls. Since her own family was large, her stage families were small. Everybody had his own room. Mother was always home. Brothers and sisters never fought.

After her father's death, her mother managed to send Irna to tbe University of Illinois by mortgaging a small apartment house the family had acquired. At college Irna was bright, but primarily interested in acting. She tried out for one campus production after another. Being small and no glamour girl, she never made a show. The senior play led to one of the traumatic experiences of her life. "Miss Phillips has tried out for every female part and is better than anyone that has been cast," the dramatics instructor announced to her entire class. "But she has neither the looks nor the stature for professional success." Stunned, Irna decided to take her mother's advice and go into teaching. She took graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, taught at Fulton, Missouri, and Dayton, Ohio. A fight with a boy friend sent her back to Chicago and, eventually, to radio station WGN. There she presided over a show called A Thought for Today, reading poetry and adding commentary to help listeners philosophize their troubles away. For several months she worked without pay. Then, briefly, she made twenty-five dollars a week. Then she was fired. When she protested to her boss, he asked whether she could write a "strip," WGN was then dramatizing Gasoline Alley and other comic strips, and he wondered whether"a strip about a family" might have possibilities, particularly if the cast could be restricted to Miss Phillips and Irene Wicker, a radio actress who later became Kelloggs “Singing Lady.”

Did the debut of the Phillips "strip" signify the birth of the soap-opera blues? Radio historians have not committed themselves on this point. They have traced the medium to several writers, including Miss Phillips, who started in Chicago during the same period. Miss Phillips believes that there was no daytime serial until September, 1930, when a singing trio struck up the pop tune I'm Yours' for her first soaper. Painted Dreams.

"There was Mother Monahan, who was a widow," she remembered. "This was my mother. She had a daughter, Irene, All the things I wanted as a young person I gave to Mother Monahan's daughter. I didn't have men in my life, so Irene had men." For fifty dollars a week Miss Phillips wrote the scripts and played the mother and the "mystery character," Kay. Miss Wicker played not only the daughter and a dog but also numerous other characters who showed up from time to time. When the scripts ran short, as they often did, the ladies ad-libbed. They administered their own sound effects and giggled at their own jokes. Before long, they were sponsored by a sausage maker, but he was not eager to get on the network. Miss Phillips was. So, after a year and a half, she refused to renew her contract for a local show. WGN thereupon claimed ownership of Painted Dreams, and, as Miss Phillips recalls it, barred her from the studio. She thereupon filed suit to establish what she considered her rights.

The legal battle lasted ten years. Miss Phillips lost in court, but not on the air. Barely gone from WGN. she sold a competitor, NBC in Chicago, on another serial. Today's Children, which soon had a network sponsor. It was, she confesses happily, another Painted Dreams. Only the names were changed. The new heroine was a Mother Moran, but she issued familiar counsel ('"Tis an old saying- . . .") and her daughter countered with the same reactions ("Oh, mom!...") and kept falling in love with married men.The life-and-death cycles of Miss Phillips's soapers now began to unwind in earnest. Her next show, Judy and Jane, a saga of two dime-store salesgirls, one of whom limped, was cancelled by its advertising agency. The next, Masquerade, died after three months. Today's Children became a top-rated show, but by 1937 Miss Phillips had tired of it. "I thought 1 had exhausted all the problems of these people," she says.

Having spent quite some time in hospitals ,she idolized nurses and decided to replace Today's Children with the hospital serial 'Woman in White'. When her parting time had come, Mother Moran announced, in effect, that anyone who had not yet profited from her problems would never learn. It so happened, she told the audience, that another fine serial was starting, and how about listening to it with her? The final half of the show then became Woman in White. It was another big success.The same year, in an effort to widen her circle of advice-needy characters,she launched The Guiding Light. Next, she created The Road of Life, starring the fictional James M, Brent, M,D, Its opening line was the immortal, "Doctor Brent call surgery ! Doctor Brent, call surgery !" Then came The Right to Happiness. It was about a Jewish family named Kransky who had furnished the most popular characters in The Guiding Light, thereby becoming worthy of a serial all their own.

In 1940 Irna tried living in New York. She didn't like it. The following year, after gloomily watching mask faced women in New York bars and restaurants, she turned the experience into a new serial—Lonely Women—and returned to Chicago. By 1942, she had adopted her children and wanted to work less. So she sold The Right to Happiness to Procter and Gamble for $50,000.This reduced her daily stint from five soapers to four. Since all were sponsored by General Mills, they were marshalled into a phenomenon never again duplicated—the General Milla Hour, four contiguous soapers by the same author. All were narrated by tbe same announcer who walked in and out of the Hour presumably keeping the audience straight the benefit of those who tuned in late,on what was happening. It was quite a feat because Miss Phillips enjoyed having characters wander from one show into another.

In 1942 Irna moved to Los Angeles. But she detested California and, after nine months, she was back in Chicago, sold The Road of Life for $75,000 and revived the old Masquerade. Meanwhile, her favorite. The Guiding Light, was in trouble. She was sued by a writer who had worked on the show with her at its inception and who was later fired. He claimed that, by oral agreement, he owned a half interest in the program. She denied it, but ultimately lost the court decision and $250,000 in settlement and costs. By that time, her old friend and producer, Carl Wester, had persuaded her to settle again in California, where her shows were being moved for staging.

When Miss Phillips's title to The Guiding Light was cleared. General Mills no longer wanted the show. Procter and Gamble did. Wester was to produce it on a competing network in a fifteen-minute spot ahead of the General Mills Hour. But he thought that General Mills might object and cancel the three other Phillips- Wester shows. Miss Phillips was determined to get The Guiding Light to shine again. A rift developed between her and Wester. Their agreement with General Mills specified that in such an eventuality the company could buy the shows for $50,000 each. It did. The serials continued under other writers and eventually folded. All this left Miss Phillips in 1947 with an 80 per cent drop in income and but a single show—her Guiding Light, lt was moved to New York, and Irna returned to Chicago. Television was beginning to boom, but her first flier in it, a Mother Moran-type program called These are My Children,was a flop. Sponsors resisted soapers on TV. How could women watch and still do their household chores, as they did while listening to the radio? How could actors learn all those tines every day? After all, on radio they read from scripts and required little rehearsing.

Finally in 1952, after successfully doctoring Brighter Day and another Procter and Gamble radio epic, Young Doctor Malone, Miss Phillips sold P & G The Guiding Light for television. For a while it ran simultaneously on radio, where it must have puzzled the old fans, P & G insisted that new customers watching it on TV be advised of what had happened to the characters on radio. Introductory summaries, known as "lead-ins," and cliff-hanging "lead-outs,"—"Will Effie Mae find happiness? Listen again tomorrow. . . ."—had gone out of style. So, for the benefit of those who tuned in late, all of Guiding Light had to be regurgitated in bulky speeches which also ran on radio. It was probably the deepest breath of recapitulation ever taken on the air. Nevertheless, the TV version flourished. Miss Phillips plotted it until she developed "a real mad" against the advertising agency which produces it and turned it over to her friend and dialoguer,Mrs. Agnes Nixon of Rosemont, Pennsylvania, who still writes it. This maneuver made room, iin 1956 for World. It is jointly owned by Miss Phillips, Mrs. Nixon and its executive director, Ted Corday, a small, enthusiastic figure who used to direct Valiant Lady and Gang Busters and has suffered a heart attack in line of duty.

In many ways, World differs little from from radio soap opera. The sound of organ chords still spells climax. Collectively the characters have suffered through a murder trial, a complete psychoanalysis— Irna paid a doctor S2O00 for authentic material—numerous jiltings,divorces,weddings and illicit romances, an illegitimate baby and its adoption, a case of dypsomania, and no end of misunderstandings, fatal illnesses, unhappy childhoods and maladjustments.Still, the plots' progress is, as Thurber noted years ago, glacierlike. This is because the characters continually remind one another of their names and what happened yesterday and last week and last year, so that no housewife who missed a day or a week of listening will ever feel left out. Also,they do next to nothing except talk about one another, usually in twosomes over coffee or cigarettes, sometimes over telephones or, forebodingly, to themselves There is still an "agency producer," Charles Fisher of Benton and Bowles in New York, and a "client producer," Ed Trach of Procter and Gamble in Cincinnati. Like their characters, these fellows also worry a lot. How come the rating is dropping? they'll ask. Irna fixed one such problem by quickly cutting short a dull disbarment proceeding. How to satisfy audience requests for the marriage of a weakling to the ingénue? Irna agreed to wed them on condition that the marriage turn out badly. How can a character be shown rubbing on hand lotion after washing dishes on a show sponsored by"milder than mild" detergents? Fisher slashed out this bit of action in horror.He also labors hard toning down the characters' emotional problems. This presents a dilemma. As he states it nervously, "When you have happiness, you have no soap opera !"

But there are new headaches peculiar to TV, The time required for actors to familiarize themselves with each day's lines and props has turned the production schedule into a five-day bicycle race with just half an hour between the end of a performance and the beginning of next day's rehearsals. The scene of action is more confined than in radio. No longer can the mere sound of a foghorn place a character on the Queen Mary. And exterior shots cost too much. So does frequent "striking"—switching—of sets, and Irna is expected to write within the budget. Actors, now that they are in full view, are more expensive—up to S700 per week each—and less replaceable. If Irna uses them less frequently than their contracts specify, the producer feels cheated, and she must quickly write them into the scripts whether the story needs them or not. If they quit temporarily or permanently and Irna kills them off or leaves them in the other end of town, never to be heard from again, the audience may get restless.

For, more than ever, viewers are loyal to Phillips characters. Some fans will not answer their phones when World is on. When Papa Bauer celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday on The Guiding Light he received more than 25,000 cards. When Jim Lowell died on World, Proctor and Gamble had to send out a form letter of condolence to bereaved viewers—"As there is happiness, there is also sorrow,"

Why do they watch? Actually many just half listen. "There is a considerable amount of television which is listened to from the next room," says one advertising executive. Then, women get lonely and find TV company better than none. Many are true-romance habitués who eavesdrop on others for help with their own problems. "They can't act on principles," says an expert. "They can only act from examples."But the most compelling reaction is empathy, "It's either, 'Gee, I know how she feels,' or, 'There but for the Grace of God go I,'" says Robert E. Short, manager of programming for P & G .

Will Irna Phillips continue to circumnavigate tbe bear traps of her business? Will she be able to keep up the pace? Will she ever run out of plots? Her record renders these questions less than suspenseful. Also, she can draw on a stock pile of dormant and never-yet-used soap- opera titles and ideas owned by Radio Scripts, Inc., of which she is president and chief stockholder. Will she find happiness? Her friends doubt it. And if she ever does, will lrna Phillips be able to go on producing soap opera worthy of the name? THE END

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

According to Wikipedia

Jan 25th 1937 - Dec 26 1941 NBC Radio Chicago

Mar 16th 1942 - Nov 29 1946 NBC Radio Chicago

Jun 2nd 1947 - Jun 27th 1952 CBS Radio Hollywood (Bauers introduced at this time)

Jun 30th 1952 - Jun 29th 1956 CBS Radio and TV New York

July 2nd onwards TV only.

I wonder when the show went to TV if there were a lot of recasts and cast changes due to moving coasts?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Members

I have some book about radio soap operas that has a big section on the General Mills Hour, and how it was done. Actually the last 15 mins was a religious themed program Irna didn't write--so the interaction was only in 3 soaps. I do think it was downplayed that GL did have some time off the air--saying it ran daily from 1937 on was always a bit wrong (especially since when she brought it back, there was next to no connection to the earlier version).

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy