Irna Phillips, Theta - University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

She Did It Her Way

Queen of the soaps, Phi Sig sister Irna Phillips left an indelible impression on American culture

October 20, 2009

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, IRNA PHILLIPS, one of Phi Sig’s most famous alumnae of all time, was also one of the most colorful characters in the history of radio and television – not only as the dominant force influencing the glitzy, glamorous, tempestuous world of daytime dramas, but as the woman who actually invented them.

Universally recognized and acclaimed as the “mother” of the modern soap opera, Irna (of our Theta Chapter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) was a prolific writer and natural-born actress whose inventiveness, flamboyant personality, social consciousness and intuitive understanding of human nature combined to create as many as 10 of the best-known, best-loved soap operas of all time, running on all three major networks. Among them:
  • "Guiding Light" – Quite possibly the tour de force of her career, this show just ended its 72-year run this past September after airing more than 16,000 episodes first on radio, and later on TV, earning its rightful place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running television drama of all time. Its impact on the soap-opera genre – and, indeed, the world of entertainment – cannot be underestimated: James Earl Jones, Kevin Bacon and Calista Flockhart, among others, all got their big break in acting thanks, in part, to this show.
  • "As the World Turns" – Long considered the gold standard of daytime soaps, it’s still on the air today and just celebrated its 53rd anniversary this past April. (With "Guiding Light" off the air, ATWT, as it’s known, now assumes the distinction of being the longest-running soap.)
  • "Days of Our Lives" – Yes, of “Bo and Hope” (or, as some affectionately call them, “Bope”) fame – and NBC’s only remaining daytime serial drama today.
  • "Another World" - A sister show to "Guiding Light" – popular in its day, concluding in the late 1990s.
How much actual influence did Irna have, in addition to writing or helping produce such shows (the career she ultimately pursued after teaching, and brief forays in acting and voice-over work)?

Historians say she wrote the first daytime series ever, "Painted Dreams," in 1930 – long before TVs were fixtures in American homes. From that humble beginning, her career took off – and she never looked back. She didn’t have to: No one else in her field ever came close to dethroning her as queen of the airwaves.

Let’s put it another way: Nearly all the soap-opera techniques that have become part of the fabric of American culture – the cliff-hanger endings, the organ music at the end of a dramatic moment, the exaggerated focus on socially hip issues of the day, the conniving “vixen” character, the doctors and lawyers who overpopulate daytime (and now, even evening) dramas – all can be attributed directly to Irna’s creative genius. Indeed, the heavy-hitters of subsequent daytime dramas (including Agnes Nixon, of "All My Children") have her to thank for their careers, as well.

Early struggles

“Our day-by-day existence is a serial drama,” Irna once said. Perhaps no one knew that better than her.

The youngest of 10 children born to a Jewish family in Chicago in 1901, Irna’s reportedly tumultuous, at times heart-breaking upbringing fueled the intensely colorful imagination that proved to be such a critical part of her later success in life. Her father, a grocer, died when she was only 8. Her mother, then in her 50s, struggled to keep the family afloat. Young Irna created elaborate stories about the lives of her dolls – which, in later years, people couldn’t help recalling while witnessing her meteoric rise to fortune and fame as a storyteller using elaborate twists, plots and other dramatic devices to keep housewives tuned in and radio and television sets turned on (to sell – what else? – soap, of course!).

At least one biography indicates she suffered a terrible, potentially crippling blow early in her adult life when, learning she was pregnant out of wedlock, the father refused to marry her. (Sadly, she lost the baby.) She never did marry – though she did adopt two children later in life. But themes like love, heartbreak, betrayal, celebration, trust, renewal and intrigue became staples of her work – leaving a signature “reality” mark on the world of entertainment that even pushed the boundaries of societal norms. (She promptly left one of her shows, “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing,” in protest when censors wouldn’t permit her storyline to include an interracial love affair between an Amerasian woman and a white man.)

“None of us is different, except in degree,” she once said (as quoted on the Museum of Broadcast Communications' Web site). “None of us is a stranger to success and failure, life and death, the need to be loved, the struggle to communicate.”

Passionate artist

Not surprisingly, the artist known as Irna Phillips – who cranked out a mind-boggling 2 million words annually in soap scripts, play-acted her dramas for six to eight hours a day while assistants took notes, and made a
staggering $250,000 annually in the late ’40s – was considered a fiery, feisty soul who could be a bit difficult to work with. Actors and actresses on her shows (at one point, she was managing up to five at a single time) would privately rebel at her demands that they always remain in character whenever in public – even in their personal lives.

Several times, Irna also intentionally courted the disfavor of millions of fans by killing off popular characters on her show (such as "Guiding Light’s" Kathy Roberts in the ’50s – pushed by kids into oncoming traffic while in a wheelchair – how’s that for a subplot) and pursuing storylines people thought inappropriate then, but which would be pretty tame by today’s standards (such as love out of wedlock).

Still, friends and fans remained intensely loyal to this American icon throughout her life. When she passed away at the age of 72 in December 1973 in Chicago, millions were saddened and shocked by the news. She was so quintessentially “larger than life,” that, to her loved ones, it must have seemed she could never exit the world – the stage where she’d played such an immense role in shaping the history of media and their own lives.

One of her contemporaries may have said it best when she quipped: “Irna was her own best creation.”

She was certainly a legend in her own time – and remains one to this day: A recent report suggests a play is being written about her life. Imagine what an incredible story that would be.

Learn more about Irna Phillips:


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