June 10, 1940
Five days a week, from dawn to dusk, U. S. radio networks carry some 60 serials. Designed to provide U. S. housewives with aural escapism, they account for about half of all radio time sales. They are especially important to the makers and advertisers of soap, who have used them so extensively during the past ten years that they have come to be known as "soap operas." Leading soap-opera impresario is Procter & Gamble, whose 15 serials keep millions of women bathed in Ivory and suspense. Responsible for four of P. & G.'s sudsy dramas is Irna Phillips, a pigeon-plump spinster of 37, formerly a teacher, who has turned out a staggering total of 6,000 scripts in the course of her writing career. Now earning about $4,000 a week, Irna is the highest-paid aerial litterateuse in the country, by long odds the most prolific. Last week she celebrated her tenth anniversary in radio.
One of the ten children of a Dayton, Ohio grocer, Irna was teaching dramatics and public speaking at Dayton Junior Teachers College, where she had worked after her graduation in 1923 from the University of Illinois, when she had a bust-up with her boy friend. It occurred at a Sunday night supper; by the following morning Irna was hotfooting it for Chicago. She got her first job in Chicago as an actress with station WGN. Within a few months she was busy writing and acting in her first and almost interminable masterwork, Painted Dreams. Irna continued to turn out Painted Dreams until 1932, when WGN refused an offer to sell it to a national network. In a huff, Irna quit the station, filed suit to reclaim her drama, went to work for NBC. Still undetermined, after eight years in the courts, is the ownership of Painted Dreams. Whether she owned it or not, Irna didn't hesitate to fashion her next opera upon it. This one was called TODAY'S CHILDREN, a story about an average family as Irna conceived it, and with it Irna rang the Crossley bell. TODAY'S CHILDREN ran for six and a half years. It was still number one with Crossley when Irna stopped writing it. She based her move on the belief that her characters had run through all possible logical situations. "When you have saturated logic," she says, "you should take your show off the air."
Nowhere near the logical saturation point are Irna's present shows. Her GUIDING LIGHT, WOMAN IN WHITE, ROAD OF LIFE and Right to Happiness are all flourishing. Irna's favorite among her works is GUIDING LIGHT, the story of a non-sectarian minister in a melting-pot community, into which she pours most of her philosophy and night-thoughts. It is in WOMAN IN WHITE, though, that Irna gets in some of her most telling licks. Featuring Karen Adams, a heroic nurse, WOMAN IN WHITE, like many other script shows, is remarkably independent of radio's taboos. Only recently Nurse Adams was doublecrossed by her fiance, Dr. Kirk Harding, who got a girl named Janet Munson with child. To make matters worse, Janet had whisked off and married Nurse Adams' moony brother. Question at this point is: Will Nurse Adams, unaware of the doctor's dalliance with Janet, become his wife?
In all her scripts, Irna carefully abides by the cardinal plot rule of soap opera: Get your females behind the eight ball and keep them there. Irna is assisted in her work by two secretaries and a pair of literary Girl Fridays. She dictates all her material, frequently has an impassioned male remark to his sweetheart that he is happy "to have contacted her." To make sure she is right on legal and medical matters, Irna retains a lawyer and a pair of doctors. She has plunked most of her cash into annuities.
Irna describes herself as "part mechanic, part psychologist, part dialogist." She regards her fellow-workers in soap-opera vineyard in the same light. Outstanding among them are Mrs. Gertrude Berg (THE GOLDBERGS), who makes $5,000 a week, but has to pay all expenses for her show, acts the leading role too, which drops her below Irna; Elaine Sterne Carrington (PEPPER YOUNG'S FAMILY), who collects an estimated $2,500 a week; Jane Cruisinberry (THE STORY OF MARY MARLING) and Jane West (THE O'NEILLS), who pull up fourth with about $1,250 a week each. Although she makes more than her three associates, Irna lives as modestly as a mouse in a two-and-a-half-room apartment in Chicago's Edgewater Beach Hotel.
For relaxation, Irna rides horseback, takes boat trips, collects dolls. Recently she was given a new Plymouth convertible coupe by the agencies in recognition of her anniversary. She calls it "Sheila." Proud of her achievements, Irna still isn't happy. "I'd give it all up," she says, "if the right man came along." (Fade up to Karen Adams.)