Friday, June 12, 2009

FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips Still In Lather Over Soaps (1970)

Phillips, As Ever, Still In Lather Over Soaps

By Margaret McManus
Toledo Blade
July 5, 1970

NEW YORK - They never give up. Extraordinarily successful women, in whatever their endeavors, hang in there until the day they die. Under the skin, they're all old actresses, or generals, tough and resilient.

Irna Phillips is at it again, or Irna Phillips is at it, however you look. You may not know who the lady is but for the past 40 years she has been a powerful "guiding light," focused behind the scenes, directed on the lives of millions of American women. Irna Phillips invented the soap opera on radio, and took it successfully into television.

She started the whole business with the first radio network serial, Today's Children, and brought it up to date with the first half-hour serial created for television, As the World Turns, on CBS-TV. She even began the use or organ music in the fabric of the program.

ABC-TV recently hired Miss Phillips and her daughter, Katherine, 24, as their big guns in a war to woo the women who have been so contented whiling away their daytime hours over at CBS-TV and NBC-TV. However, first they had to woo Miss Phillips, who was quite contented herself over at CBS, with the show she originated 14 years ago, still one of daytime's highest rated serials.

The wish to work with her daughter, and the challenge of starting a new serial, on a networking fighting to make its way in the daytime market, was an enticing challenge to the General. Miss Phillips succumbed and left As the World Turns and CBS-TV this past March.

She is now the story editor and executive producer of A World Apart, the new soap on ABC-TV at 12:30 p.m., five days a week. Her own first radio serial, Today's Children, had Mother Moran as its heroine, a character based on Miss Phillips' own widowed mother.

In Guiding Light, her next staggeringly successful serial, which ran on radio for 20 years and was the first radio soap to make a successful transition to television, her hero was inspired by a minister who had been a profound inspiration to her when she was a young girl.


"When I was 18, and searching, I joined the People's Church in Chicago. It filled a terribly empty place in my life. Dr. Rutledge, the pastor in Five Points, came out of that time in my life.

The spinster from Chicago, in her late 60s, discouraged by the state of the world, is trying very hard to understand the young, to keep in tune, to speak the same language. She does not doubt their sincerity. If she faults them, it is their natural general tendency to oversimplify and look for easy solutions.

Irna Phillips has learned there is no easy way to any achievement. She is in love with work, and workers. She learned early to compromise, and to turn disadvantages into advantages. As a girl, she wanted most desperately to be an actress. Her substitute for this has been to write words for other actresses to say and create scenes for other actresses to steal.

She still lives in Chicago, where she was born, grew up, graduated from the Senn High School and the University of Illinois. She also did graduate work at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin.

She works every day in her Chicago apartment, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., with half an hour out, every day, to watch A World Apart, on television. She lives alone now. Katherine Phillips has her own apartment, not far from her mother's. Her son, Tom, who is married, lives in a Chicago suburb.

Here in her suite at the Carlyle, a small, elegant hotel where she has been staying on her visits to New York for the past 20 years, ("I stayed here before the Kennedys stayed here") Irna Phillips made a summation.

Certainly, she has to be considered a highly successful woman, number one in a field which she invented. She does not consider herself ultimately successful.

"I started on the ground floor. There is so much tougher competition today. I don't know if I would have been so successful, if I were starting now.

"I do have moments of some regret. I do often wonder if I should have stayed with my ambition to be an actress. But I didn't have much time to waste. I had to earn money. I still do. People assume I'm a very rich woman. I'm not a millionaire and I never will be. I can sell my wares to a sponsor, but I'm not very good at bargaining. I'd be a lot richer if I'd packaged my own shows, but that has never been my interest. I'm not completely fulfilled. There has always been something missing in my life. I have had moments of wondering if I'd have been happier if I'd married. I don't know. Who ever knows? I'm discouraged about the state of matrimony, too. Nobody wants to work at it."

This is the word of her life, work. If there is a second word, it is effort. Dedicated to both, you just never give up. Lie old actresses, old generals.

- FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips "Script Queen" 1940
- FLASHBACK: Irna Phillips "With Significance" 1945
- A WORLD APART Creator Dies at 65


  1. Fascinating article from 1970! Irna Phillips was such a legend, but I feel like there is so little written about her that we can find today. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Jim, I particularly loved this one because it is later in her life and she seems rather reflective and looking back on the choices she's made and not seeming entirely happy with them all. Fascinating indeed.