Chicago writer Irna Phillips and the birth of the soap opera – Chicago Tribune

In 1931, Irna Phillips stood in front of a microphone in the WGN studio and read the role of Sue in a screenplay she had written. Another staff member, Irene Wicker, played Irene.

IRENE: I’m telling you, Sue, it won’t work. I have never worn this orchid shade in my life. I would look like a perfect wash. Plus, it’s your best dress for a special occasion. I wouldn’t think to take it.

SUE: Don’t be stupid. A wedding is a special occasion, right? And as long as I don’t need to wear it, you might as well. If you’re a bridesmaid, you gotta look the part, kid.

The audience had no idea what Wicker or Phillips looked like. They were elsewhere, sitting in front of radios and listening to the 25th episode of “Painted Dreams”. Phillips’ brainchild was broadcast from the Drake Hotel on Michigan Avenue by WGN, the Chicago Tribune’s radio station.

The previous year, Phillips had been commissioned to write the prototype for a drama series. In fact, she created a whole new theatrical form that would become the soap opera.

The name is derived from advertisers of laundry products keen to reach housewives taking a break from their chores. “Painted Dreams” was sponsored by Lever Brothers, the creators of Super Suds.

The show’s storylines reflected an advertising executive’s understanding of women’s issues. “Painted Dreams” revolved around Mother Moynihan, a widow who dispenses old-fashioned wisdom to the two young women who live with her:

“Irene is his daughter, frivolous and thoughtless, a clerk at the cigar counter who aspires to a career on stage or on the radio, and Sue Morton, an orphan, to whom life has given hard blows”, explained the Tribune on 4 october. , 1931, first anniversary of the series.

“What started as a dialogue between two working women became in one year a skit with seven distinct characters, and as many people who, although they never entered the story as speaking characters, became one. a vital part. listeners see them as real people.

All characters were played by Wicker and Phillips, who also created the sound effects. Later in life, Phillips laid out his soap opera philosophy in an unpublished memoir held at the Library of Congress.

“Critics say, ‘Why then do soap operas convey such a sense of crushing tragedy, of lives gone wrong?’ she wrote. “I can only point out that unrelenting happiness can be (in dramatic terms) as tedious as unrelenting misery.”

Like her character Irene, Phillips was raised by a widowed mother. His writing career began, as it would end, on a melodramatic note.

After the initial success of his soap opera, Phillips wanted to air it on a national network, but WGN management balked. She sued claiming she owned the rights to “Painted Dreams” and lost a long, hard-fought battle in the courtroom.

“The courts found that she was a salaried employee of WGN and that the idea for the script was conceived by the station manager,” the Tribune reported after the Illinois Supreme Court dismissed her appeal in 1941.” After a sponsor was found, however, she copyrighted the first 10 scripts without notifying her employer.

She had long since sold a new soap opera to WGN rival WMAQ. The show’s sponsor provided a guide to “kids today”. Thousands of fans sent in a Pillsbury Flour tag to get one.

In the 1940s, Phillips had five shows airing simultaneously on different stations. She earned more than $250,000 a year, which allowed her to live at 1335 Astor St. in Chicago’s upscale Gold Coast neighborhood. Still, Phillips couldn’t type that many scripts.

“Like Scheherazade, I work best in front of a live audience,” she explained, invoking the putative “Arabian Nights” narrator, who told a story to a sultan each night. “And so I dictate to a secretary”

Part of his working day was spent keeping tabs on the rivals created by his success.

“I often listen to other soap operas, not to imitate but to avoid imitation,” she noted. “In many cases, I mixed up entire synopses because other programs anticipated a plot I was considering.”

Phillips was born in 1901, one of 10 children to a German Jewish family. Her father died when she was 8 and she grew up wearing second-hand clothes. Solitary, she imagines stories and stages them with her dolls, which is the origin of her composition technique.

“When I’m dictating, I’m actually playing the whole episode,” Phillips recalled. “People who watched me commented that when I dictate, I change my voice to suit each character, that I use certain gestures when speaking the lines intended for this or that character.”

After high school, she enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She wanted to be an actress, but was discouraged by teachers saying she wasn’t pretty enough for Hollywood or Broadway. So she went to the University of Wisconsin, where she earned a master’s degree in journalism.

For seven years, she taught acting and English at a teachers college in Ohio and a college in Missouri before being hired as a screenwriter on a WGN talk show. Then came the assignment to write a play, and being among the first to do so for radio, she pioneered tricks of the trade, such as: an organ to echo a character’s emotion or indicate a change of scene that the audience could not see; ending an episode with a cliffhanger, an unresolved plot that urges listeners to tune in the next day; or the use of twists such as amnesiac characters.

In his memoir, Phillips spelled out the essential ingredient of a soap opera script: “There has to be this element of universality in everything – that something that makes the listener say, ‘Yes, I felt that” or “I felt that” knew someone who looked a lot like that. ”

Her characters were often modeled after people she had known.

Dr. John Rutledge, the nonjudgmental pastor of “Guiding Light,” resembled Dr. Preston Bradley, the undogmatic Chicago minister on whose radio shows Phillips found solace when he was troubled.

Still, Phillips passed a harsh judgment on the actors who appeared in his soap operas. When Jane House did a nude scene in the Broadway play “Lenny” in the early 1970s, Phillips tried to kill off her character in “As the World Turns.”

In one instance, Phillips’ art imitated life. “Children of Today” was the story of a widowed mother trying to keep her family afloat. When his own mother, who had also struggled, died, Phillips closed the curtain on “Today’s Children.”

When television overtook radio, it easily made the transition to telling a story with moving pictures. Her successes continued until 1973, when she drew inspiration from a painful chapter in her life for an episode of “As The World Turns.”

Vintage Chicago Grandstand

Vintage Chicago Grandstand


The Vintage Tribune newsletter is a deep dive into the Chicago Tribune archives with photos and stories about the people, places and events that shape the city’s past, present and future.

At 19, she was madly in love with an English doctor. When she got pregnant, he turned his back on her and she had a miscarriage. Never married, she adopted two boys.

In the soap opera version, she drew a character who seduces her brother-in-law and becomes pregnant.

Proctor and Gamble didn’t want their soap to be associated with a sad story of adultery. Phillips held firm and was fired. A few months later, she passed away. The doctor said she had had a heart attack.

If the soap opera writer were to tell the story, the script would have an organist play dark chords as a fitting endnote for fans who would be convinced that Phillips died of a broken heart.

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