Irna Phillips: the woman behind TV's longest running soap opera
Creating a wildly popular soap opera full of sensational family drama might be the last thing we’d expect of a nice Jewish woman in 1950’s America, but Irna Phillips proved us wrong! Fifty-eight years ago today, her soap opera Guiding Light first went on the air. The show had already been a successful radio drama since 1937, and it would run until 2009, making it the longest running TV drama in history. In fact, Guiding Light was the winner in the Guinness Book of World Records for “Longest-Running TV Drama.” The show was also the winner of numerous Emmy awards for daytime TV, and acquired scores of devoted fans. When the show was cancelled last year due to low ratings, viewers mourned the passing of a show that was older than many of them were!
Since the only soap opera I ever followed was “Rebeca” during the few weeks in high school when my Spanish teacher assigned the class to watch a soap opera en Espanol, I had never heard of Guiding Light until Irna Phillips, Guiding Light’s creator, popped up in JWA’s This Week in History. I learned in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia that Irna was a native of Chicago born in 1901. Her parents were both the children of poor eastern European Jewish immigrants, and Irna used her imagination to escape from poverty and illness while growing up. This served her well later while she was writing the suspense-filled TV series that would make her famous. Unusually for a woman at the time, Irna had a degree from a co-ed university (Northwestern) and was active in teaching and public speaking. Guiding Light follows the fortunes of several generations of the Bauer family, but as you’d expect of a soap that ran for over half a century, Guiding Light changed over time to reflect the values and problems of its time. In the 1960’s for instance, with the Civil Rights Movement at its height, the show introduced African-American characters. The show was also ground-breaking because it showed a family dealing with “socially significant issues such as adoption, divorce, juvenile delinquency, and the return of war veterans,” and “conveyed the complexities of modern women’s choices,” perhaps reflecting Irna’s own progressive life.
Interestingly, among all these issues, the show’s characters and storyline have no obvious ties to Judaism. (Though if there’s a reference I overlooked, any die-hard Guiding Light fans out there can correct me!) In fact, the show’s title originally referred to the priest whom the Bauer family went to for help and guidance. Maybe Irna wanted to explore the social issues of her day without feeling tied to her own cultural background, or thought the show would be more accessible to a broad American audience if it wasn’t about Jewish characters. (Though the popularity of The Goldbergs, a comedy show about a Jewish family that first aired on TV in 1949 seems to prove this notion wrong!) Irna Phillips died in 1973, but Guiding Light lived on to give pleasure to thousands.
Here’s a glimpse of two intrepid women from a vintage episode of Guiding Light that aired in 1952.
This post was written by Gwen, our new and fabulous summer intern at JWA. Gwen is studying history at Smith College.