80 YEARS AGO : THE SOAP OPERA WAS BORN
By Rob Wargo
One day in 1930, schoolteacher Irna Phillips visited Chicago’s WGN looking for work. Although initially hired as an actress, her interests soon turned to writing, and she created the series SUE AND IRENE in which she and Ireene Wicker (best known as radio’s “Singing Lady”) provided all of the voices, with Irna playing “Sue” and Ireene playing “Irene.” Scheduled during the daytime, SUE AND IRENE was sponsored by Lever Brothers’ detergent “Super Suds.” The dialogue was conversational in tone, rather than full-out acting, similar to another early serialized entry CLARA, LU AND EM.
The success of SUE AND IRENE spurred Phillips to create another series with greater dramatic possibilities. Within three months, WGN gave Phillips a chance to write two weeks’ worth of scripts for a serial revolving around an Irish-American household. Although Phillips was unsuccessful in securing a sponsor for the series, the station put it on the air on a sustaining basis. The program – PAINTED DREAMS – aired six times per week for approximately one year before it landed a Chicago-based meatpacker, Mickleberry Products Company, as sponsor Phillips not only wrote the series, but also played the lead character, the elderly, widowed Mother Moynihan, a kindly, philosophical, all-wise protagonist coping with the realities of the Depression era. Her single goal in life was to ensure the ultimate happiness of her grown children.
The simple message of the drama was that marriage, love and motherhood offered the greatest achievement and destiny any female could hope to experience. Most of the action occurred in an urban Chicago neighborhood where the Moynihans lived. Ireene Wicker also was featured in the PAINTED DREAMS cast, playing the part of Mother Moynihan’s daughter, along with several other roles. Lucy Gilman, Kay Chase, Alice Hill and Olan Soule were also among those in the cast. Frank Hummert, who, along with wife Anne later churned out some of radio’s most memorable serials, produced.
PAINTED DREAMS initially was heard only locally in Chicago, but later was picked up by CBS for national airing for brief runs. Before that, however, Phillips and WGN engaged in a lengthy legal battle over the ownership of the series. In 1932, Phillips resigned from her post at WGN, angered that the station refused an offer to sell the serial to a network, and filed suit against her former employer, seeking to prevent anyone else from using “her” material. The suit would drag on in the courts for more than eight years. In 1941, WGN ultimately was the victor in the battle, with the case establishing the principle of “work for hire,” upholding an employer’s ownership to property it had commissioned and titled.
In the meantime, WGN had continued broadcasting Painted Dreams with another writer and cast. On October 10, 1933, the station allowed CBS to pick up the series for nationwide airing. But the ratings were so poor that it left the air in a scant 16 weeks, on February 2, 1934. It returned to network broadcast for a couple of subsequent, short-lived stints – one on Mutual (1935-36), another on NBC Blue (April 29 to November 20, 1940) – but the show never became a popular national series. The accompanying photo is a premium sent out to listeners during the CBS run, and depicts Bess Flynn as Mother Moynihan. Flynn later created one of radio’s most popular long-running serials, BACHERLOR’S CHILDREN.
Having departed PAINTED DREAMS and WGN, Phillips created a “new” show which borrowed heavily from PAINTED DREAMS. In fact, her second serial – TODAY’S CHILDREN – came off sounding like a virtual carbon copy of the first. Its locale was Hester Street in Chicago, where stories of a cross-section of neighborhood families intertwined. In place of widowed Mother Moynihan, TODAY’S CHILDREN had widowed Mother Moran (played again by Phillips). Mother Moran had an adopted daughter named Kay Norton (also played by Phillips), while the same character in PAINTED DREAMS was named Sue Morton.
Ireene Wicker played daughter Eileen (whereas she played Irene in “Painted Dreams”). By the time PAINTED DREAMS finally arrived before a national audience over CBS, TODAY’S CHILDREN had already garnered a loyal following on NBC Blue, and listeners could not have helped but notice the similarity between the stories. PAINTED DREAMS ended on WGN sometime in the early 1940s.
Despite its popularity, Irna Phillips ended TODAY’S CHILDREN in 1937 upon the death of her mother because she had been the inspiring catalyst for many of the ideas the writer used to plot the show. TODAY’S CHILDREN later returned to the airwaves with a different setting and set of characters.
1937, however, was a watershed year for both Irna Phillips and the soap opera genre, as she debuted two of her most enduring creations that year, ROAD OF LIFE and THE GUIDING LIGHT.