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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Guiding Light Stays Bright in Madison


The soap opera Guiding Light, which went off the air a week ago after 72 years, remains alive in the Archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society. According to the New York Times, it was "the longest-running scripted program in broadcasting history." After 15 years on radio, more than 15,000 televised episodes were produced before the plug was pulled last Friday.

It survives in Madison because its creator, Irna Phillips (1901-1973), decided in 1967 that the Wisconsin Historical Society was the best place to preserve her legacy. At the time, the Society was energetically soliciting papers from professionals in the film and television industry, as well as journalists, advertising agencies, and other creators of modern mass media. Bursting file cabinets and film canisters were shipped regularly to Madison from Hollywood and New York as the Society, often in partnership with the University of Wisconsin's Center for Film and Theater Research, built up one of the nation's premier mass communications collections. The real history that's fictionalized in shows like Mad Men is made available to scholars at the Society.

By all accounts, Guiding Light creator Irna Phillips was a proverbial tough cookie. "She was made up 100 percent of the things that make cookies tough," her son Tom told Wisconsin State Journal columnist Doug Moe. Of course, she had to be. The broadcast media were a competitive, male-dominated world during her career, and only a very strong woman could have had her impact. Phillips is credited with creating not only the longest-running soap opera, but with inventing the entire genre.

And she did much more. Moe quoted one writer who claimed that Phillips "wrote more words per year than Shakespeare had written in his entire life." That's a hard assertion to prove, but her papers do fill more than 60 boxes (described in detail here).

Her best-known creation may have finally stopped production last week, but Irna Phillips's effect on television continues to ripple on. Scholars can discover how and why she succeeded because her papers are safely curated here at the Wisconsin Historical Society. You can learn more about the Society's mass communications and film and theater collections elsewhere at wisconsinhistory.org.


:: Posted in Curiosities on September 24, 2009

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