By Allison J. Waldman
Special to TelevisionWeek
In 1937 a writer named Irna Phillips had the idea for a new radio show based on the theme, “There is a destiny that makes us brothers; none does his way alone.” When the lead character, the Rev. John Ruthledge, placed a candle in the window to light the way, “Guiding Light” was born.
From that day on, through the radio years and into the television era, “Guiding Light” has continued to shine. The Guinness Book of World Records has honored it as the longest-running show in broadcast history, and when the anniversary show airs on Jan. 25, 2007-commemorating 70 years on radio and television-“Guiding Light” will have broadcast 17,554 episodes overall. It celebrated its 15,000th show on television last September.
“The endurance of this show is a testament to the enduring popularity of the soap opera genre in general,” said Daniel R. Coleridge, TVGuide.com soap columnist and author of “The Q Guide to Soap Operas.” “Viewers become emotionally attached to the characters, so much so that they often feel closer to them than to their own families. Soaps are broadcast five days a week, 52 weeks a year. They don’t go on hiatus for the summer. This gives the viewer a lot more time to get to know the characters and become attached to them.”
Creating a compelling community of characters was the original intent of Ms. Phillips, regarded as the person who put the soap in soap opera. Her story lines were character-driven, not reliant on complicated plots. She wanted her characters to deal with the realities of life-survival, relationships and family. In Christopher Schemering’s book “Guiding Light: A 50th Anniversary Celebration,” Ms. Phillips said, “None of us is different, except in degree. None of us is a stranger to success and failure, life and death, the need to be loved, the struggle to communicate.”
Ms. Phillips, who died in 1973 at the age of 72, had a good grasp on what her audience liked, and her soap operas were hugely successful. In addition to “Guiding Light” she created or co-created “As the World Turns,” “Another World,” “Days of Our Lives” and other series. In 1945 the editors of Time magazine identified her as one of the most powerful people in broadcasting. “Soap opera’s biggest single earner (as high as $250,000 a year) is a 43-year-old ex-Ohio schoolmarm named Irna Phillips,” the magazine wrote. “Weekday mornings the 45 characters of her three current shows (`The Guiding Light,’ `Today’s Children,’ `The Woman in White’) troop past an NBC microphone in 45 minutes of virtually nonstop emotionalism. Last week, on the anniversary of her 15th year in radio, writer Phillips was wrestling with a newly publicized approach to her craft. She called it `social significance.”‘
To assist her in delving into more topical story lines, Ms. Phillips turned to two talented writers, William J. Bell and Agnes Nixon, both of whom would go on to great acclaim in the soap world. They would create a half-dozen other soaps in their time-including shows that are still thriving, such as “The Young and the Restless” and “All My Children.” At a recent Museum of Radio & Television seminar, Ms. Nixon said of Ms. Phillips: “Irna was her own best creation. She was colorful and quite a character, and she knew it. She set out to do it all on her own, and this was all very pre-women’s lib. She made mistakes. She was also a hypochondriac, very warm-hearted, and very funny. And the stories about Irna Phillips are legend.”
Eileen Fulton, who plays longtime diva Lisa Hughes on Ms. Phillips’ second-longest-running soap, “As the World Turns,” worked with Ms. Phillips as a young actress. “What I loved about Irna was that she acted out every show, and Rose, her secretary, wrote it down. She was so involved. And we were, to Irna, her family. We were the Hughes family; she would not accept the fact that I was Eileen, not Lisa,” Ms. Fulton said.
Actor Arthur Peterson, who played the Rev. Ruthledge on radio for nine years, also worked closely with Ms. Phillips. “Irna was a tough cookie. She wanted to protect her work and she knew her clout and how to use it,” he said in “Guiding Light: A 50th Anniversary Celebration.” “It was because Irna cared about her characters. She wrote from her own experiences and the people she grew up with. This is why `Guiding Light’ was so successful-it had truth.”
Over the years, “Guiding Light” has changed significantly. The setting switched many times, from the Midwest to California to finally settling in Springfield, USA. There have been dozens of head writers, including Douglas Marland and Pamela K. Long, both of whom led the show to ratings success by creating distinctive characters such as Roger Thorpe (Michael Zaslow) and Reva Shayne (Kim Zimmer).
“Doug Marland knew that Roger Thorpe was the ultimate soap character, a lovable villain, the man you love to hate,” said Mary Ann Cooper, who writes the syndicated column “Speaking of Soaps.” “Zaslow was so dynamic in the role that even after they killed him off by throwing him off a cliff, the soap found a way to bring him back a few years later.” Mr. Zaslow’s character returned to the show with the explanation that he had survived the fall and had been nursed back to health by some locals.
Kim Zimmer has dominated “Guiding Light” for more than 20 years, winning four Daytime Emmys as outstanding actress along the way. “There are many soap vixens, but there is only one Reva Shayne. Red-hot Reva is the self-proclaimed `Slut of Springfield,”‘ Mr. Coleridge said. “She’s a Tulsa, Okla.-born gold digger who slept her way through a whole family of oilmen, but women relate to Reva because she’s a bad girl with a heart of gold, who struggles with her competing desires of wanting to be loved, yet wanting to have excitement in her life. Reva is a very sexual, outspoken, sassy, brassy and courageous woman who has survived a lot of problems, but she keeps her bravado and sense of humor through it all.”
Hundreds of other actors have made their mark on “Guiding Light,” many of whom have gone on to prime time or movie fame. Before working with Woody Allen and snagging an Oscar, Mira Sorvino was a temporary fill-in for another actress on “Guiding Light,” and Allison Janney, multiple Emmy winner for “The West Wing,” showed off her versatility as Ginger, a wisecracking maid in the Spaulding mansion.
At one point in 1966, James Earl Jones was introduced as Dr. Jim Frazier, playing opposite Cicely Tyson, but before the year was done, Billy Dee Williams took over as Dr. Jim and Ruby Dee became Martha Frazier. Even James Lipton, the host of Bravo’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” did a 10-year stint on “Guiding Light” as Dr. Dick Grant. He eventually branched out into writing and was head writer for a time.
Other performers who appeared on “Guiding Light” include Calista Flockhart, Taye Diggs, Mark Feuerstein, Kevin Bacon, Frances Fisher, Sherry Stringfield, Dana Elcar, Barnard Hughes, Carrie Nye, John Wesley Shipp, JoBeth Williams, Chris Sarandon, Sandy Dennis, Christopher Walken, Christina Pickles, Harley Kozak, James Rebhorn, Giancarlo Esposito, Michelle Forbes, Wendy Moniz, Frank Grillo, Hayden Panettiere, Ian Ziering, Keir Dullea, Melina Kanakaredes, Cynthia Watros, Brittany Snow, Stephen McHattie, Mark Derwin, Joe Lando and Sharon Leal.
For executive producer Ellen Wheeler, the 70th anniversary presented a unique opportunity. “We didn’t want to just have a party for ourselves,” Ms. Wheeler said. “Irna Phillips created `Guiding Light’ with one fundamental theme in mind, `the brotherhood of man.”‘ With that in mind, “Guiding Light” decided to team with Hands On Network, a nonprofit network of 64 volunteer organizations and a half-million volunteers, for a yearlong partnership focused primarily on raising the level of volunteerism across the U.S. “Guiding Light” will shut down its New York studio during the anniversary week, Jan. 22-26, and join the volunteer movement by taking the entire cast and crew to the Gulf Coast.
“We’re hoping that the show’s commitment to Hands On Network will resound with our viewers and motivate
people to be the change they wish to see in their communities,” Ms. Wheeler said. “Our fans have given us the chance to entertain them for the past seven decades. Giving back to them in their community is our small way of saying thank you.”
On Valentine’s Day, footage of the Gulf Coast trip will air during a special “Guiding Light” hour. Instead of seeing the cast as their characters, viewers will see the actors appear as themselves. The film will show them helping to rebuild communities affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Promoting volunteerism is just one of the ways the soap is reaching out to the generations of fans who make up the “Guiding Light” community. “Guiding Light” has created a new Web site, www.FindYourLight.net to communicate directly with fans. The interactive, video-rich site will invite users to upload their own videos and view exclusive behind-the-scenes content featuring the cast of “Guiding Light.” “We are excited to provide a place online where everyone can participate in `Guiding Light’s’ 70th anniversary celebration,” said executive producer Ellen Wheeler.
“Guiding Light,” perhaps more than any other soap, has embraced innovation. The show has reworked the storytelling by creating special Wednesday episodes called “Inside the Light.” Each show breaks with the traditional soap storytelling to concentrate on a particular character, relationship or event.
Such outside-the-box thinking led to a collaboration between “Guiding Light” and Marvel Comics in 2006 for a unique “Inside the Light.” It was a historic event for daytime-the first time a soap opera had crossed over into another pop culture medium, and the first time Marvel created a comic book hero based on a soap character. “The fans were very, very positive,” Ms. Wheeler said. “It was a big leap, but we’ve also had clones and story lines go back in time in soap opera, so it’s not that out of character. It’s all about how you make it work.”
And making it work also means employing technology in the form of Web sites, podcasts, webisodes and online video. “We’re doing the 70 greatest moments in `Guiding Light’ history online, so fans can go to the Web site and watch them there,” said David Kreizman, the show’s head writer. One thing “Guiding Light” can’t offer, though, is daily rebroadcasts like the soaps that make up the SoapNet schedule. “I think a second SoapNet channel would be great for us, or I wish P&G [Procter & Gamble, which owns and produces the show] had its own channel,” Mr. Kreizman said.
On Jan. 25 “Guiding Light” will broadcast an episode that re-creates the first radio broadcast of the show. The flashback encompasses the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, with today’s cast playing the stars from those eras. “The whole idea of going back to our roots is a very good thing,” said Michael O’Leary, who has played Rick Bauer on the show for more than 20 years. “I’m in the radio spots, and boy, did I have a ball doing those. I did two radio spots as different characters. I love doing different kinds of voices and mimicking voices. The vintage clothing was amazing and the women looked gorgeous. That was a lot of fun. I have to give props to my executive producer, Ellen Wheeler. She really likes to try to do things differently.”
How likely is it that “Guiding Light” will continue to thrive in the years ahead? That question looms as viewing habits change and daytime ratings shrink across the board. “The daytime soap opera remains the most legitimate use of the television medium,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and culture at Syracuse University and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television. “It does something that the movie, the opera, the novel or any other storytelling form cannot achieve: to tell an extended story, in real time, five days a week, with no reruns, year after year, decade after decade-and at the rate some of these are going, perhaps century after century.”
TV Guide columnist Michael Ausiello is more circumspect. “In a way, it’s also kind of sad because soaps are struggling so much these days. You sense that even though it’s 70 years, is it ending its run? I think there’s no way it’s going to be around for another 70 years, but it’s miraculous that any TV show is going to be on for that long. It’s mind-boggling, the sheer number-70 years.”
“There’s no question that the soap world has changed,” Ms. Cooper said. “People don’t watch the way they used to, and we don’t have an accurate reading on how these shows really rate with viewers-not when you consider TiVo and online downloads and the like. But if you would have told me 20 years ago that `Guiding Light’ would someday celebrate 70 years on the air, I would have been doubtful. So don’t be surprised if we’re talking about this show and marveling at its longevity when it reaches 100 years of continuous broadcasting.”