Soap Opera History

Law and Order Revisited: Irna Phillips Vs. Emmons Carlson

Law and Order Revisited - Irna Phillips vs Emmons CarlsonLaw and Order Revisited - Irna Phillips vs Emmons Carlson

Lawsuits and court cases are a staple of soap opera storytelling. But every once in a while, legal matters such as these can ensnare your favorite daytime performers and the writers who delicately craft your favorite afternoon programs. Even Irna Phillips who created Guiding Light has found herself involved in some serious litigation.

>The Case: Emmons Carlson vs. Irna Phillips

Plaintiff: Emmons Carlson
The Defendant: Irna Phillips
The Brief: By 1946, (The) Guiding Light had weathered a cancellation, a change in sponsor, and an alteration in premise. When the soap opera had first debuted over NBC Red’s radio waves in 1937, it followed the plight of an inner-city minister, Dr. Reverend Ruthledge, who offered succor and sage advice to his sin-prone parishioners.

By the late ’40s, the Reverend, his family, and most of the troubled souls who had flocked to The Little Church of Five Points had been summarily dismissed – and with them exited the embodiment of the series title.

Ruthledge, and his oil-burning “friendship lamp,” had represented a “guiding light” to the church’s congregation and with their exit, the title now took on a more symbolic meaning concerning the righteous path that all persons should follow.

And yet, even with the multitude of changes, the program soldiered on and was still a solid contender in the ratings race. But that was all about to change, thanks to an employee at the NBC Red studio named Emmons Carlson.

Emmons filed a lawsuit against Irna Phillips known far and wide in radioland as the woman who had birthed (The) Guiding Light. In fact, Phillips had always maintained that she had created the series as a form of personal therapy following a traumatic girlhood.

While not yet 20, Irna had given birth to an illegitimate and stillborn baby, and while battling severe depression, she found spiritual solace through the radio sermons of Preston Bradley, a famous Chicago pastor who founded the Peoples Church.

Decades later she would craft her second hit radio series – (The) Guiding Light – which followed a non-denominational preacher situated in a rundown and crime-infested Chicago neighborhood.

But now Carlson claimed co-creatorship of the serial. And furthermore, he insisted that an oral agreement between himself and Irna now entitled him to recoup his share of the show’s profits dating all the way back to its inception.

Irna strenuously denied the charges, labeled Carlson, “a lying bastard” and,  disregarding her legal counsel’s advice, insisted on taking the case to trial. There she argued that Carlson had done little more than produce a few scripts that she deemed unsatisfactory.

The Verdict: After a lengthy battle, the court decreed that Carlson did indeed have enough proof to substantiate his claim and they ruled in his favor. Irna was forced to pay out $250,000 to her former employee but the real damage was reflected later in the year when (The) Guiding Light was canceled.

The sudser’s sponsor – General Mills – had grown weary of carrying the program ever since the legal action was filed and with another court ruling forcing a split between NBC’s two radio networks (NBC Red which would now be simply NBC and NBC Blue which would now transition to the brand new ABC network), they decided the show wasn’t worth continuing.

However, 26 weeks later, the CBS radio network resuscitated the deceased soap and brought it back to the airways with Procter and Gamble as its sponsor. The “new” (The) Guiding Light was relaunched with much fanfare and debuted with “Episode One” – subsequently the Guiding Light that would make it to television screens in 1952 and air until 2009 was actually “only” 62 years old rather than the usually stated 72.

Video Credit: Josh Hawkins

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