By the time the broadcast day for The Guiding Light’s first color episode came around, Irna Phillips had figured out a way to circumvent her problem. She wrote a script in which the entire show took place in a hospital room. The broadcast may have been in color, but the walls were gray, the medical uniforms were white, and Irna had made her point.
Meanwhile, Rose had lost her nerve. It happened after she heard Agnes Nixon was lobbying to add a Negro character to The Guiding Light. Irna was adamantly against it. Rose figured if Irna’s latest pet couldn’t budge her on the issue, Rose had no business drawing further attention to it — even peripherally.
That is until she was faced with no other option.
This time, Irna made a special trip to New York, and she was the one who came into Rose’s office. Not a good sign. You came to Irna. Irna didn’t come to you.
“Wonderful news,” Irna said.
Another ominous sign. Irna never thought anything was wonderful.
“CBS is very happy with your work on Find Your Light.”
Rose had guessed as much. They never had nearly as many notes as Irna.
“Which is why we’ll be following in The Guiding Light’s footsteps and transitioning its spinoff show to television, as well.”
This was, indeed, wonderful news. Television meant a bigger budget and the opportunity to try new things. More work but also, most likely, a raise. Television meant…
Now Rose understood why Irna came to her. And why she’d felt compelled to preface with how wonderful this was.
“We’ll recast.” The way Irna said it made clear she’d given the matter abundant thought and came to the conclusion that there was no other recourse.
“He’s the star. Have you seen how much fan mail he gets? He’s not interchangeable!”
“You and Hazel patched an ingenious solution. But you had to know it was temporary.”
“Give the audience some credit, Irna. Maybe they’re not as backward as you assume.”
“I know my audience.” Irna’s tone, which had brushed the outer rim of cajoling earlier, was now pure verdict. “We’ll recast. I’ll let the actors and other staff know. You handle Mr. Cain.”
Rose was forced to go with Irna down to the studio floor for the big announcement. It was still her show. If Irna was hoping for unanimous celebration at her words, what she received was subdued enthusiasm. Radio actors knew their talents didn’t always transfer to television. They were too young; they were too old; they weren’t photogenic enough. Yet, even as they worried for their own job security, every single one couldn’t help sneaking a peek Jonas’s way. No matter how precarious their position, his was a thousand times worse.
Jonas, for his part, did what Jonas always did. His face rested devoid of expression. His body language remained placid. He returned no one’s gaze. Not even Rose’s.
“We can fight this,” she insisted. It was a Tuesday night. Rose was in Jonas’s apartment. She didn’t give a damn anymore.
He finally allowed himself the privilege of expression. Jonas’s shoulders didn’t so much sag as they surrendered the soldier-at-attention front. He bent his arms at the elbows and raised his palms to the ceiling, then let them drop again. He smiled, but it wasn’t one of happiness. It was cynicism. She knew because his dimples refused to make an appearance.
“How?” He was willing to give Rose the benefit of the doubt, despite it.
“We can go to the sponsors. Sponsors overrule Irna. We can threaten to make a fuss. Procter & Gamble hates fuss. We can turn public opinion against them.”
“You think once Procter & Gamble, which can buy time on absolutely any form of media, publish their story of how they were tricked into hiring a Negro by a scheming Jewess, public option will swing to our side?”
“Well, not when you put it that way!” No matter how upset Rose was, Jonas could always make her laugh.
He sat next to Rose on the couch just as she bounced up to commence pacing. Jonas swiveled his head from side to side as if watching a tennis match.
He didn’t say another word.
“We can try to sell you elsewhere,” Rose sprung awake at three o’clock in the morning and shook Jonas until he grunted to indicate he was listening.
“Like down the river?”
“Bad choice of words,” Rose conceded, but she was in too much of an inspirational fever to slow down for long. “Find Your Light is a success for two reasons: My writing, your acting.”
“And the several dozen other actors, technicians, engineers, press agents,” he mumbled into his pillow.
Again, Rose has no time for pausing. “As soon as Find Your Light moves to television, other networks are going to be looking for programming to put up against them and steal their viewers. What better to offer them than challenging Find Your Light with the team which made it successful in the first place?”
“Rose,” Jonas rolled over on his back so that she couldn’t miss what he said next. “I’m still a Negro.”
“And I’m still a scheming Jewess.”
Rose went to Irna with her proposal first. Rose wanted her to understand what she was risking when she insisted on implementing her plan to recast Edmund. “Why cannibalize your audience when we can have them all to ourselves?”
“You’re a very smart girl,” Irna told her protegee. “But I’m afraid love has made you very stupid.”
“At my job interview, we agreed the wonderful thing about serials is that no matter how bad the mistake, tune in tomorrow offers you a chance to fix anything.”
“I am offering you that chance. But you are tragically close to running out of tomorrows. And no one, not you, not even me, will be able to write you out of this one.”
Rose ignored Irna’s advice. With CBS in first place, according to the recently established Neilson ratings, she approached their closest competitor, NBC. When they turned her down, she went to ABC. ABC was struggling so much in their primetime offerings, they hadn’t attempted launching a viable daytime division. Rose argued this could be their chance to do so, and with a hit! She finally went to DuMont. But they were flailing even more than ABC and informed Rose that instead of expanding their schedule, their strategy was to truncate it in the hopes of bleeding a little less money.
Word of Rose’s pitch meetings promptly got back to Irna. Rose had expected as much. There was no way to avoid it. The Queen of Daytime would always be kept in the loop regarding any attempt to usurp her throne. Rose hoped Irna understood that wasn’t what she was doing. Rose hoped Irna understood that all Rose was doing was trying to make clear to Irna just how serious Rose was about keeping Jonas as the star of Find Your Light — and thus swaying Irna into supporting her.
Irna fired Rose the Friday before the television version of Find Your Light was scheduled to begin production. She didn’t do it in person. Irna wasn’t set to arrive in New York until Monday. She didn’t do it over the phone, despite the multi-hour-long conversations they’d shared over the years. She didn’t even do it via her scrawl across a dog-eared script. Rose received her coldly typed termination notice, hand delivered by Hazel, at precisely five o’clock. There was nothing personal about it. Nothing to indicate their working camaraderie of the past five years. Irna didn’t even wish Rose well.
There was still so much work to be done before the director called “Action!” on Monday morning. Rose surveyed the papers needing to be approved and signed sprawled across her desk, the list of phone calls demanding to be returned, the schedules and call times begging to be finalized. She stood up, reaching for her coat and handbag, and, without a look back, told Hazel, “I know you need to run home, but if you can think of anyone willing to step in at the last minute like this, the Executive Producer job is likely theirs.”
“Actually,” Hazel said, looking at the pile of work with a hunger she’d never previously allowed anyone — not even herself — to witness, “I can stay.”
Jonas had received his notice weeks earlier. He knew today would be his last day on the radio show. A new Edmund Bard had been cast. He was tall, handsome, a strong actor, with a fine voice. Rose bore the man no ill will. She simply knew he wouldn’t be up for the job. His take on Edmund was the same as all the candidates she’d rejected during the first casting round. It wasn’t what the role called for, and it wasn’t what the audience had responded to. But what did Rose care? She didn’t work for Irna anymore.
Jonas did his best to comfort Rose. Rose did her best to assure him she didn’t require comforting. This was the best thing that could have happened for both of them. They were being stifled creatively, shilling for a traditionalist corporation. Soap salesmen couldn’t be artists.
“I have one more idea,” Rose said.
To start Go On Pretending at the beginning, click here.
Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, out now!