Go on Pretending

Go On Pretending: The Guiding Light Makes the Move To TV…With a Hitch

Chapter 8: Irna Phillips takes The Guiding Light where no soap has gone before!

collage of early soap operas for go on pretending serial

The call from Irna came at 9 p.m. that evening, eight in Chicago. Word had gotten to Miss Phillips about the…unpleasantness which transpired that afternoon. Rose had a strong suspicion she knew who’d felt compelled to enlighten her. The American Federation of Radio Artists union was always most unhappy when a performer was cut. Rose stayed at the office to await Irna’s call. She didn’t relish sitting at home, on edge even as she pretended to go about her business, cooking dinner, reading, laying out her clothes for the next day…and jumping at every new sound as she anticipated the phone ringing, Irna on the other end, already mid-tirade.

When Hazel told Rose it was Miss Phillips on the line, Rose lifted the receiver gingerly, using two fingers, as if loathe to ruin a wet manicure.

She had an explanation — a defense, really — prepared. But all her boss said was, “Give ‘em hell.”

***

Rose understood that Irna had more important matters on her mind than one newly hired actor — and a handful of unhappy under-5 players. She’d just launched a revolutionary new story on The Guiding Light. Meta Bauer was another of Irna’s single mother characters. Meta bravely fought for custody of her baby boy, Chuckie, from his adoptive parents, then felt pressured by her family to marry Chuckie’s biological father, Ted, who had initially wanted nothing to do with either of them.

But Ted proved a horrible parent, bullying the sensitive boy and insisting Chuckie take boxing lessons so he wouldn’t grow up a sissy. The 5-year-old fell out of the boxing ring, struck his head, and, after lingering in a coma for weeks, tragically died. Blaming Ted for the loss of the child she’d fought so hard for, Meta shot and killed her no-good husband. She was sent to prison and put on trial, where every mistake she ever made was dredged up by the prosecution. So far, so typical.

Where Irna broke new ground was in letting the audience play jury. She asked her listeners to call, write, and send telegrams declaring Meta either innocent or guilty. In the end, CBS received over 75,000 votes, with those advocating for Meta’s freedom outnumbering those who wanted to see her punished nearly 100 to one. The show’s ratings spiked higher than they ever had before. And the success of the Meta Bauer trial finally convinced CBS to launch The Guiding Light on television.

The show was scheduled to debut on June 30, 1952. But to hedge their bets, the network demanded two concessions: They wanted the radio version to continue. The schedule would be as follows: Actors would arrive at the radio studio at 2 PM. They’d rehearse the latest episode and record it for airing the following day. The next morning, they’d arrive at the television studio and block out the show they’d recorded previously for airing on television live from 12:45 to 1 p.m. They would then travel back to the radio studio in order to start the cycle over again. 

CBS’s second demand was that, in case the television version failed to catch on, Irna create a spinoff from The Guiding Light, exclusively for radio, so they could hold onto the fans they’d picked up with Meta’s sensational trial.

Irna told Rose she didn’t have the time to produce The Guiding Light for radio, television, and a spinoff. She informed Rose she was being promoted. Rose would handle the secondary show. And, as such, she could decide which current Guiding Light character to build it around.

Rose didn’t hesitate. “Edmund Bard.”

Irna hesitated. For a moment, Rose feared she might say no. There were so many reasons for Irna to say no. Rose bet she’d thought of even more of them than her boss could. 

There wasn’t a single better reason to say yes.

“Yes,” Irna finally said.

***

It was Hazel who pointed out the obvious problem. While Edmund had been a supporting Guiding Light player, it posed no difficulty to keep his countenance from the press. Though radio was an audio medium, fan magazines like Photoplay and local newspapers often asked Guiding Light for images they could run alongside stories about the actors and plots. In honor of Bert Bauer giving birth to her first child, Rose and Hazel had recently staged a photo shoot of actress Charita Bauer laying in a hospital bed, her nightgown pristine, her dark, cascading hair tied up in a bow, clutching a very stiff, tightly wrapped doll that was supposed to represent newborn baby Michael…while on the television screen next to her beamed the image of Gloria LaRue, the singer Bert’s husband Bill was stepping out on poor, postpartum Bert with. It was a scene that never happened on the radio show, but it summarized the goings-on nicely.

Rose understood that if she made Edmund the centerpiece of The Guiding Light’s spinoff, there’d be no hiding him from the press. Which meant there’d be no hiding Jonas Cain. So far, they’d been able to keep details about their new sensation under wraps. Without actually putting out the general command to do so. Plenty of people saw him on a daily basis. Yet, except for the initial complaint to the union — which the cowards kicked upstairs to Irna — everyone had zipped their mouths shut. Rose presumed once they realized that Jonas wouldn’t be immediately fired, they also comprehended that what was good for the show was good for them all, and anything that brought negative publicity would ultimately hurt them all, too. No one wanted a boycott. She expected the production crew and actors to remain mum. But what to do about photographs….

It was Hazel who came up with a solution. She said, “Edmund is a mystery man, right? So we photograph him to enhance the mystery. In the shadows, from the back, from the side. They’ll see just enough to be intrigued, but not enough….”

“To get us canceled?”

“Exactly,” Hazel said. 

Now all Rose needed was to figure out how to tell Jonas Cain that they would be building a show around him, that they would be promoting him, that they would be making money off of him…without revealing who he really was.

***

Click here for Chapter #9!

***

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!

Subscribe Now

Get spoilers, news and recaps in your inbox daily.

Subscribe Now

Get spoilers, news and recaps in your inbox daily.