HAPPY BIRTHDAY, GUIDING LIGHT!
On January 25, 1937, on NBC's Red radio network, The Guiding Light broadcast its first, fifteen minute episode.
Set in the fictional suburb of Five Points, near creator Irna Phillips' hometown of Chicago (where it was actually produced), The Guiding Light made its debut to the musical strains of Anselm Goetzel's Aphrodite, a relatively obscure 1919 musical.
The show starred twenty-four year Arthur Peterson as the fifty-something Reverend Ruthledge.
Peterson recalled to author Christopher Schemering in 1986, "I had played many older character parts before, beginning in college... But getting the part on GL was special to me for many reasons. First, the potential steady income allowed me to get married. I was engaged for three years, so when I signed for the part I immediately called for my fiancee to come to Chicago.... Secondly, this was a role I really believed in. It was a social documentary and an attempt at something realistic... Sometimes the scripts were very short, only five or six pages, which was unusual for radio. They weren't pregnant pauses; it was so the audience was able to digest the ideas, really think about what was being said and why."
The good Reverend would go on to preach about ideas that, in 1937, were hardly considered self-evident: the evil of racial prejudice, the futility of war and even, in a plea that is still being echoed today, the banning of playthings that glorified war, such as toy soldiers and guns.
His sermons became so popular that a book of them was published in the early 1940s and went on to sell 290,000 copies!
With America's entry into the second World War (no one listened to Dr. Ruthledge apparently), Peterson was sent overseas as part of General Patton's Third Army. While there, he wrote letters in the voice of his character, who was said to be serving as a chaplain in the European theater, about his experiences and what he had seen. Phillips adapted the letters and had them performed on the air. In addition, actors Louise Fitch (Rose), Ed Prentiss (Ned) and Eloise Kramer (Norma) supported the war effort by participating in the Victory Book Campaign, urging donations of reading material for the soldiers.
In 1946, Phillips and P&G decided to move GL to CBS Radio, and production to Hollywood. Peterson declined to relocate, as he and his wife were in the process of starting a theater in Chicago. Irna responded by informing Peterson that she would kill off the character of Reverend Ruthledge "so that no one can ever play him again -- including you."
The actor, along with his wife, went on to a long and distinguished theater career, though he is best known to television viewers as Major Gatling on the sitcom, Soap.