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The Bellwether of Television Talk in Chicago

Lee Phillip Bell (WCAS50) expanded opportunities for women in broadcasting and revolutionized daytime television.

 

by Ryan Morton (J08)

After graduating with a microbiology degree, Lee Phillip Bell (WCAS50) was working in her family’s floral shop in Cicero, Ill., when her brother James Phillip (EB48) was asked to demonstrate arrangements on The Bill Evans Show in Chicago. He brought his younger sister along to help him.

She revolutionized the short segment. “I couldn’t understand how anyone could learn to make flower arrangements by watching the florists arrange the flowers then turn the arrangement around so the audience could see. So I taught myself how to demonstrate it backward for the camera,” Phillip said.

The producers liked her performance so much that they asked her to return every week and soon offered her a full-time job. Within six months she was hosting a daily 30-minute talk show.

“It was almost a miracle, how quickly it happened, so I went right along with it,” Phillip said.

For more than 30 years in Chicago, Phillip’s program, The Lee Phillip Show, tackled rarely considered social problems. She investigated the lives of prisoners, the struggles of runaways and the dangers of breast cancer (one of the first televised self-exams was demonstrated on her show).

“There weren’t many women who had interview shows where you could do whatever you wanted,” Phillip said. “I guess they liked what I was doing, because when CBS bought the local station, I was one of only three people they kept, along with Frank Reynolds and Bruce Roberts.”

The recipient of 16 local Emmy awards, Phillip also produced the groundbreaking documentary The Rape of Paulette, which featured an interview with a young gang rape victim and followed her attackers through their trials.

The Lee Phillip Show, seen on WBBM-TV Channel 2, quickly became a fixture in Chicago daytime television, drawing many celebrity guests. Phillip interviewed Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter (and his entire extended family) as well as actors John Wayne, Lucille Ball and Judy Garland.

Her favorite interview is still the one she conducted with a Chicago pediatrician, Willis Potts, the first full-time surgeon-in-chief at Children’s Memorial Hospital.

“He was wonderful,” she said. “I always really enjoyed talking with doctors or scientists because I understood what they were doing and how important their work was.”

While Phillip’s show presented social issues to Chicagoland viewers, her work with husband and script writer William J. Bell claimed a national audience. As co-creators of the hit soap opera The Young and the Restless, Phillip and Bell often bounced ideas off each other, with many of the storylines mirroring topics Phillip discussed on her talk show.

The couple first met on the set of Phillip’s show. When Bell called later, she could not even remember what he looked like because she had been so busy. Phillip says staying active was the key to their marriage, which lasted 50 years.

Through the mid-1980s Bell wrote his scripts from Chicago so he could stay with Phillip and their three children. When the couple created another soap opera, The Bold and the Beautiful, in 1987, they moved to California, where Phillip is still involved with both shows. She goes into the office every day to check production and answer fan mail. All three of her children also have been involved with the soap operas, either managing, producing or acting in them.

Bell passed away in 2005 from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease, prompting Phillip to dedicate time and resources toward finding a cure. A section of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, scheduled to reopen in 2007, will be named in honor of Bell and Phillip.

Bruce DuMont, a former producer of Phillip’s talk show and MBC founder, said Phillip, a TV icon, deserves such an honor. “If you were to make a list of the defining characters in television’s infancy, Lee Phillip would be near the top,” DuMont said. “She paved the way for women to have a significant role in television. What she was doing in Chicago was in the forefront of women’s expanding role in broadcast nationwide.”

Have you ever wondered what happened to some of your former classmates? Send their names to letters@northwestern.edu, and we’ll try and track down some of the most interesting alumni for you.

WATN - Lee Bell
Photo by Gilles Toucas Bell-Phillip Television Productions, Inc.