Posted by Susan Doll on September 26, 2011
Last Friday, the ABC soap opera All My Children aired its last episode on television after a 41- year run. In January, One Life to Live will broadcast its last episode, and though, it hasn’t been formally announced, General Hospital will follow suit in September 2012. Soap fans are angry and disappointed that their shows have been canceled from television after decades on the air. ABC declared that ratings dictated their demise, citing dwindling audiences and changing times as the reason. All My Children was replaced by a cooking show called The Chew, which airs its first episode today. General Hospital will be replaced by Katie Couric’s new program. Good luck with that, Katie. I am sure millions of GH fans can’t wait to watch NBC’s and CBS’s former golden girl try one more time to make her mark, this time with a talk show—a type of programming already glutting the airwaves.
It appears ABC wasn’t forthcoming with its complete rationale behind the cancelling of its soaps. Just weeks after the announcement regarding All My Children and One Life to Live, rumors and news leaked that the shows were picked up by a company called Prospect Park, a two-year-old media and production company that will produce them online. Prospect Park was portrayed as the savior of the soaps, and ABC seemed magnanimous for licensing the shows to them. However, former Disney head Rich Frank is a cofounder of Prospect Park, raising suspicions that this plan has been in the works for at least two years. (ABC is owned by Disney.) By portraying PP as heroic in the entertainment press for rescuing the two shows from ABC’s garbage heap, the new “online network” secures the loyalty of fans who are famous for their allegiance to their shows. Smells like a marketing plan to me.
Though moving the two soaps online will alienate older fans less impressed/enamored with the high-tech nature of online viewing, it is the tradition of the genre to adapt and adopt the latest distribution format, which attracts new markets. The serialization of narratives is generally traced back to the early 1830s when Charles Dickens released his first novel The Pickwick Papers in magazine installments, increasing sales of the tabloid in which it appeared from 14,000 to 40,000 during its run. In 1837, Dickens was hired to edit Bentley’s Miscellany where his novel Oliver Twist was serialized over the next two years. The serialization of his novels in journals for which he served as editor was used as a deliberate strategy to sell more magazine copies and more books.
In the early 1910s, pioneer filmmakers such as Gene Gauntier began to specialize in writing and producing serialized adventures in which viewers were treated to one installment per week in theaters, with most episodes concluding with a cliffhanger to ensure the return of audiences the following week. While serials were a staple of Hollywood until the 1940s, the medium of radio was ideal for the conventions of the genre. Serialization is a narrative format that features a continuous cast of characters in a continuous dramatic storyline. Because commercial radio was broadcast daily, it was a perfect medium for a continuous story. In fact, the story could be never-ending, evolving based on the comings and goings of the characters—or the actors playing those characters.
My adopted home town of Chicago was instrumental in the development of the soap-opera radio serial. In 1930, former schoolteacher Irna Phillips created the first daytime radio serial, Painted Dreams, for WGN in the Windy City. The narrative involved the widowed Mother Moynahan and her ongoing problems with her two children; it starred Ireene Wicker and Phillips herself, who acted out the simple domestic-based scenarios in 15-minute episodes. Three years later, two advertizing executives in Chicago, Frank and Anne Hummert, created three radio shows that would define the soap opera, Just Plain Bill, The Romance of Helen Trent, and Ma Perkins. Instead of adventure tales, these shows offered a combination of reality and romantic fantasy that spelled melodrama and then adapted it to the more intimate medium of radio, which reached out to audiences in their own homes every day. The premises seemed to present a slice of life because they showcased problems with love, marriage, family, and children, but the Hummerts dished it out with a heavy coating of fantasy, romance, and sentiment. For example, the title character in The Romance of Helen Trent was a glamorous Hollywood dress designer.
Later in the decade, Irna Phillips returned with two new creations, The Road to Life and The Guiding Light. While still heavy on sentiment and romance, Phillips’s soaps focused on character more than story, creating characters with recognizable personality traits whom audiences counted on to act in a given way no matter the direction of the story. Her shows also featured professionals, such as ministers, nurses, and doctors, whose central morality eventually steered them in the right direction whether tackling a problem at home or on the job. And, the stories grew out of the characters’ jobs or personalities, making them more grounded in the everyday world than the soaps of the Hummerts. During the Depression, when about 40 million women listened to the 15-minute melodramas daily, the serialized dramas were used to advertise household products, including detergent. They were tagged “soap operas,” a name that stuck over the years.
By the early 1950s, television had been networked so that it was possible to broadcast a show from coast to coast. The radio serials attempted to switch to the new medium. Many of them failed because they did not take the properties of television into account. Television is a visual medium, so descriptive dialogue, which weighed down character interaction, had to be replaced by direct communication in the form of conversation. Also, the intimacy of radio, in which characters are telling listeners a story in the comfort of their homes, needed to be translated to the small screen. The successful transplants from radio, such as The Guiding Light, recreated the intimacy by constructing sets that represented the homes of the characters, particularly kitchens where problems and emotions poured out of characters as quickly as coffee out of a pot.
As television evolved and advanced, soaps grew to 30 minutes and expanded their premises. In 1963, General Hospital was created by Frank and Doris Hursley as daytime’s answer to prime-time’s glut of hospital shows. While diseases, operations, and medical jargon added authenticity to the show, the Hursleys delved into the dark side of human behavior by exploring stories of infidelity and rape. Irna Phillips created Another World, which was intended as a psychological melodrama that chronicled the characters’ inner turmoil, motivations, and reasoning. Realizing she needed help with this type of writing, Phillips hired young Agnes Nixon to be her head writer. Nixon went on to develop All My Children and One Life to Live, which gained reputations for tackling issues—abortion, rape, gay characters, AIDS—that prime-time producers treated with kid gloves.
If AMC, OLTL, and GH hope to survive online, they will need to adapt to the characteristics of the medium in addition to keeping abreast of changes in social attitudes, like successful soaps have done in the past. Of course, the Internet as a story-telling medium is so new, I wonder if the execs at Prospect Park even know what the properties of the medium are.
In many ways, television was the perfect medium for the soaps. With the daily flick of a knob, viewers tuned into to see continuous stories with familiar characters. No matter how many episodes a viewer might miss, it was easy to catch up through built-in updates interspersed in conversation among the characters. And, the charismatic actors under contract to the soaps—not unlike movie stars in the old studio system during the Golden Age—created loyal fan bases by adding nuances to their characters’ personas as the story arcs evolved. Because soap acting is broad, nonfans tend to look down on it as “bad acting,” but performances in melodrama are always broad; it’s the nature of the genre.
The television soap opera was a terrific medium for two types of actors: (1) newcomers who needed the kind of experience and seasoning that only on-the-job training can provide; and (2) senior actors deemed over-the-hill by the film industry who could elevate the soap material with their charisma and professionalism. Over the years, AMC, OLTL, and GH have jump-started the careers of many well-known prime-time and film actors, and they gave senior-aged stars an opportunity to display their experience and talents without resorting to playing doddering old fools.
I have noticed a few online articles in the past few days listing the stars who got their starts as characters on AMC, including Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer; The Grudge), Josh Duhamel (Las Vegas; Transformers: Dark of the Moon), Kim Delaney (Army Wives), and Eva LaRue (CSI: Miami). But, these barely-researched articles don’t even scratch the surface. It was AMC that first introduced Regis Philbin’s cohost Kelly Ripa to daytime viewers. Ripa played Hayley Vaughn, one of patriarch Adam Chandler’s many offspring. For a couple of years Hayley was paired with Charlie Brent, who was played by young Christopher Lawford, Peter’s son. Long before Oscar winner Kathy Bates terrorized James Caan in Misery, she terrorized Erica Kane as convict Belle Bodelle. Another Oscar-winner, Melissa Leo, who won best supporting actress last year for The Fighter, played Linda Warner during the 1980s. Character actor Ed O’Neill, who is currently enjoying success on the Emmy-winning Modern Family, appeared on AMC when he was 24—so long ago that it’s difficult to find the character he played. More recently, Mischa Barton of The O.C. briefly played Lily Montgomery.
Established actors who appeared on AMC at the end of their careers include Arlene Dahl, Kim Hunter, Gloria DeHaven, and most famously, Ruth Warrick. Warrick, who played the first Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane, starred as the conniving Phoebe Wallingford on AMC for 34 years. Another original character, Palmer Cortland, was played by James Mitchell, a choreographer and dancer who had appeared as the disgruntled boyfriend of Cyd Charisse in Vincent Minnelli’s The Band Wagon. Actors like Warrick, Dahl, and Mitchell lent the show the glamor and class of old-school Hollywood.
Over the years, One Life to Live also started the careers of several future stars, including Tom Berenger, Tommy Lee Jones, Ryan Phillippe, and Mario Van Peebles. Many actors who achieved prime-time stardom learned the ropes on OLTL. Before playing Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, Phylicia Rashad was Courtney Wright on OLTL. Handsome Blair Underwood earned considerable success on L.A. Law, but he was known to soap fans as OLTL’s Bobby Blue. Jessica Tuck bears her teeth as the head vampire on True Blood, but she bore her sole as Vicki Buchanan’s long-lost daughter Megan. Other OLTL alum include Hayden Panettiere, Marcia Cross, Fisher Stevens, and Rainn Wilson. Veteran actor of Hollywood westerns Philip Carey (Gun Fury; Calamity Jane: They Rode West) ruled the roost for 20 years as One Life to Live patriarch Asa Buchanan.
General Hospital has been on the air longer than All My Children and One Life to Live, so perhaps it is fitting that it will be the last to go. GH has introduced its fair share of future stars, from Leonard Nimoy (Bernie, c. 1963) to Demi Moore (Jackie Templeton, c. 1982-1983). When most of my friends saw Star Wars for the first time and wondered aloud at the unknown actors, I looked at Mark Hamill and said, “Hey, it’s Kent from General Hospital.” And, many of us had crushes on handsome John Stamos and Shaun Cassidy who played Blackie Parrish and Dusty Walker. GH gave opportunities to many prime-time stars, such as Richard Dean Anderson (McGyver), Emma Caulfield (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer), and James Sikking and Daniel J. Travanti (Hill Street Blues). For a while, the show had a tradition of giving singers an opportunity to act: Shaun Cassidy, Ricky Martin, and Rick Springfield.
GH has given a lot of veteran female film stars one last spotlight to shine in, including Rosalind Cash, Arlene Dahl (who appeared on all three ABC soaps), June Lockhart, and Stella Stevens. Of these, Anna Lee, who was one of John Ford’s favorite actresses, enjoyed a 25-year run as Lila Quartermaine. (When ABC Vice President of daytime, Brian Frons, fired Lee in 2004, she died a short time later of what cast mates called a broken heart. Wonder if Frons has even heard of John Ford?) The latest grand dame of GH is Constance Towers (The Horse Soldiers; Shock Corridor) who lends a lethal combination of class and menace to the role of Helena Cassadine.
Like many soap viewers, I inherited my soap habit from my mother, and, no matter where I lived or how my life changed, we shared a fondness for our “stories.” I latched on to my specific soap, General Hospital , in the third grade, because it was the favorite of my best friend Barb, who was much more worldly than I was. Tradition tells me that the serialized drama will continue to adapt to changing times and new mediums, but I fear the Golden Age of the television soap opera is over.
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