A visit to that ‘other town’ where I live, Port Charles

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One of my earliest childhood memories is of the time Heather Webber tried to frame Anne Logan for Diana Taylor’s murder by writing her name in the blood next to her corpse. I can recall it as vividly as the time Lesley Webber showed on the steps of the Quartermaine  mansion to confront Monica about having a baby with her (Lesley’s) husband Rick and things escalated to the point the scene ended up with a slap that General Hospital fans still talk about to this day.

Leslie Charleson has played the role of Dr. Monica Quartermaine for forty-two years, she still appears regularly on the show. Wikipedia lists her as the sixth-longest serving soap opera performer in American history. Robin Mattson, still occasionally terrorizes the fictional town of Port Charles as a butcher knife-wielding serial murder Heather Webber. And when we’re very lucky we get a visit from the wonderful Denise Alexander as Lesley Webber.

In 1964, one year after “General Hospital” premiered, Irna Phillips, the most important writer you’ve probably never heard of, wrote a credo for a new series she was creating called, “Another World.”

“We do not live in this world alone,” Phillips wrote. “But in a thousand other worlds.”

This week I turned 50 years old. I have lived all 50 of those years in Westmoreland, but at the same time, I have also lived 47 of them in “another world,” a fictional town in Upstate New York, called Port Charles. It’s where “General Hospital” has been set since it premiered in 1963. I also watched the last five years of Phillips’ masterpiece “As the World Turns,” and a good bit of “Santa Barbara” in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I have cherished memories of watching “Another World” with my grandma Frances on Thursdays when she would babysit me so my mother could do the weekly grocery shopping.

“Soap can be like family, they were passed on from one generation to the next. People watched their mother and grandmother’s soap,” said Mimi Torchin, the founding editor of Soap Opera Weekly, which at its peak was considered the most serious and critical publication on the genre.

Chris Van Etten, the current co-head writer of “General Hospital,” started watching the show with his aunt Joan. He recalled a family vacation in Ocean City, Md. where, instead of being out on the beach, he was upstairs in the hotel watching Anna Devane try to escape capture by Grant Putman and the evil international crime syndicate the DVX.

Anna Devane, played by Finola Hughes, is still an integral part of the show. She is a tough heroine fighting for justice and world peace as part of the WSB, a white hat internal spy syndicate that has it’s roots as far back as the 1980s and the world famous Luke and Laura adventures.

“Strong female characters across generations are vital to the health of a soap,” Van Etten said.

One of the strongest female characters currently on the canvas is Dr. Liesl Ohbrecht, played by one of the most electrifying performers ever to appear on daytime or primetime television, an accomplished character actress Kathleen Gati. Dr. Ohbrecht (or Dr. O as she is affectionately known to fans) was intended to be an extremely limited and one-dimensional role. That was six years and more than 300 episodes ago.

Van Etten credits not only the actress but GH’s “genius casting director,” Mark Teschner, with this remarkable success.

“We saw those first episodes that aired and said, ‘Oh!’ This performer took a throw-away part and she brought something totally different to the screen. That inspires the writer to bring something new to the character,” he said.

“I left after my two-day role ended,” Gati recalled. “Two months later I got a call to return for more episodes. I was moved to tears! The writers have made her so multi-dimensional, so multi-faceted, from evil to conniving, to warm and caring, to funny and campy, to singing and dancing.”

Gati, is also recurring on the primetime series “Arrow,” is an internationally award-winning actress. She has appeared on the series “24,” “Desperate Housewives,” and in films, and was nominated for a Daytime Emmy award for her work in the well-regarded websoap “Winterthorne.”

Her first role on ABC Daytime was as “Taffy Winslow” on “All My Children.” Budgets are much tighter these days and the pace of productions is lightning fast. Her current role requires her to memorize between 15-30 pages of dialogue per episode. Sometimes the show tapes multiple episodes on the same day, which means she may have 60-90 pages to memorize and act out.

“One week I had 150 pages,” she reports. “We taped 10 episodes in 4 days! I have the lines to memorize, the accent to add (Dr. O has a uniquely Central European accent the actress developed herself.) I have to find the right timing for the humorous moments, the level of crazy or anger, or creepy, or evil, all the nuances Dr. O has. I want to entertain and I want to give as much as I can to each scene.”

“For the amount of time they take to make them, these shows are remarkable,” Mimi Torchin said. “However, if you’re not involved with the characters, all of the flaws are obvious, compared to a prime time drama that produces an hour a week.”

“The pressure is much more intense for all concerned,” Gati said. “There are only four soaps left.”

Van Etten knows that pressure well. He was on staff at “One Life to Live,” when it was canceled in 2013.

“It was a shock to the heart,” Van Etten recalled. “I loved that show. I love it to this day. Fortunately, we had enough lead time to construct an ending that we were all proud of.”

The past 10 years have been devastating for daytime television. First the oldest show in the history of television, “Guiding Light” was canceled after 72 years on the air. It was so long running that it began as a radio serial, predating the invention of television itself. Then “As the World Turns” was canceled after 54 seasons. On April 14, 2011, the ABC television network made the shocking announcement that it was canceling both “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.” The news was so devastating and unexpected that soap fans refer to it as the “Soapocalypse.”

“They were making money,” Torchin acknowledged, “but less and less money. They just didn’t modernize fast enough. The wouldn’t even let ‘Otalia’ (the ‘squish name’ for GL’s same-sex couple ‘Olivia’ and ‘Natalia’) kiss. They finally had gay couples but it took them a bloody long time to do it and by the time it happened it was over.”

While soaps had traditionally been quick to embrace social change, particularly ABC’s AMC and OLTL which were written and created by Agnes Nixon, a brilliant trailblazing writer who fought to make her shows relevant and enlightening.

“They were a wonderful thing,” Torchin insisted. “At their best they educated, and they enlightened.”

But still the industry was hesitant to embrace gay characters and when the did it was too late. Too many younger viewers have stopped watching shows that seemed behind the times.

I began watching “As the World Turns” in the mid-2000s because of a groundbreaking storyline which finally saw a son from one of the core families come out as gay. The storyline was so popular there were weeks when ATWT actually tied GH for No. 3 in the ratings, but ultimately the downward trajectory that the classic Proctor & Gamble produced soaps had been on for decades proved to have an inescapable gravity. They have been replaced by cheaply produced talk shows and game shows.

“Soaps are a little old-fashioned,” Torchin observed. “There is so much competition. So much of primetime is serialized. People get their fix without devoting five hours a week to something.”

Despite the competition, I and millions of other fans do put in the time to watch our favorite daytime soaps, and we plan to continue. “General Hospital” is enjoying a creative renaissance with serious, seriously-told stories about real-life issues like Alzheimer’s disease, bullying in school, it has a transgendered character and actress, has intriguing mysteries, deep psychological explorations of day-to-day life experiences, and a healthy dose of the international spy-vs-spy adventure that made the show iconic. Recently the show featured a brilliantly creative “escape room” themed episode written by Dan O’Conner.

But most importantly, “General Hospital” has compelling characters like Gati’s “Dr. Ohbrect,” and some of those characters I have been watching on television for literally as long as I can remember. I have grown up with them and lived my life while they have lived theirs. There is something unique and powerful about experiencing an art form in that way. I cherish “General Hospital” and the time I have spent in Port Charles.

“People are passionate about it,” Van Etten said. “The characters feel real in a way that the people on ‘Game of Thrones’ just don’t. These are people who come into your life every day. No other genre can offer that.”

“Once you’re devoted, you’re devoted,” Torchin said. “They’ve been around for generations. If you’ve devoted yourself to these shows, you’ve made an investment.”

“One of the main highlights of working on a soap is that we are the audience’s home five days a week, all year round,” Gati said. “We are part of their family, which makes the relationship with our fans much more personal and profound than any other type of show.”

“They wrap a warm blanket around their fans,” Torchin observed. “They become part of our dream life.”

“General Hospital” airs weekdays at 2 p.m. on the ABC network, at ABC.com, and ON Demand. Same-day episodes are available for viewing after 8 p.m. on Hulu. “Travel Guide to Port Charles,” a tie-in book written by Chris Van Etten, has just been published and is available at bookstores and on Amazon.

Ron Klopfanstein invites you to tweet with him and his #SoapTwitter pals about all of it at Twitter.com/BeMoreWestmo

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