“I have some interesting information,” Nancy Hughes said as she sat down on the couch.
Her father-in-law, who everybody called Grandpa, handed her a cup of coffee. The news was that her son, Bob, had invited his ex-wife, Lisa, to come to Thanksgiving along with their baby, Tom. Grandpa wondered how Nancy felt about that.
“I thought about it,” Nancy sighed. “I gave it a great deal of thought and…”
Suddenly “Nancy” and “Grandpa,” characters on the daytime drama As the World Turns were replaced onscreen by CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, who made the announcement: “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade…”
That was Nov. 22, 1963. It was the middle of the afternoon.
For four days, news coverage preempted As the World Turns. That was the longest stretch in American history since Oct. 30, 1930, and the premiere of WGN Radio’s Painted Dreams, that there were no original episodes of a serialized drama being broadcast.
When the legendary Irna Phillips created the show she wrote a credo, “As the world turns, we know the bleakness of winter, the promise of spring, the fullness of summer and the harvest of autumn-the cycle of life is complete.”
For the past ninety years, soap operas-first on the radio, then on daytime television-have been a reliable and reassuring entertainment for Americans during tumultuous and uncertain times.
“Daytime fans have this unique connection to the actors and the characters because they are in their living rooms five days a week,” entertainment PR and marketing professional, Alan Locher explains.
Until its finale on Sept. 17, 2010, Locher was the publicist for As the World Turns.
“These shows provided family to a lot of fans,” he says. “People watched with their mothers and grandmothers, and sisters and brothers.”
Locher says that soap operas are more important than ever now that people aren’t able to be with those people but still need connections and immediacy.
“It feels like they taped today’s show today,” Michele McCarroll says of General Hospital.
Michele has been watching GH since it premiered in 1963. She remembers the black and white episodes featuring Dr. Steve Hardy and Audrey, who married Steve, and her sister Lucille, who was the show’s first head nurse.
I have been watching the show since the early 1970s. According to my mom, I was three when I started getting up from my nap and-unbeknownst to her-turning the TV on channel 20 every day at 3 p.m.
General Hospital has been a part of millions of people’s lives for as long as they can remember. But soon, just as we need our hour a day to immerse ourselves in fictional Port Charles more than ever-we will lose it.
California was one of the first states to shut down in response to COVID-19, and when that happened, the four remaining soaps GH, Days of Our Lives, The Young and The Restless, and The Bold and the Beautiful all ceased production. Days which tapes an unusually long time ahead will have new episodes until fall; Y&R and B&B have already run out; GH will too in a few painfully short weeks.
“It’s an escape,” Michele McCarroll told me in a phone interview. “We wonder what’s going to happen next.”
“We’re looking for a connection,” Alan Locher added. He has been hosting online video reunions with his former colleagues at ATWT and Guiding Light, which ended its unprecedented seventy-two-year run in 2009. These videos, which can be seen on his YouTube channel “The Locher Room,” have garnered tens of thousands of views.
A recent reunion featured Elizabeth Hubbard, who played Lucinda Walsh on ATWT, and before that, Althea Davis on The Doctors. She spoke about the special connection the actors had with the viewers.
“The audience has a job,” she said. “The audience has to work, or nothing will happen. If it was ever good, it was because we were collaborating.”
Fan mail is no longer the medium for that interaction. It has long since been replaced by Facebook and Instagram comments, and with even more immediacy, Tweets with hashtags referencing the shows, the characters, and the favorite couples.
“It used to be I would talk about GH with my sister and my mom, now it’s with so many more people,” Michele McCarroll says. “With Twitter, it’s a connection to a lot more people than ever before.”
I am one of those people McCarroll connected with on Twitter. For as long as I have been on the social media platform, she and I have been talking about the last ABC soap opera, General Hospital. In the last nine years, I have gained over a thousand followers; she has almost two thousand at twitter.com/michelemccarrol.
Author and Researcher Sam Ford, who is the director of Cultural Intelligence at Simon & Schuster and a research affiliate with MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, edited the book “The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era” in 2010. Ford’s 2007 master’s thesis at MIT was entitled “As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture.”
He has described soap operas as a form of “immersive entertainment” writing, “the existing fan base plays an active role in gaining and maintaining new fans [with] social relationships that form with other fans and the show itself.”
A recent article in Forbes Magazine asked the question, “Will The Coronavirus Kill The Daytime Soap Opera?” In my conversation with both Michele McCarroll and Alan Locher, I voiced my concern about losing those relationships when General Hospital runs out of new episodes later this month. The fear GH fans share is that once production stops, it may not resume, that it will go the way of ATWT, GL, All My Children, One Life To Live, and so many other daytime dramas that have ended in the past twenty years.
“As a fan, I am worried about when episodes run out,” Maysoon Zayid told me by phone when I interviewed her last week about GH.
Zayid is in a unique position in that she has a recurring role on the show as attorney, Zahra Amir. She is also a comedian and public speaker who speaks to stadium-sized audiences around the world. Zayid averages 200 shows a year.
“My entire life changed on March 4,” she said. “I was informed by my agent that all my shows were canceled until June. Now we are hearing no live events until January 2021.”
Zayid is working on her writing, her acclaimed autobiography Find Another Dream published by Audible Original is available on Amazon, and she is working on a comic book for children. She is also navigating the difficult switch to performing virtually and will be announcing streaming events on her website Maysoon.com
While her future appearances on GH are on hold, she is optimistic that the show will weather the storm, pointing out how the lockdown has lead to a rise in the ratings.
“I think they are going to come back stronger than ever,” she predicts. “People are stuck at home, and these shows remind them of their youth, so they check in daily.”
Alan Locher is equally determined to make something positive out of this current situation. He is using his YouTube channel (The Locher Room) to stream “Daytime Cares: A Live Event” on Saturday, May 9, at 8 p.m. (EST). It’s described as “a live variety show honoring and uplifting fans during the COVID-19 crisis.” He will co-host with Laura Wright, who plays Carly on GH, along with several stars from other daytime dramas past and present.
“I grew up watching these shows,” he says in the press release. “I truly understand the connection fans have to their favorite daytime actors and characters.”
Shortly after ATWT went off the air, I bought a copy of the final script on eBay. There is a “lost scene” that appears in the script but wasn’t part of the final broadcast. It seems to be haunting me lately.
The scene comes at the end of the fourth act, and it features Eileen Fulton, who played “Lisa” and Don Hastings, who played “Bob.” Each of them had been on the show for fifty years. It was their tempestuous relationship “Nancy” was giving a great deal of through to when Walter Cronkite cut in with news of the JFK Assassination.
In the scene, “Bob” and his wife “Kim” are having drinks in the lounge of “Lisa’s” hotel. She approaches their table and “produces a well-worn envelope.”
“What is it?” Bob asks.
“A letter,” Lisa says. “I found it when I was going through some of the boxes of your mother’s. It seems fitting to give it to you now…”
The letter is from “Nancy,” who is “Bob’s” mother. When the scene was shot, Helen Wagner has died only months before. She had uttered the very first line on the show when it premiered on April 2, 1956, and played her role for the rest of her life. There was to be a flashback of her having one of her conversations with “Grandpa,” in which she worried over her children’s complicated lives.
The ends with a voice-over of Don Hastings (Bob) saying, “Death is a part of life.”
I have thought about that scene a lot since the epidemic. I have thought about As the World Turns a lot since the epidemic. It was a loss I thought I was over, but maybe I’m not, or maybe it’s just a loss that’s easier to “wrap my head around.”
I told Alan Locher that his streaming reunions with the ATWT case were giving me “closure,” especially the first one, the one that Don Hastings was part of.
“What else do we need right now, but seeing Dr. Bob?” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
When GH does run out of episodes, I don’t anticipate any tying up of loose ends. The production didn’t see the shutdown coming or know how long it would last. The last thing I asked Maysoon Zayid what she thought the future held for the show.
“Stay tuned,” she said. “I don’t think this is the end.”
Ron Klopfanstein is a lifelong fan of General Hospital. He was also a devoted fan of As the World Turns and Santa Barbara. Tweet with him about your favorite soaps at Twitter.com/RonKlopfanstein.