(A note from Marlena: It’s General Hospital’s 45th anniversary! Here’s a celebration of the event by my good friend and journalistic colleague Ed Martin. Ed and I have been happily debating General Hospital over coffee now for almost ten years — and believe moi, we’re not always happy about the current state of the show. Still, Ed is clearly very sentimental about the show he once dearly loved. Read Ed’s authoritative column TV Buzz at www.jackmyers.com.)
By Ed Martin
General Hospital today is marking its 45th anniversary. The daily drama about the residents of fictional Port Charles, New York isn’t the oldest soap opera on television – CBS’ Guiding Light and As the World Turns have it beat – but it is still a vital and important show. It is the centerpiece of ABC’s afternoon lineup and remains the most talked about serial on daytime television – a distinction it first achieved 30 years ago this year when a young character named Laura Vining, who began on the show in 1976, moved to the center of the show’s narrative. Laura, one of the most messed-up kids in the history of soap opera, was played by Genie Francis, who was then only in her mid-teens. She had a good-guy boyfriend named Scotty Baldwin, played by Kin Shriner, and a nemesis, naughty nurse and former hooker Bobbie Spencer, played by Jaclyn Zeman.
It occurs to me as I write this that I am marking a GH anniversary of sorts myself. It was 30 years ago this year that I first started watching the show. I was a teenager at the time, and it was the three characters mentioned above who caught my eye and held my interest as I manually turned the channel to ABC one fateful afternoon. (The year was 1978, the pre-cable, pre-VCR and pre-remote control era.) I’ll never forget my first glimpse of life in Port Charles – it was a scene in which Laura and Scotty were sitting on a bench in a sun-splashed park. I don’t remember what they were talking about, but they were young, happy, attractive kids who were in love and would be married within a year. (The legendary Luke would not come along until the following year, and would make history with Laura shortly thereafter, first with a controversial rape sequence, then with a science fiction story about the couple’s efforts to stop a madman with a weather machine, and finally with their wedding.)
I had never seen shiny happy young people on a soap opera. Indeed, I had never seen a sun-splashed park. Like most kids of my generation, my experience with soap operas before the golden years of General Hospital was pretty much confined to a brief obsession with the vampires and werewolves of Dark Shadows and glimpses of soaps my mother had watched early in my childhood. But GH in the late Seventies changed all that. Under the supervision of the late producer Gloria Monty and writer Doug Marland GH looked and played like no soap opera had before it. It was exciting, sexy and contemporary in a dizzying number of ways. Like many teenagers at the time, I knew at first glance that GH was something special. It wasn’t just another soap. It was mine!
I had no idea at the time that I would continue watching GH well into my adult life. Of course, in the late Seventies I had no idea that VCRs would come along in a few years and make it possible to continue watching the show even after I had entered the workforce. And I couldn’t have guessed that I would end up in a career that required me to watch television, including daytime dramas, giving me an excuse to follow the show as part of every job I have had over the last 20 years.What a varied viewing experience it has been! Dozens of unforgettable characters. (Jessie Brewer. Heather Webber. Annie Logan. Tracy Quartermaine. Mitch Williams. Amy Vining. Tiffany Hill. Noah Drake. Blackie Parrish. Lucy Coe. Jimmy Lee Holt. Richard Simmons – as himself!) Countless classic and classy couples. (Steve and Audrey. Lee and Gail. Scotty and Laura. Laura and Luke. Luke and Holly. Holly and Robert. Robert and Anna. Anna and Duke. Frisco and Felicia. Scotty and Dominique. Rick and Leslie. Monica and Alan. Rick and Monica. Alan and Susan. Alan and Lucy. Edward and Lila. Bobbie and Tony. Sean and Tiffany. Sonny and Brenda. Ned and Lois. Robin and Stone.) Villains! (Frank Smith. Hutch the Hit Man. The Cassadines. The Jeromes.) Vampires and ghosts! (Oh, wait. That was the GH spin-off, Port Charles.) There was even an alien! (His name was Casey.)
I can’t imagine the last 30 years without General Hospital, even if I haven’t always liked the direction its storytelling has taken, especially in recent years. I haven’t always been a daily viewer (or even a weekly viewer) but I have always known that it was there and I have always been able to drop back into it, figure out what was going on and resume the ride. I’m glad I found it when I did, and that it was there for me when it was. Other than soaps, to which they no longer have any special loyalty, I have to wonder what specific entertainments kids are enjoying today that they will continue to enjoy over the next several decades of their lives. Video games? Internet programs? The sweeping drama of their own online social networking? Surely, that will get old.
I am second to none in my respect for the sheer amount of work required to produce five episodes of daytime drama almost every week of the year without benefit of a refreshing rerun cycle. That said, I wish I could express more enthusiasm for General Hospital on this significant occasion. I am among the legion of long-time viewers who have been put off in recent years by the show’s depressing darkness and violence, its focus on murderous mobsters and the pushy women who love them and its ill-advised disposal of so-many beloved legacy characters. (By disposal I mean the killing of. The GH canvas, once bursting with life, is now brimming with mothers of dead children! The quarreling Quartermaine family, once the most popular in daytime drama, has been utterly, unforgivably decimated.)
In the spirit of celebration for a remarkable achievement spanning five decades, not to mention personal gratitude for 30 years of entertainment, I’ll close this column with a suggestion as to how General Hospital might right the many wrongs it has inflicted on fans during the last couple of years. Laura – the character who started it all for myself and millions of other fans back in 1978 – suffered a mental breakdown in 2002 and has been unresponsive ever since (except for a brief awakening in 2006 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of her wedding to Luke). With apologies to Pamela Ewing, I think Laura should wake up, look at Luke and utter the words, “I just had the strangest dream.” And then we could learn that most of what has transpired during the last six years has been as much of a nightmare for her as it has been for us.
If you can think of a better way to bring A.J. Quartermaine, Justus Ward, Alan Quartermaine, Emily Quartermaine and Georgie Jones back to life and get GH back on track, please let me know.