Thinking Fans savor vintage Guiding Light: Mike Goldberg says, “It seems to me that Guiding Light has had so many magical periods and then so many dreadful periods. The era you describe was magnificent” … while from Italy, Giada declares, “I don’t want to be a ‘laudator temporis acti,’ someone who praises the past for its own sake, but I do believe we’re not seeing in the present moment soaps as good as we used to” … and more. See Comments below.
By Marlena De Lacroix
It’s been so difficult to write since last week’s cancellation of Guiding Light. So painful to see it go, so awful to lose a show that is literally the cradle of all soap operas.
I only stopped feeling bad when I realized that the cancellation freed me from ruminating about the disasters of the past year (the “new” production model!). Instead, I could reflect on and savor memories of the remarkable and glorious 72-year history of GL. Not just to reminisce, but to think about why GL was an excellent and superbly crafted classic soap for so long, and how over the years so many of the elements that made it so popular and compelling were carelessly discarded. I decided to pick one era –1980-82, the first years I watched — and examine it through the eyes of someone who’s watched thirty years of subsequent soap opera history. Some might call what happened during those years modernization. Others might call it slow destruction …
You have to remember that GL in1980-82 stood in a shadow. In those days everyone, especially the young and hip, were swooning over the magical Luke and Laura story on General Hospital, which had hit all of daytime with a tidal wave of
GL was truly an ensemble effort. As a viewer, you felt very much an integral part of Springfield, too! It was like a real place, a real home. Which once upon a time is what all soaps were.
popularity in the summer of 1980, the summer on the run. I was the new editor of a magazine called Afternoon TV, and was responsible for watching all the soaps. I didn’t want to watch GL, a boring CBS soap! Squaresville! I was a hip ABC soap chick!
It took many months for me to get into the show, with its comparatively slow moving scenes and even slower moving storylines. There seemed to be 42 characters I had to get to know on screen every day. Unlike today, GL had a range of actors of all ages. True, a rookie actor named Kevin Bacon was finishing up his stint as alcoholic teen Tim Werner (his acting talent was more than evident), but there was only a handful of younger actors. There was still a coterie of very old actors — 60, 70, 80-plus — who had honored places on soaps. One actor, Stefan Schnabel (Dr Stephen Jackson, who had a thick German accent) had to at least 80 years old. And there was the bow-tie wearing Ivy League-esque Henry Chamberlain, who sat off to the side with his debutante daughter Vanessa making sophisticated comments and witticisms on the action. Delicious! None of the actresses had cleavage, and few were even beautiful. None of the actors looked like they were stamped out with a cookie cutter as they do today. Their characters looked like real people, our neighbors and friends. Everyone in the acting company (and it felt like GL had a very cohesive, top theatrical quality ensemble at that time) had two things we rarely see in today soap casts: stage or acting training, and perfect diction!
The Spauldings, led by super-rich industrialist Alan Spaulding (Dallas and Dynasty made super-rich men all the rage then), had come on the scene in 1979 and were taking the town by storm. Alan, who had a receding hairline, was so commanding as to be sexually electrifying. He was played by Chris Bernau who, at the time, was playing Dracula at a theater downtown. He was just about to marry sweet young Hope, who was the progeny of the show’s oldest central family, the Bauers. Hope’s father, Mike Bauer, hated Alan. The show’s posturing 45ish hero lawyer had dyed black hair and looked and acted like Mike Connors. Alan had the hots for Rita, the flaky wife of Hope’s uncle Ed Bauer, a doctor and reformed alcoholic (at that time played by chubby, sweaty Mart Hulswit). In the best remote I ever saw, everyone went to Jamaica, where married Alan seduced married Rita in a waterfall. This sequence was hot, hot, hot not just because the actors were good, but because by then viewers had waited a long, teasing year for this forbidden act of … adultery!….. to happen.
On the home front, the citizens of Springfield, remained so … individual. They were all a bit quirky. Most quirky was young but very intelligent Holly. She was lovely but neurotic. Her late husband Roger Thorpe (now thought dead) had raped her during their marriage. I don’t have time or space for the details now after thirty years, but at some time Roger, Holly, Ed (and Rita) had all been married or involved with one another. Roger and Ed hated each other, and I mean REALLY hated each other, the same way that Mike and Alan did. Another new hothead in town was a (then )nasty lawyer named Ross Marler (Jerry ver Dorn), who was terrific at grilling everyone on the stands at trial.
In this era, GL‘s drama was fueled by these hot, powerful, magnificently acted rivalries. The violence of today’s General Hospital was not needed to ratchet up the dramatic stakes! They had words then! And the show’s overwhelming theme was romance. Adult romance! The core audience of the show — and all of daytime — was women. The whole show reflected that by always remembering that daytime soap opera was aimed at women who were thinking about and making hard psychological choices about their lives and relationships. GL was all about the life of the heart, not mob chiefs or hurricanes!
And there were no spoilers then. Thus the surprises in the plots –the murder mystery revelations for example — were a lot more effective. And because we didn’t know what was going to happen on the show the next day, or we were always in suspense about what was going to happen to your favorite character, we felt absolutely compelled to tune in to our soaps every single day!
The best part of Springfield was something I took for granted then because I was in my 20s and yet to live my life. Everyone in Springfield had a mother, a father, a grandparent, a friend to talk to about their lives. Everyone was loved as a whole person. Even the venal Roger had a father! These talk-to scenes, now mostly eliminated on soaps, gave the characters and the storylines a deeper dimension. Most importantly, it made the viewers THINK about what they were watching.
Queen of the talk-to was Bert Bauer, played by the late, very beloved Charita Bauer. Bert/Charita was a pleasant, humorous woman, but was definitely not a push over When she talked, you listened. Now that most of my older family members are gone, I wish I had a Bert/Charita to guide me.
In 1979, a new headwriter charged with adding youth appeal took over the show. (He had created Luke and Bobbie on his previous soap, GH) His response was to create Nola Rear don, who lived in a boarding house with members of her new family: mother Bea, brother Tony and sister Maureen. Nola’s dream was love and romance, particularly with a town hunk named Kelly. But the way she tried to vamp him had nothing to do with lingerie, cleavage or fake tits. Nola was a young girl whose innocent longing for romance, something most young American girls had back then, well before actual sex started in middle school. This longing manifested itself so very endearingly as she imagined herself as the heroine of such 30s classic movies as The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. Nola didn’t get Kelly, but she did get lavishly produced scenes emulating those movies and others. These movie-esque fantasies came directly from the upstate New York 30s childhood of Douglas Marland, the show’s headwriter.
A decade before his legendary stint on As the World Turns, Marland took all the stories and elements I described above and wove magic at Guiding Light. During this era, he wrote GL as the classic soap that it had always been. But Doug’s theater background (he had been a Broadway actor), his personal passion for great drama, and the joy he got from creating characters for this great company of very talented actors yielded superb, highly intelligent soap opera.
Yet back then few viewers and magazine writers knew who Doug was. It was before the Cult of the Headwriter. Doug was a sweet, gentlemanly, passionate man who actually welled up when the magazine I edited presented him with a “Best Writer 1980” Afternoon TV award for GL. He looked at himself, not as a “superstar” but as being part of the GL company he loved. GL was truly an ensemble effort. As a viewer, you felt very much an integral part of Springfield, too! It was like a real place, a real home. Which once upon a time is what all soaps were.
Looking back on that era from a perspective of 30 years, I’m glad I started watching Guiding Light then. The Gloria Monty era of General Hospital was revolutionary and fun to watch. But by also watching GL as well, I got to see all of the elements that made classic soap opera so terrific and long-lived. There were so many other characters and stories on GL back then that I don’t have the space to include here. Yet I hope this glimpse of Springfield 1980-83 has made you think about what has happened to the show since then, what it lost over the decades and perhaps a bit of why it was cancelled. The end of Guiding Light — what an American tragedy.
Marlena dedicates this essay to the late Ed Devlin, a publicist for Guiding Light in the 80s and early 90s. He adored the theater but he loved GL, too. Classy, and with a great sense of humor, he presented his shows to the press with genuine pride. He was a gentleman and a friend. He died in 1992 at age 38, way too young.