Tom Lisanti’s Amazing New Book on Ryan’s Hope Is a Gift to Soap Fans Everywhere

Ryan's Hope BookTom Lisanti’s many followers know him as Mr. Sixties Cinema, based on his wonderfully collectible series of 10 books on that era’s pop culture. In such richly evocative studies of the period as Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies, Drive-In Dream Girls, and Film Fatales, as well as biographies of Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin, he tackles his subjects with an authoritative blend of a fan’s appetite for detail and a scholar’s appetite for research.

Now, Tom is venturing into the world of soap opera for the first time with his new book, Ryan’s Hope: An Oral History of Daytime’s Groundbreaking Soap. And he has done so with the exhaustive research and soft-spoken joy that distinguish all of his books.

During its run from 1975 to 1989 on ABC, Ryan’s Hope did indeed break new ground. It was the first soap to be set in a real place (New York City instead of a made-up vaguely suburban hamlet), and to dramatize the lives, loves, and trials of a recognizable ethnic culture, in this case immigrant working-class Irish Catholics. And it never hesitated to face such tough topics as marital infidelity, alcoholism, and religion. The emerging women’s rights movement was front and center.

The setting was a bar on the West Side of Manhattan owned and operated by Maeve and Johnny Ryan (played by Helen Gallagher and Bernie Barrow) and frequented by their vast Irish clan. There were five Ryan siblings, always fighting and each, at various times, heavily involved in a romance.

The characters were volatile, making for some intriguing plot lines, like the romance of Mary Ryan (originally played by a pre-Star Trek Kate Mulgrew) and her newspaperman beau, the frequently enraged Jack Fenelli (played by Michael Levin). Mary was daytime’s first female journalist and an inspiration to aspiring writers like Marlena. Other compelling characters included Delia Reid Ryan (originally played by Ilene Kristen), a neurotic blond prone to complex machinations.

A research librarian by trade, Tom calls his book an oral history, and it is – literally. He interviewed anyone and everyone who had a connection with the show, including, of course, Broadway’s Helen Gallagher and other principals. Woven smoothly into his narrative are recollections in the participants’ own words.

Sadly, the show’s creators, Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer, have passed. Claire – wise and loving, a great writer, and a proud Irish woman – was the heart of the show. She and Mayer had earlier written for Where the Heart Is and Love of Life.

Tom’s love for Ryan’s Hope is evident in his detailed and thorough research. There hasn’t been a soap book put together this well done since Christopher Schemering’s groundbreaking The Soap Opera Encyclopedia in 1985.

So, are soaps really dying, as the widely held notion insists? A bravado book like Lasanti’s suggests that this fate is not inevitable.

Speak Your Mind