SOAP SPRINGS ETERNAL
A dash of nobility, a sprinkle of tears, season with organ music, and serve five times a week. Seventy million people will cry a little, laugh a little. Should we laugh at them? This writer says, firmly, no.
By Bruce Cook
Jump to Kate Mulgrew segment
There is a special television audience in America, numbering seventy million per week or more, that is virtually ignored. Critics snub its shows. The prime-time audience is oblivious of them. It is, by and large, a young and female audience (most of them in the eighteen to fifty age bracket), better than half of which have gone to college. This is the audience for television’s daytime serial dramas— the soap operas.
There are no fans more loyal. Put aside the thousands of letters sent in each week to the fourteen serials now broadcast on the three major networks. Forget the anecdotes you may have read or heard about actors on the soaps being accosted on the street by viewers who have completely confused them with their TV roles, accepting the daily fantasy as absolute reality.
Instead, go to the biggest newsstand you can find and take a while to look over the magazines devoted in whole or in large part to soap operas and their stars. I did it, and I was amazed. I noted: Daytime TV Stars, Day TV, TV By Day, TV Daystars, Daily TV Serials, Afternoon TV Stars, Soap Opera Digest, Weekday TV, Day TV Gossip, TV Dawn to Dusk, Daytime Serial Newsletter, Who’s Who in Daytime TV, Afternoon TV. Think of the hundreds of thousands of passionately committed fans it takes to keep these periodicals in operation. Add to that the number of viewers who arrange their days so as not to miss a single episode of their favorite serials. Now add those whose lives are so deeply affected by the soap operas they watch—as indicated by the studies of a New York psychiatrist, Dr. Louis I. Berg—that they actually show symptoms of disorders such as tachycardia, vertigo, and emotional instability, which come and go with the crises in their favorite characters’ lives. After such rough reckoning you will begin to have some idea not just of the size of the soap opera audience, but of the degree of its devotion, as well.
From about 7:30 in the morning on, the actors and crew begin straggling in. They drag themselves out of taxi cabs; they lock their cars carefully and leave them in a fenced lot nearby; they come clipping down 53rd Street from the Seventh Avenue subway three blocks to the east. It isn’t the nicest part of Manhattan. The street is littered with debris—human and other—from last night’s drinking. A badly crumpled man dozes against a parked car, his legs stretched out across the sidewalk.
“You never know what you’ll come across here this time of the morning,” one of the crew says as we make our way into the narrow, two-storied, yellow brick building in the middle of the block. There is a security guard just inside the door. I tell the guard I was told to ask for Bob Costello. He tells me to sign in.
Bob Costello is virtually the original old pro of New York television. He was producer on the “Armstrong Circle Theater” in the fifties. During the sixties he did drama specials and finished out the decade with that bizarre soap opera for Transylvanians, “Dark Shadows.” He was producer for PBS’s “The Adams Chronicles” just before he signed on as producer for “Ryan’s Hope.”
He comes down to get me, a large fellow who resembles Steve Allen, and guides me upstairs by way of a coffee urn where actors and crew alike have gathered for a quick fix before scattering in their separate directions. I grab myself a cup and follow Costello up to his office where we will talk while the actors read through the script. (Listening to actors at 8 A.M., I have been warned, is not an edifying experience.)
On the way up Costello mentions that not only was he producer of “Dark Shadows,” but also this was the very building in which the show was produced. “When I came back here it was like déjà vu,” he says. “I found myself listening for the sound of batwings.”
“Was ‘Dark Shadows’ your first experience with soaps?”
We are settled in his office. He considers that a moment. “To tell the truth, I didn’t consider ‘Dark Shadows’ a soap. It was sort of one of a kind, I think you’ll agree.
“But then,” he continues, “in a lot of ways I don’t consider ‘Ryan’s Hope’ a soap, either. Certainly not a typical one.”
“Well, our characters are so much more distinct. I had a little experience on ‘The Secret Storm,’ sort of fill-in, and, well, I try to keep up with the field, so I have an idea of what’s being done. And what I’ve found is that the Ryans and all the rest are so very distinctive within the structure. Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer have created characters and not just—as usually is the case—figures in a story line. I can believe in the people in ‘Ryan’s Hope.’
“And, another thing is that ours is the only urban show. The rest are all set in some Plainville, U.S.A., never-never land. There aren’t a lot of rich people just acting out the viewers’ fantasies on our show. I think we’re more realistic. I think this comes across in all kinds of ways and is consistent with the quality of our scripts—which is very high.”
Was “Dark Shadows” a soap opera? No more or less, certainly, than was “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” which has been cited by historians of the form— Madeleine Edmondson and David Rounds in The Soaps—as the first of the many long-running radio soaps of the golden era. Well, maybe. But if “Amos ‘n’ Andy” qualifies, then why not “Lum and Abner,” “Vic and Sade,” and “The Goldbergs”? Edmondson and Rounds list these three, as well, among the progenitors of modern television serial drama. Now, I remember all those shows and can wax as nostalgic about them as the next man. Nevertheless, as soap operas they seemed to me then and seem to me now in retrospect a little eccentric, a little off-center, a little wide of the mark.
It took Irna Phillips to score a bull’s-eye. She was, for all intents and purposes, the mother of the modern soap opera, the lady who gave life to a whole new form of drama. Legend has it that, vacationing from her job as a schoolteacher in Dayton, Ohio, she happened to take the visitors’ tour of Chicago radio station WGN, was mistaken for an actress who had come for an audition, and got a job by mistake. Hired as a reader on a local program called “Thoughts for the Day,” Phillips soon dreamed up an entirely new format, a daytime serial in fifteen-minute episodes, “Painted Dreams,” which was first aired in 1932. Realistic in form and melodramatic in content, the show (renamed “Today’s Children”) was eventually carried by a network and sponsored by a soap manufacturer—thus the soap opera was born. Thus, too, were the successive—and highly successful—daytime serial shows she created for radio: “Ma Perkins,” “The Guiding Light,” “Woman in White,” and “The Right to Happiness.” She wrote them herself, dashing off a good 60,000 words a week in her prime.
Nearly as prolific was Elaine Carrington, who was established as a writer of slick fiction before she ventured into the soap opera field. She scored first with the phenomenally successful “Pepper Young’s Family” and followed that with “When a Girl Marries,” “Rosemary,” and “Marriage for Two.” Carrington did her own writing, too—as many as 38,000 words a week—and closely supervised the production of her shows.
Frank and Anne Hummert, however, were different. Theirs was a factory operation. They dreamed up titles, formats, and would often work out continuing stories in rough outline. The actual scripts were then ground out by a platoon of writers, checked and revised by a squad of editors, and then brought to the air by casts that included some of New York’s top acting talent. Perhaps this was the only way it could have been done, though, for the Hummert operation was so extensive that it would surely have exhausted more gifted and prolific writers in no time at all. So successful were they that (according to Edmondson and Rounds) in 1938 Hummert shows accounted for one-eighth of all radio time at a billing cost of $12 million a year. Among these were some of the most popular, and some of the most clichéd, of all the soaps: “Amanda of Honeymoon Hill,” “Backstage Wife,” “David Harum,” “Front Page Farrell,” “John’s Other Wife,” “Just Plain Bill,” “Lorenzo Jones,” “Our Gal Sunday,” “The Romance of Helen Trent,” “Stella Dallas,” and “Young Widder Brown.”
But that was radio. Television was yet to come.
It’s about a quarter to ten in the morning. Cast and crew are camera blocking now. It is rough, bumpy work so utterly lacking in polish that it is hard to believe they will actually be taping the scenes they are rehearsing in just a few hours. It’s clear, too, that they are working now not for the benefit of the actors but for the cameramen, the sound men, and the lighting crew. The difficulties are, for the most part, mechanical ones. Can you get the number three camera (actually a videotape machine) from the first scene of act two and into position in time for the second shot of the second scene? Will the boom mike cast a shadow if it follows Kate Mulgrew across the set for her big speech? Where the hell do you put it so it won’t cast a shadow?
The protagonists here are Jerry Evans, the director, and Dick Briggs, the stage manager. They are well aware of the physical limitations imposed by the tight, narrow layout of the building. Their job, continual and often quite taxing, is to overcome these limitations and to make it possible for the actors to do their own jobs. Considering all this, it is remarkable that things go so smoothly and stay so loose and relaxed during what is essentially a hectic hour and forty-five minutes. Cameraman Peter Blank remarks to me as he pushes his bulky machine into position for the next shot, “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but you go on some sets and nobody will even crack a smile. ‘Ryan’s Hope’ is what you call a loose group.”
The big worry that day was the baby. The script called for the appearance of two-year-old Jadrien Steele, who plays Little John, the son of Frank and Delia Ryan. He is to cause a little commotion and cry on cue. Well, there have been, shall we say, difficu1ties with him in the past. There always are with children that young on the set. “The baby’s a real terror,” says Karla Mitidieri, one of a number of female crew members, “but a real comedian. He just doesn’t like show business much. The cameras seem to bother him.”
Director Jerry Evans is preparing contingency plans. “If the baby is there, and it’s OK, then give us a wide shot on the baby. If he’s giving us a hard time, then give us a tight shot on Mary and Jack.”
By the end of the run-through for camera blocking, Evans has decided to keep Little John out of rehearsals altogether. Instead they will continue to use the big doll that has been his stand-in. If the cameras bother the child, then they’ll only let him see them once.
It was Irna Phillips, again the innovator, who successfully brought soap opera to television. She not only translated her serial “The Guiding Light” to the new medium, but she also introduced a couple of new ones, “Another World” and “As the World Turns” that found immediate success there.
There were earlier efforts. In 1946 a single episode of “Big Sister” was telecast in a “simulcast” experiment. Nothing came of it. In 1947 a daytime serial drama “A Woman to Remember,” was launched with appropriate hoopla, but that, too, failed. And then “The First Hundred Years” came and went in 1950. Soap operas on television seemed right both to producers and network executives, and yet the correct formula just had not been found.
A large part of the difficulty lay in the fact that the fifteen-minute-per-day episode that was so right for radio just didn’t work on television. First of all, the economics of it were all wrong. The weekly cost of producing a daily fifteen-minute TV show, complete with sets, lighting, etc., was more than twice the production cost of a weekly fifteen-minute radio show. And secondly, the slot didn’t work dramatically on television; with the necessary sign-on, sign-off, and commercial breaks, it seemed that the show had barely begun before it ended. These problems, economic and dramatic, were solved simply when the shows went to the half-hour format, which then became standard for all television soap operas. (That is, it was standard until recently when “As the World Turns,” “Days of Our Lives,” and “Another World” went to an hour, and “One Life to Live” and “General Hospital” went to forty-five minutes.)
Lunch. I had been told that if I wanted to talk to the actors this was the best time to do it. They send out for sandwiches and wolf them down as they study their scripts. But about that time of day they welcome interruptions, thinking—you remember the rationale from college, perhaps?—that a break might help them to return with renewed concentration to the job at hand.
I arrive to talk with Kate Mulgrew. She plays Mary Ryan on the show, or more recently Mary Ryan Fenelli, following her midsummer marriage to Jack Fenelli (you may have seen the network promos for the wedding show that intruded even into prime time). If the show has a star, then it is Kate Mulgrew. To “Ryan’s Hope’s” younger audience Mary Ryan personifies the heroine-as-career-girl: An on-the-street TV reporter just married to an involved young newspaperman, she is every girl’s dream of making it big in New York.
Does Mulgrew have anything in common with the girl she plays? Not much. Just turned twenty-one, she doesn’t even own a television set. With only a year’s professional experience behind her, she came to the show with one credit to her name— Emily in the American Shakespeare Festival’s 1975 production of Our Town—but she looked right, she sounded right, and without even half-trying convinced the show’s creators that she was the one and only girl in the world who could play Mary Ryan. And she was probably right.
“When I grew up I hated soaps,” she says. “Everyone in our house in Dubuque knew what a soap opera was and knew they were not to watch them.”
“In that case, what does doing ‘Ryan’s Hope’ mean to you now?”
“Well, what it means is a lot of very hard work. It’s easily a twelve-hour day. It dictates one’s whole life. To get here on time you have to get up at 6:30 in the morning, and you don’t leave until 5, and then you have to work on your lines at night. One thing working on ‘Ryan’s Hope’ has taught me and that’s discipline. You have to have that working on soaps. I’ll never be lazy again.”
Kate Mulgrew is a girl with a future. I wondered just how much of it she had committed to “Ryan’s Hope.”
“About two and a half years. That’s the length of the contract. And there are all kinds of fringe benefits. I can go for plays and get off for rehearsal time just so I notify them here as early as possible. In emergencies they can write around me. I’ve even done a couple of television movies out on the Coast since I’ve been on the show. I have no complaints.”
Nor, for that matter, does Ron Hale. A young actor with plenty of stage, screen, and television experience, he plays the villain of the show, Roger Coleridge. He finds himself fundamentally sympathetic to the character of Coleridge. “In order to play a villain convincingly,” he says, “you have to sympathize with him.
“I would say that what makes it possible to do this is about ninety percent the quality of the writing in the scripts and perhaps ten percent me. The writing does make a difference. You need some dimension, and here you’ve got it. I’ve been on two other soaps and none compare with this one— certainly not in that way. It’s more down-to-earth and realistic than the rest.”
Nancy Addison is sitting alone in the rehearsal hall, polishing off a pint of milk. This strikingly pretty actress plays Jill Coleridge, an attorney who is the sister of Roger and the lover of poitician Frank Ryan, the eldest son in the Ryan clan. (It’s complicated, I know, but that is the way of soap opera relationships.) Just now she seems especially relaxed. The script is nowhere in evidence. She seems to have put it all out of her mind.
“Well,” she explains, “I’ve got my lines, and I have a tendency to use it all up in the beginning and then have not so much left for the taping. You have to watch that with all these rehearsals and run throughs, one after the other, and save your performance for when it counts.”
“For the actor,” I suggest, “it seems much closer to the technique of stage acting than to film. Or is it in between the two, perhaps?”
“Well, it’s not like doing a film where you get to work one three-minute bit twenty times over. Here, if it doesn’t work during taping, then that’s the end of it. That’s just too bad. I don’t know that it’s right, though, to emphasize the differences in technique. The emotional thing is the same in all three. It comes from the same place. Of course, there are differences. You play more broadly on stage—gestures, expressions, and so on, and you adjust that down for television. Another thing, I think, is that in television they tend to cast you for what they think you are—the way you look—rather than what you can do. But, as I say, it all comes from the same place. Out of you and out of the relationships you establish with the actors you work with.”
Just then there was a rumble from the squawk box in the rehearsal room—indecipherable to me but instantly understood by Nancy Addison. “That’s me!” She jumps up. “I’ve got to run!”
"Potter was at first surprised to find he liked the soaps, that he found them far more credible than any of the dramatic series on nighttime television; their slow, nagging pace of problems and misunderstandings and high-strung, headachy conflicts were far more typical of daily life as he knew it and saw it around him than the adult evening TV dramas or the quick-image flashings and clean resolutions of the hip new movies.”
That’s Dan Wakefield in his last novel, Starting Over. I was intrigued by that when I read it a couple of years ago and therefore was not really astonished, as so many were, when earlier this year Wakefield came out with All Her Children, a book about his favorite soap, “All My Children.” In it, he drops all pretense of objectivity, and in his nakedness, steps forward as just what he is: a fan.
He is just one of many millions, for “All My Children,” the top-rated television soap opera, is something of a phenomenon, even in the phenomenal world of soaps. It’s not just the show’s high ratings, but the kind of viewers it has attracted that has ABC in a continual state of euphoria. Since it began January 5, 1970, “All My Children” has become increasingly the favorite of young people. Just walk through the student union on any state university campus between 12:30 and 1 P.M. on a weekday, and you’ll see what the big crowd in front of the TV set is watching. A number of sociology and anthropology teachers have legitimatized the activity by assigning the show for daily viewing. Magazine essays have been written. Analyses have been made. And now an entire book has been devoted to the show.
Its creator is a lady in her fifties named Agnes Eckhardt Nixon who has been working in soaps all her professional life and who learned the trade from, naturally, Irna Phillips. Agnes Nixon began as a dialogue writer on “Woman in White” after graduating from Northwestern University. Soon she moved on to work on “The Guiding Light” when it went on television. She became such a mainstay that she was asked by ABC to create her own show. Her first, “One Life to Live,” came on the air in July, 1968. “All My Children” followed.
To what does Nixon attribute the spectacular success of “All My Children”? “Well,” she says, “I don’t think of it as great art, but God knows we work hard to make it as good as we can. There are some in the soap field who feel quite condescending toward the form. But that isn’t right. No, you’ve got to work at it and believe in it to make it right. Otherwise people who look at it week in and week out can tell. Then they stop watching.
“As for what made ‘All My Children’ go over so well with young people at this particular time, well, I’m not sure. When we created the show we certainly didn’t set out to bring in this particular audience. But there were factors, you know. By the time it came on the sixties rebellion was over. And our show, which is more or less about coming to terms with life, seemed to suit the climate. They may have realized that what they tried didn’t work and may then have been ready for Grandma Kate, apple pie, and a little TLC.”
Although it may already be quite clear to you by now, I should probably declare my own bias: Just as “All My Children” belongs to Dan Wakefield, so “Ryan’s Hope” (which is television’s newest soap) is all mine. I’m a fan for all kinds of subjective reasons that have little to do with the show’s real quality. I like its urban background, its Irish-Catholic milieu, and I find the people on it especially attractive.
But I also think that, regarded purely from the standpoint of absolute quality, this soap stands out well above the rest. There is a great deal of attention paid to its production values, with fine tuning right down to the last minute. During the last run-through, for instance, the busiest man on the floor seems to be John Connolly, the lighting director. He is everywhere, studying angles, ducking here and there, and asking that something be moved. Connolly is a man willing to take infinite pains to achieve the effects he desires.
And in this case his extra efforts are worthwhile. “Ryan’s Hope” has a distinctive “look”—softer lit and more natural in effect. The other soaps shot on tape in New York have that bright, flat lighting that makes them appear so artificial. When at last Connolly seems satisfied with the balance on the last scene, I corner him and ask him about the ‘Ryan’s Hope’ look.” He’s pleased I noticed.
“Yes,” he says, “what we’re trying to do is give it a prime-time look, a movie look. In most shots we try to get an effect of modeling of the face—we use a lot of close-ups, of course—almost a three-dimensional effect is what we’re trying for. None of this is very easy with a tape setup, with three cameras shuttling from set to set and lighting from above and so on. But it can be done, and I think it should be.”
Another important component of the “Ryan’s Hope” look is the sets designed by Sy Tomashoff. A professional architect who became interested in television and plunged in, Tomashoff has worked on many New York TV ventures, including (again) “Dark Shadows.” “Yes,” Tomashoff tells me, “I guess ABC figured if I could fit sets into this bowling alley of a building once, then I could do it again.”
Although he has been called upon to do a great many special sets—including a hospital morgue and a number of simulated exteriors—in many ways his most impressive creation is the least special of them all: It is the interior of Johnny Ryan’s bar, Ryan’s Hope. The barroom set, in which so much of the show’s action takes place, is the only permanent set, always standing, ready for use the next day and the day after that. It positively reeks of authenticity. Step onto it, and you would swear you have come in off the street somewhere on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It all seems so right that I ask Tomashoff if it was modeled after any bar in particular. “No, it’s a composite, really, of three or four. There is a bar on 11th Avenue, the Landmark Bar, I had that in mind, as well as some others—The Ginger Man, Kavanaugh’s, oh, and some others. The main thing, though, was to catch some of the flavor of New York in the set, a kind of nostalgic character that you find around in places here still. That’s the big thing to remember—what we always try to keep in mind. This is a New York show. The setting is not just Anytown, U.S.A. We want to get the flavor of the city in there. Outside all the windows we use vistas of New York. We want to remind the viewers of what’s out there.”
It is clear that the soap operas satisfy certain basic appetites of most fans—among them, one of the most basic of all: the old desire to find out what happens next. It was that desire which kept them coming back night after night to gather around the cave fire to listen to the shaman tell his continuing tales of marvels, gods, heroes, and great deeds. It was that desire which prompted readers to line up to buy the latest issue of Household Words to find out what fate (and Charles Dickens) had in store next for Sydney Carton, Charles Darnay, and Lucie Manette. It was that desire, as well, which last year kept viewers returning week after week for the next installment of “Rich Man, Poor Man.”
It looks as though serial drama in prime time is here to stay. The BBC import, “Upstairs, Down stairs,” has been a favorite for years on PBS, though the domestic version of the show, ‘Beacon Hill,” launched with great fanfare by CBS, proved both a critical and commercial failure. ABC aired a six-part series, “Family,” a short time after the spectacular success of “Rich Man, Poor Man,” with a fine cast that included Sada Thompson and James Broderick. It scored with the critics but failed to win the ratings. Nevertheless, this season, ABC is doing at least one other novel in prime time—Alex Haley’s Roots, the story of a black family through seven generations in America. And NBC has scheduled a whole series of such multi-part dramatizations under the title, “Best Sellers.” The first was Taylor Caldwell’s Captains and the Kings.
Now, there are those who mutter that as grand as some of these projects may seem, they are really nothing more than soap operas. And this much is true: Nighttime serial dramas have more in common with daytime serial dramas than they do with most of the police shows and sitcoms on prime time. But is that bad? Agnes Nixon doesn’t think so: “By the essence of his show Kojak cannot change. Neither can Robert Young change as Marcus Welby. Events happen around them. But there is no change in the characters. No growth.”
I concede she has put her finger on something. “But there are a few—’The Mary Tyler Moore Show’ comes to mind—in which the characters have changed. Maybe they have a kind of soap opera quality to them.”
“Yes! Exactly!” she agrees. “And ‘Rhoda,’ too. That’s the very strength of the two shows, what sets them apart. We think of them as more realistic, but it’s this soap quality we’re recognizing. People change. Life goes on. That’s what soaps are about.”
The busiest—and therefore most elusive—man of all is director Jerry Evans. He has been a dervish all day, whirling from the control room to the set and back again, giving orders and advice, and in the long run perhaps also developing an ulcer. It is such a consuming and demanding job that he shares it on a day-on, day-off basis with Lela Swift.
We are in the control room shortly before 2:30 for the day’s taping. An odd sort of calm has settled over Evans and everybody else in the booth. They have done all they could to prepare for this payoff. They are still on schedule. But anything may happen.
“Stand by to tape.” On one of the monitors a board appears with the legend, “Ryan’s Hope, Script #300.” The clapstick sounds.
There is a countdown from ten.
“Stand by on sound effects with the baby, please.”
And so it goes. There are minor technical difficulties: A buzz in the intercom develops, making communication difficult between the control room and the floor. There is a line blown. There is also some trouble with the baby, though nothing really disastrous develops.
The cuts from camera to camera are executed crisply. Each scene moves us quickly into the next. There is a good rhythm to the show, the kind that comes only when actors, director, and crew are working in close cooperation. Somehow, the most impressive thing is that all this is done in a single day. A half hour of air time, including precisely timed pauses for commercials—all of this is taped in a half hour right there in the studio. What you see is what you get.
Afterward, Jerry Evans talks: “We’re not really done for the day. We have an hour’s reading of the next day’s script. The director has his blocking worked out, and if any serious problems arise in it, this is when he makes his changes.
“What do I do the days I’m not directing here? Well, I don’t rest up. I work at home on the next script I’ll be directing. I don’t do storyboards, but I do little ground plans with movements and shots noted. It’s what works for me.
“I think we attempt and accomplish more than physical movement in ‘Ryan’s Hope’ than most soaps do. Of course, you still need close-ups, but we try to keep things moving a little more quickly, physically and every other way. I think, too, we’re more ambitious about going out and doing location shooting. The wedding that Lela did was actually shot in a church down the street. That was really a day! We like to do locations, but it’s expensive and also very hard.”
Everyone, it seems, has a theory about soap operas—about what they are, why people like them, what they get out of them.
James Thurber: “A soap opera is a kind of sandwich, whose recipe is simple enough, although it took years to compound. Between thick slices of advertising, spread twelve minutes of dialogue, add predicament, villainy, and female suffering in equal measure, throw in a dash of nobility, sprinkle with tears, season with organ music, cover with a rich announcer sauce, and serve five times a week.”
University of Chicago psychologist W. Lloyd Warner in his report to CBS on the network’s radio soap, “Big Sister”: “The ‘Big Sister’ program directly and indirectly condemns neurotic and non-adaptive anxiety and thereby functions to curb such feelings in its audience. The program provides moral beliefs, values, and techniques for solving emotional and interpersonal problems for its audience and makes them feel they are learning while they listen.... It directs the private reveries and fantasies of the listeners into socially approved channels of action.”
Clinical psychiatrist John R. Lion, University of Maryland: “In the end, I think the most realistic programs on television are the soap operas. They portray life with all its complexities and insolubilities. Many of my patients are helped by watching them, and I often suggest to patients who have an overly glamorized view of the world that they view these programs in order to see, in admittedly caricatured form, what life is like.”
Why do I think people sit around the house all day watching soaps? Well, I can only speak from personal experience, but it sure beats working.
I finally had a chance to talk to Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer, the writing team for “Ryan’s Hope.” The two are not only creators but innovators, for there is much about the show that is new to daytime drama: the fast pace, the quality of the scripts, and the strong characters. They have helped the show to achieve extremely strong ratings since its debut on July 7, 1975.
Labine had worked for eighteen months as a writer on “Captain Kangaroo” before going into soaps, where she was joined by Mayer, an off-Broadway playwright with an Obie (for his adaptation of Six Characters in Search of an Author) to his credit. “The show was for CBS, and it was titled ‘Where the Heart Is,’ “recalls Labine. “As a matter of fact, we wrote it right off the air. Then while we were working on CBS’s ‘Love of Life,’ we were approached by ABC about developing a show of our own. They had in mind one about a city hospital. That was the proposed title—’City Hospital.’
“What we came up with,” says Paul Mayer, “was a show about an Irish family that ran the bar across the street from the hospital. Which really gives us more story opportunities and the chance to do a show that was a little different from what’s been done in the past. Not quite as much misery. A little more positive.”
“Yes,” puts in Labine, “Ryan’s Hope is more than just the name of the bar. It’s an attitude, the frame of mind for the whole show.”
Developing “Ryan’s Hope” meant writing a so-called bible for the show—a two-hundred-page prospectus that not only suggests plots but also goes into great detail on characters, giving full personal histories of them all. From the “Ryan’s Hope” bible, Labine and Mayer continue to work as the show’s chief writers, sketching out the continuity together in fair detail months in advance. Individually, each shares scripting with the three “dialogue writers” who do the daily shows.
“Writing for this cast makes it easy,” Mayer relates. “Without a doubt we have got fifteen of the most attractive people on television. We’re really fortunate. There’s not one of them we couldn’t write a good story about.”
“And put this down,” says Labine. “We want to go on record on this. We always write this show as well as we can. We never write down. We never intend to and never will.”
That, both nod firmly, they will stand upon.
Copyright 1976 by The American Film Institute
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