This is a sad week for daytime. I know, you just rolled your eyes and thought, "Soaps, oh brother." Go ahead, snicker all you want, but it’s still a sad week for daytime as fans of NBC’s daytime drama Days of Our Lives (DOOL) will bid a fond farewell to the show’s matriarch, Frances Reid. Sure, you might not know her, but I assure you, there’s someone in your life who’s a lot like Alice Horton.
On Friday, when DOOL fans say their final goodbyes, there will be others who will note that it is the 11th anniversary of the series finale of another great serial, Another World (AW). It’s hard to believe it’s been 11 years. And in that time we’ve seen others go as well like the daytime staple Guiding Light (GL) and AW’s replacement, Passions. And, finally, after a half century, the studio lights will go dark for the last time on the set of As the World Turns (ATWT). So, indulge me. I’m a bit nostalgic and here’s why…
It’s spring, 1968. America is in political turmoil. Back then there were actually housewives still keeping house. I know it’s an archaic concept; nevertheless there actually were women who remained at home raising their families. I digress. Back to my point and home. Mom loved the NBC daytime lineup. In the mornings she’d clean house, catch up on laundry, make initial preparations for supper. At noon, she’d make a little lunch, watch the local news, go out and take the laundry down from the clothesline. At 1PM, Mom would grab her drink and head for the living room and begin her daily two-hour ritual — DOOL and AW.
Only in 1968, it was different. She wanted to know more. You see, Mom is deaf. And in 1968, there wasn’t closed captioning for the hearing impaired. Children of deaf adults (CODAs for short) were the conduit between the hearing impaired and the hearing world. These were dangerous times. The Cuban Missile Crisis. A President assassinated. A civil rights leader cut down in the prime of life. And Bobby. RFK. Those poor children. Poor, pregnant Ethel. If you were an adult at that time in our history, you can recall the fear and uncertainty. Imagine being a 12-year-old boy immersed in the news explaining all of that to his deaf parents. Those two hours every afternoon became our escape from the harsh realities of the world.
From November 1963 until that point, I was usually the one transforming the spoken words of the newscaster into sign language for my parents. Huntley and Brinkley. Cronkite. Frank McGee. And, yes, a young Peter Jennings. A lot of people don’t realize that Peter Jennings was an anchor for ABC News back in those days. And when he left ABC to become a foreign correspondent a 12-year-old boy in New England was devastated.
Back to 1968. I was walking in the door from school. Mom was watching AW. She was frustrated. Something big was going on in Bay City and Mom couldn’t lip read the dialog. Here I was being introduced to daytime drama and an invaluable education. Audra Lindley (yes, Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company) was in the middle of what was a pivotal scene. In those days Liz Matthews was a force to be reckoned with. And that was the beginning. I was fascinated by these families in Bay City. Do people really live like this? Rachel was pregnant with Steven Frame’s baby. Mom was educated in a different time – in a Roman Catholic boarding school for deaf kids. She believed that any woman who was pregnant out of wedlock was raped. Mom didn’t understand. And this kid had to figure it all out and explain that pregnancy outside of marriage isn’t always rape. Not bad for a boy on the verge of adolescence, huh?
That summer began the transition. I didn’t have the conventional family and as CODAs know, adulthood came all too fast in those days. Soon, it became a similar ritual for me. The stories woven in the AW tapestry were compelling, capturing the imagination. Over the years Mom would open her eyes to the realities of the “hearing world” while her son learned about life in a most unconventional way. Over the years I would go on keeping Mom up to date with her “stories.” She picked up another along the way — Search for Tomorrow (SFT). Mom loved AW, especially when Victoria Wyndham and Charles Keating were on screen. They enunciated their words. Lip reading was easy when they were on camera.
When AW went off air on June 25, 1999 it was a sad day for Mom. It wasn’t about the end of a daytime staple as much as it was about the end of something familiar. You see, what I forgot to tell you is that over the years after 1968, Mom shared her soaps enthusiasm with her own mother and two of her aunts. Communication was always difficult between them. It was a different era then. But the “stories” were their common bond and unleashed a flood of memories. Today Mom is 82 and still watches DOOL and she’s sad because this week she’ll be saying her final goodbye to Alice Horton and, in some small way, to a time in her life when things were simpler.
The reality is that reality programming has taken over. Back in 1999, hundreds of AW fans tried to get their story to be picked up by another network. The efforts failed. After all, television programming is supposed to be about business. The networks blamed the trial of OJ Simpson. They said that Americans were focused on “real” events, not drama. And out of that infamous car chase on a California freeway some number-crunching hack in a back office of a corporation realized the future of television. The Grim Reaper arrived at daytime. What the corporate ones failed to understand is that the relationship between soaps and their fans are complex. Actors deliver the lines written by writers. The sets, costuming, and everything that goes into creating a production were as important as the actors themselves. Soap fans knew it and continue to know it. These actors were guests in homes all over the world – five days per week. If a writer messed up on history or on the way a character dressed, everyone knew it. Soap fans are vocal. And, as anyone in daytime will attest, the relationship between soap fans and their stories is “special.”
Since my introduction long ago, I learned a lot along the way. I learned about the tribulations of soldiers returning home from Vietnam thanks to Tara and Phil on All My Children (AMC). I came to understand my great grandmother’s stoic Irish Catholic view on life thanks to Maeve and Johnny Ryan on Ryan’s Hope. I came to appreciate art because Victoria Wyndham was afforded the opportunity to expose her art on Another World through her alter ego, Rachel Cory. I came to understand the dynamics of inter-racial relationships because of the courageous writers of One Life to Live. I learned how important nurses’ roles are in health care thanks to Carolee Simpson Aldrich on The Doctors. And then there are the “stars” I got to see perform along the way: Christopher Reeve on Love of Life; Morgan Freeman and Rue McClanahan on AW; Richard Hatch (of Battlestar Galactica fame) and Carol Burnett on AMC.
There are hundreds of other actors who are successful today who got their start in daytime and the experience they gained followed them throughout their careers. Unbeknownst to Irna Phillips and Agnes Nixon, their visions of Erica Kane, Rachel Cory, Felicia Gallant (played by the great Linda Dano), and Vanessa Dale Sterling actually served to educate women about the world in which they lived. In some strange way, the diversity of stories exposed to me taught me a lot about art, politics, business, and life. It’s no substitute for hearing parents — but I wouldn’t change a thing.
So this week DOOL fans say a tearful goodbye to Mrs. Horton. The ATWT studios will go dark as the cast tapes its final scenes to be aired in September. The future of daytime seems bleak. And what’s most tragic about daytime’s demise is that the entertainment industry is losing a great training ground for actors, set designers, writers, and every crew member associated. Prime time actors get it. They love working with a soap veteran. Most movie stars get it. They recognize that soap actors are the exception to the rule in the acting world. They have steady work – five days a week, 52 weeks a year. That’s an unusual phenomenon in this profession. As each soap is canceled, another group of people are left bewildered and unemployed. And with only one daytime drama remaining in New York City, Broadway has lost an incredible pool of actors who have the professionalism and grit to go onstage for eight performances a week. Soap actors have the stamina. Soap actors are the ones who keep the spirit of the greats alive. And we, the humble audience, are left the ultimate losers. But, it’s all business these days – somehow we’ve forgotten the art of it all.
Charles Keating has a line in Critics, Fans and Fanatics which sums it up: "We’ve been proctored by Gamble and gambled by Proctor." The soaps were the mechanism for introducing American housewives to Madge the Manicurist hustling Palmolive dish liquid. Your body isn’t clean until it’s “Zestfully clean.” Who can forget detergent in a tablet when there was Salvo detergent? And nothing is better for baby’s skin than Ivory Snow. Indeed, the soap fans have been proctored and gambled as well. And for all of the fans’ brand loyalty, the time they’ve invested in their stories seems wasted — or is it?
Someday, a hundred years from now, I wonder how anthropologists will view daytime dramas and the evolution of American society and the family dynamic. It seems to me that along the journey women came into their own thanks to Phillips and Nixon. Along the way Rachel Davis Cory showed women (and men) that we all can change for the better if we learn from our mistakes. Soap opera in its own way influenced the thinking of millions of fans. And, as any AW fan can attest, there were those particular serials which had the most sophisticated of audiences. The truth is a typical soap fan isn’t some fat, bon-bon eating ne’er do well sitting in front of the television day in and day out. They’re a bright, evolved group of people who get it. It isn’t always about the quick gratification of reality TV. Sometimes it is about the evolution of characters and writing and yes, even set design and costuming. The soap audience understands all of it — every component that goes in to making a production. And a soap fan actually appreciates the work of everyone involved.
So, as this week progresses, think about buying stock in Kleenex. Millions will be tuned in to say their goodbyes to Frances Reid. And millions will be reminiscing about those days back in the '60s and '70s when watching soaps – even on Thanksgiving Day – wasn’t a thing to be ashamed of. And, if you catch my drift, you’ll get my close. Mac Cory. The family table. At the holidays. “To life!” he bellows as he raises his glass to the camera. Indeed, to Connie Ford, Doug Watson, and all the greats — to life! And thank you, from a most humble fan.
Postscript: Charles Keating joins me Thursday, June 24 at 11 PM EDT on my show at BlogTalkRadio. Please stop by.