The summer I turned fifteen, I got my first official job, cleaning an Army bowling alley. I scrubbed chairs, ball return machines, and even the snack bar's floor. It wasn't easy work. The best hour of the day, however, was from 12:30-1:30pm, when the televisions mounted over each lane showed The Young & The Restless. (You're probably surprised that a soap could be bowling alley fare, but this was Germany, and there was only one TV channel in English.)
Those daytime soaps changed my life, for I was quickly sucked into the show's story. I couldn't wait to see each day's episode chronicling the love triangle between Victor, Nikki, and Kevin. All these years later, I still watch, and there's still an on-again, off-again romance between Nikki and Victor.
To me, this is the magic of daytime drama. The writers are masterful at building communities full of complex characters who viewers care about, and then incorporating endless emotional plot twists to keep the story fresh. For years.
As much as I've loved Y&R over the years, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for another CBS soap, Guiding Light, and have tuned in often enough to keep up with the action. The characters are engaging, the storylines deftly plotted. And not only is it the longest-running daytime drama in the United States, it's the longest running broadcast program of any kind, anywhere in the world, having been on air (radio and TV) since January 1937.
I've learned a lot about writing from watching soaps, and many other writers I know have, too. In fact, I've learned so much, I decided it'd be fun to set a book on the set of a soap. I could play with dual storylines of the characters as they appeared on-screen, as well as lives behind the scenes. Unfortunately, as much as I knew about the on-screen lives of characters, I knew squat about what happens behind the scenes.
Thankfully, the phenomenal Jill Lorie Hurst, head writer of Guiding Light, was kind enough to spend a day with me and author Hope Tarr on the New York set of the show. It was one of the most entertaining--and educational--days of my life.
Jill gave us an overview of what it's like to be a writer on a daytime drama, then gave up most of her day to show us around. I was amazed at the efficiencies they'd created to get the show produced for as little money as possible while still maintaining the show's quality. Writers' and producers' offices converted into sets--Jill's office was the "seedy motel", while others worked in the Springfield nail salon and Reva's living room--walls would slide back to reveal the interior of a hospital. On a separate floor, an entire maze of rooms was constructed, with one set leading to another. If Reva stormed out of a restaurant, she might end up--in reality--in Josh's living room or the Spaulding study, even though it'd appear she was headed outside.
I had my photo taken in the Spaulding study...
then I snapped one of Hope a whopping thirty feet away, at the Company restaurant:
We also had the opportunity to meet some of the producers and directors--like the multitalented Ellen Wheeler, who let us hold her beautiful Emmy--and spent a good amount of time with the actors. Frank Dicopoulos hung out with us in the hallway near the actors' dressing rooms, talking about how his character has evolved over the years. His behind-the-scenes stories had us rolling until actor Lawrence Saint-Victor, who plays Remy, came up behind Frank and attempted to refute them all (before telling us he was about to surprise his wife with tickets to see wrestling at Madison Square Garden--he wasn't sure it'd be a good surprise!)
One thing made abundantly clear both to me and to Hope was that the cast, crew, and everyone else involved in Guiding Light love their show. They've worked hard to provide viewers with an escape from the stresses of everyday life (you know, the folks stuck cleaning bowling alleys.) They were grateful for the opportunity they'd been given by the network, and by each and every viewer.
I'm sure when the news came (shortly after Hope and I visited) that the show had been cancelled--and that tomorrow, September 18, would be their last day on the air--they were every bit as heartbroken as the viewers. They didn't want to see their stories end, either.
So to everyone at GL (and especially to our tour guide, Jill): Thank you. You've taught hundreds of writers about the art of story, you've entertained millions upon millions of viewers, and you've done it well. You'll be missed. And I know tomorrow's finale will be riveting television.