By Sandra Earley
August 5, 1983
NEW YORK -- A press agent of the old publicity-stunt school couldn't have planned a better TV promotion.
Last weekend, somebody stole -- or misplaced -- the only two videotapes of Thursday's episode of NBC's bottom-rated soap opera SEARCH FOR TOMORROW.
Police were called in. Rumors flew like New York litter in a March wind. Some said the tapes were simply mislabeled, but lost forever among thousands of tapes at the West 81st Street studio. Others said a disgruntled employe stole them, or was it the scorned boyfriend of a cast member?
Whatever happened, the show would have to go on at 12:30 p.m. EDT, and would be played live for the first time in 14 years. There simply wasn't time to retape.
The news media smelled a good story and descended on the broadcast in a way usually reserved for No. 1-rated GENERAL HOSPITAL on ABC or the Who Shot J.R.? days of CBS's DALLAS.
There were advance stories, and on Thursday everybody showed up, including TV Guide; its upstart competitor, TV-Cable Week; a crew from TV's ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT; and staff of the country's oldest fan magazine, Modern Screen. There was dress rehearsal, the live broadcast and a champagne-and-chocolate- cake cast party afterward, and there seemed to be a publicist or middle-level network executive for each of the 30 to 35 reporters, plus photographers and TV camera crews.
The soap opera's flamboyant, red-haired executive producer, Joanna Lee, vehemently denied any kind of publicity stunt.
"I have a reputation of 20 years, and that would be a tacky thing to do," she said. "Besides, this wouldn't be a show I would take ... I would take one totally terrific. There was one last week with a gorgeous moment between mother and daughter."
Privately, cast members didn't care what happened to the tapes -- they were thankful for the attention. "If it's a hoax, I think it's great," said one actor, who asked not to be quoted by name.
SEARCH FOR TOMORROW is a lost cause on most days. It is a tame broadcast, owned by a sponsor -- Procter & Gamble -- not by the network or an independent producer, as is the sexier GENERAL HOSPITAL.
Last year, the 33-year-old daytime series -- the oldest soap on the air -- moved from CBS to NBC when the former canceled it. It recently won a reprieve at NBC with an extension through December.
These days, it isn't even broadcast in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, the country's 13th largest TV market, although it is on Palm Beach County's Ch. 5. In Miami, WSVN-Ch. 7 replaced SEARCH with MATCH GAME last December because of low ratings.
All soap operas at one time were broadcast live, and the attention to Thursday's show may have focused on whether today's modern wizards with all their fancy technology would flub something that TV ancients used to handle as a matter of course.
The dress rehearsal didn't go perfectly. The door in a motel room set stuck when an actor tried to enter. The show's youngest actor, 13-year-old Damion Scheller, held a magazine too high and obscured his face from the camera. Jennifer Gatti wasn't dramatic enough on her entrance line, said director Bob Schwarz as he spoke individually with actors after the rehearsal.
An hour before air time, reporters took places before TV sets away from the real scene of the action; actors got themselves together. Rod Arrants' wife phoned to say "I love you, and good luck." Director Schwarz's wife joined him in the control room.
At 12:30, the voice of veteran announcer Don Pardo rolled from the TV speaker: "Live from New York ... SEARCH FOR TOMORROW."
There were some odd pauses as some lines were fluffed. A fly landed on an actor's cheek.
When it was over, cast members hugged each other, the crew and even some reporters.
Outside the studio, executive producer Lee was on the telephone and having her hair fluffed by the show's stylist Colleen Callaghan.
Lee was getting last week's ratings. They come out on Thursdays.
"We beat 'em," she shouted. "We beat EDGE OF NIGHT."