By Nelson Aspen
Hollywood insider Nelson Aspen has shared his thoughts and recollections with We Love Soaps on the end of Search for Tomorrow, which aired its last episode the day after Christmas in 1986.
Twenty three years ago on this date, when I was just 23 years old myself, the TV show that shaped my life (as a viewer and as a young adult working in television) broadcast its final episode. Search for Tomorrow wrapped up its 35 year run, a record at the time that was unprecedented. Original cast member Mary Stuart, as Jo, played a final scene with her longtime costar Larry Haines, as Stu, beneath a Christmas tree. "What is it you're searching for?" he asked. "Tomorrow," she replied with a sad smile. "And I can't wait!" The camera moved away and so did the viewers...a few to its replacement, Capitol, but most gave up the genre altogether. Every time a soap "dies," fans wander farther and farther away from the medium.
Let's hope the surviving shows make the most of their histories and fan favorites, not only to honor their individual legacies, but to honor their precious remaining viewers who might actually "pass down" the fun of serial storytelling the way our parents and grandparents passed it on to us. Flash in the pan storylines, stunt casting and gimmicks will only serve to alienate die-hards and put temporary band-aids on bleeding wounds.
The final episode of SFT, taped only two weeks before airing, revolved around the wedding of Jo's daughter, Patty...a character who debuted in Episode 1 and was portrayed by myriad actresses (including Guioing Light's Tina Sloan) over the decades. In the end it was Jacqueline Schultz (ex-Dee, As the World Turns). Only a handful of cast members had been there longer than a couple years, thanks to the desperate writing regimes who'd been butchering the show in ill-fated attempts to salvage the ratings. Besides Mary and Larry, only Marcia McCabe (Sunny) and David Forsyth (Hogan) had any significant tenure. Some of us who worked on the production staff had been there a lot longer. Many, in fact, were crew from the facility's previous occupant Edge of Night...so they were dealing with pink slips and farewells all over again (Ironically, it was Guiding Light who would next move in to the building. Superstitious??).
Two different airport scenes were part of the plot. But budget allowed for only ONE airport set and group of extras, so Louan Gideon (Liza) was playing out her storyline amidst a group of background players that looked conspicuously like the one behind Jeff Meek (Quinn). If you look closely, you will see Larkin Malloy (ex-EON, GL, ATWT) and me emoting furiously behind the principal players. As a last-episode treat, many of us from past cast and crew were invited to join in for posterity. Jane Krakowski (T.R.) returned, too, but actually got a few lines.
When it came time for Mary and Larry to play their final scene, a reverent hush came over the scores of us who'd gathered to watch. Knowing how much the Christmas holiday had always meant to Mary (and to "Jo"...It was a SFT tradition that she'd always play her guitar and sing a carol), we knew it would be a gut-wrencher.
Stu: (choking with emotion) What is it, Jo? What are you searching for?
Jo: (tears in her eyes) Tomorrow. And...
Somebody on a catwalk or behind a flat dropped something. "Cut!" yelled the director. "From the top. Reposition," called the Stage Manager. Everyone collectively exhaled from the tension. Mary and Larry displayed no emotion and went back to their original marks.
Take two. Perfect. Although if you look at the tape, their always marvelous, simplistic acting style doesn't mask the sentimentality. I've always said that those two did what even Laurence Olivier couldn't: keep a single character constantly compelling, day in and day out, for three and a half decades. Whenever anyone criticizes/dimisses soap opera acting, I am quick to point that out.
So after that scene, it was a wrap. Funny, I don't remember a thing about the day after that. I know we all posed for one last Ensemble photograph which Procter & Gamble sent to us as a keepsake, along with our final paychecks. Mary was the only person not looking at the camera. She was turned in profile, looking at the little toddler who played her great-nephew, Jonah. She had already moved on.
Mary's annual Christmas cards meant the world to her friends and fans. Each year, they always included a new photograph her husband, Wolfgang, had taken...and a poem she'd have specially written. They were signed, "Much love and Merry Christmas."
My mentor, Mary Stuart, taught me almost everything I know about being on camera...something I've been doing practically every day for over a decade. She taught me about being professional. Heck, she even taught me how to make an omelet and mix a martini. But mostly she taught me about sharing your heart with others. So as sad as it was to lose our show at Christmastime, it is a blessing to have those happy, nostalgic memories come around at this special time of year.
"Much love and Merry Christmas,"
Nelson Aspen is one of Entertainment's most charming on-air personalities in TV, radio, print and on-line. For three seasons, he was the Hollywood Producer/Reporter for TV Guide Television and frequent guest star on everything from celebrity news and talk shows to sitcoms and travel programs. He's contributed to a vast array of outlets, from news magazines Extra, Access Hollywood and Inside Edition to his own how-to series "New with Nelson!" Currently, he's juggling regular correspondent duties for the #1 morning shows of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, as well as a fifth consecutive season on Ireland's Afternoon Show...bringing the latest in entertainment and pop culture to millions of viewers around the world, every morning!
- Nelson Aspen: Jo & Stu Did It First and Did It Best!
- Nelson's Soap Scrapbook #7 - SEARCH FOR TOMORROW 1986