FLASHBACK: A Going Concern 1972

A going concern

By Norma Mark
Chicago Daily News
September 3, 1972

Take away illegitimate pregnancies from soap operas and what do you have? Two women sitting over half-empty coffee cups with nothing to say.

It's easy for a man to make such snide remarks about TV daytime serials. The knack probably arrives with his first pair of long pants as he sees his mommy crying over a mythical marriage of two unbelievable characters.

For that matter, a woman, too, can say cruel things about soaps, a talent she often hones to marvelous effect as soon as she gets a college diploma.

As Joan Copeland, a star of SEARCH FOR TOMORROW says, "we have to wait until they break a leg to get them back. Then they go to the hospital and write us a letter saying they never dreamt they would be watching a soap opera, but they were now."

Until very recently, it didn't matter what was said about soaps. Since 1930, when Irna Phillips invented the format in Chicago on a program called PAINTED DREAMS (sponsored by a sausage company - the soap salesman came later), daytime dramatic serials have been popular and profitable, despite all criticism.

Even now, a CBS vice president estimates that 58 million women watch soap operas on all three TV networks each week, with 27 million of them tuning to CBS.

But this year, the CBS ratings began to slip, and so, for the first time in history, the nation's TV critics were invited to New York recently for two days of interviews with soap opera stars and their producers.

Several impressions emerged from the interviews:

All soap operas are not alike, and within the format vast differences in approach are tolerated.

There are no summer repeats in soap operaland, which means that the writers must town out the equivalent of a feature-length film per week, a staggering output.

Working in soap operas is an honorable and quite profitable profession. One actress in an NBC soap opera earns $450 per show, with a guarantee of three shows per week, which gives her at least $1,350 good reasons each week to remain in soaps.

And many fine actors are working in soap operas. Tom Ewell, for instance, is currently offering a marvelous characterization as a sloppy investigator on SEARCH FOR TOMORROW.

Soap operas are expanding their horizons. As Teri Keane, star of THE EDGE OF NIGHT, told me, "yes, almost everybody in them is WASPish and a little cliché, and black actors are used as a form of tokenism. But there were no black actors in TV soaps a few years ago, and little by little we are pulling our audience's heads out of the sand."

(Examples: writer Agnes Nixon of ABC's ALL MY CHILDREN has done shows on cervical cancer and has taken her actors to a drug rehabilitation halfway house for ad-lib sessions with actual former addicts. The first time a contraceptive device was shown on TV was on a soap opera.)

For many fans, the soaps combat loneliness, provide glimpses of a glamorous world, offer a look at remote problems that will be the subject of tomorrow's kaffee-klatsch and serve up a replacement family when the viewer's own children have grown.

On the other hand, TV daytime serials (as they prefer to call themselves), are often an exasperating dramatic form, where the trivial is celebrated, the cliché is commonplace, the place is slower than boredom itself and imitation is a rule of life.

Recently, for instance, one soap opera went up a few points in the ratings after a man had raped his sister-in-law, who had been his girl friend until his brother had stolen her affections. A writer for a rival soap was told to look at the opposition and to see why it was so successful.

Within weeks on the rival soap, inevitably, a man raped his sister-in-law.

Incest and many other topics could not explored in prime time because the same women who accept it during the day would write vehement protests if their families saw the subjects at night.

With those preliminary conclusions in mind, let us firmly hold handkerchiefs in hands and enter soap operaland, where a few of the serials can be examined in some detail. Watch out for the crying woman on your left.

THE EDGE OF NIGHT is a suspense melodrama, which makes it unique because it doesn't primarily deal with family crises. Instead, for 17 years, criminal attorney Mike Karr has been defending his clients.

Right now, Karr might know where a missing narcotics shipment is, and his family is being threatened. But Henry Slesar, who wrote for the TV series RUN FOR YOUR LIFE for four years and is now head writer for EDGE, says there will be a happy ending.

EDGE OF NIGHT is performed live. Once a door was stuck, so an actor made his entrance through a closet.

Teri Keane, who plays Martha Marceau, wife of the police commissioner (she was tried on a murder charge a while ago and found innocent), says she rebels against stereotypes. For instance, heroines always drink sherry on soap operas, but Teri occasionally asks for scotch. Sometimes she announces she must use the ladies room.

As with many soap opera characters, she finds strong audience identification. Once she was Christmas shopping in real life while she was in jail on a murder charge on TV. A fellow shopper recognized her and advised her to get back to jail right away.

Miss Keane, who starred in such radio soaps as LIFE CAN BE BEAUTIFUL and ROAD OF LIFE, firmly believes that soaps are therapeutic, that they help combat loneliness.

By the way, EDGE OF NIGHT had several séances on the show in recent months, but cast members feel that it was an attempt to grab the old DARK SHADOWS audience and that it failed.

SEARCH FOR TOMORROW features Mary Stuart, who has played Joanne Tate since the TV series began Sept. 3, 1951. She has been in nearly every episode for all those 21 years.

Recently the ever good, right and true Joanne was taken to a mountain cabin, against her will and despite her psychosomatic blindness. Then the man who took her was killed, Joanne's sight was restored and she saw the culprits.

But Tom Ewell, who plays the detective, doesn't believe her story.

Before starring in TV's oldest soap opera, Miss Stuart worked as a newspaper reporter in Tulsa and a camera girl at the Hotel Roosevelt grill in New York and made several films for MGM. In real life, she is divorced. On the series, she has been widowed twice.

Miss Stuart also composes music. Several of the themes heard on the series are her creations and her song, "Bells of Christmas," is sung on the series each year at Christmas time.

Mary Stuart is a first-rank star among daytime TV fans. She made a personal appearance in Dayton recently, and, she says, "more people showed up to see me than saw Bobby Kennedy when he was there. More people called than call Santa Claus at Christmas. It takes six hours a day to answer my mail." Those are not boasts. Just the facts.

Like so much else in life, if someone really cares about a soap opera, or if someone sticks with it long enough to develop a character in depth, the result can be satisfying experience for artist and audience.

Also like so much in life, those involved must aim a little bit higher much of the time.

And so, we must remember in our search for tomorrow that, as the world turns past the secret storm on the edge of night, our guiding light should be that, where the heart is there is also the love of life and the firm knowledge that love is a many splendored thing.

Increase volume of organ music and fade out.

1 comment:

  1. It used to irritate me to death that writers like this one were always so condescending about soaps.

    ReplyDelete