A SEVERE CASE OF 'GENERAL HOSPITAL' HITS HARVARD
By Diane McWhorter
New York Times
May 25, 1981
CAMBRIDGE, Mass., May 24— The "GENERAL HOSPITAL Weekend" at Harvard University was billed as an educational experience. On Saturday morning, three stars of the popular soap opera, Anthony Geary (Luke Spencer), Jacklyn Zeman (Bobbie Spencer, his sister) and Norma Connolly (Aunt Ruby, their guardian) analyzed their craft and performed forthcoming GENERAL HOSPITAL scenes before some 175 students. But the atmosphere of the weekend recalled not an ivory tower but Shea Stadium during the Beatles' concert in August, 1965.
ABC-TV's promotions for GENERAL HOSPITAL, in fact, liken Mr. Geary to the Beatles, and judging from his reception at Harvard, the analogy is not audacious. As Luke, Mr. Geary has become a cult antihero for the 12,130,000 viewers of the show, the top-rated soap in the land and winner last Thursday of the Emmy for daytime drama.
Thus, at the Saturday-morning seminar, Mr. Geary's every gesture was greeted with ecstatic moans, groans and sighs. That afternoon, more than 100 high-school aged girls crowded in front of the Harvard Club, where Mr. Geary was receiving the annual "Homme (or Femme) Fatal" award of the Council for the Performing Arts, the student organization that sponsored the weekend. They chanted "We want Luke," and when he emerged, they stampeded the police car that whisked him away. Some girls were weeping. Not a Typical Hero
Mr. Geary has distinguished himself from the plastic stereotype of soap opera males with his cheekiness, sense of humor and "mod" wardrobe. True to his claim in a Saturday press conference that "Luke Spencer is a very specific facet" of his own personality, Mr. Geary growled, wisecracked, hammed it up, kissed his admirers and generally displayed Luke's usually winning disregard for social convention.
According to current Nielsen figures, 42 percent of GENERAL HOSPITAL viewers are under 25. And this count does not include the thousands of college students forming a cult that rivals the collegiate following of "Star Trek" a decade or so ago.
Debbie Solomon, a Wellesley College senior attending Saturday's seminar who masqueraded as Bobbie Spencer last Halloween, says that more than half her dormitory watches "G.H." (as it's known among the cognoscenti). This spring, a soap opera survey completed by 1,500 students at Philadelphia's Temple University overwhelmingly confirmed the primacy of "G.H."
But no other soap opera has become what one student at Harvard on Saturday described as "the country's premier emotionally-involving phenomenon." At least two Boston-area radio stations broadcast daily GENERAL HOSPITAL updates. And since ABC began selling merchandising rights to the show in June 1980, the GENERAL HOSPITAL imprimatur has shown up on surgical scrub suits, tote bags, aprons, photo albums, piggy banks, lingerie and jigsaw puzzles.
The recent GENERAL HOSPITAL renaissance is credited to the innovations of the producer, Gloria Monty& She was brought on in January 1978 to wind down the show, which was about to be canceled after 15 years on the air.
Besides modernizing the scenery, costumes and music, Mrs. Monty radically accelerated the pace of the show. She added a sometimes fantastic element of mystery and adventure and a measure of comedy. Most important, Mrs. Monty introduced the useful characters who have become the idols of daytime television, Luke and his lady love, Laura.
The Luke and Laura affair brought "G.H." not only success but a great deal of notoriety. On Oct. 5, 1979, the two became lovers when Luke raped Laura at the discotheque he managed. Mrs. Monty, who masterminded the scene, has been criticized for promoting the view of rape as an erotic act, invited by the woman.
"G.H." fans seem unfazed by a growing public alarm over the recent increase in violence on the show. Joanne Stitz, who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts and tapes three and a half hours of soaps a day, is insulted by the suggestion that "G.H." is warping its audience. "We don't take the soaps seriously enough to be offended," she says.
In contrast to the self-serious "Trekkies" of yesterday, "G.H." addicts are constantly asserting the frivolity of their habit. True, they discussed characters "as if they were friends" says a Harvard senior, David Margolin, president of the Council for the Performing Arts. But there's no danger, says Mr. Margolin, of "G.H." fans becoming so absorbed in the show that, like the characters of Ray Bradbury's novel, "Fahrenheit 451," their lives merge with their favorite soaps.
And indeed, it would take a firm grip on reality to sustain a festive mood, as the partygoers did at the disco dance capping Harvard's GENERAL HOSPITAL weekend, amid waitresses attired as nurses and patients and intravenous bottles of Bloody Mary mix suspended above the bar.