Thursday, July 23, 2009

FLASHBACK: RYAN'S Is a New Yorker's Fantasy 1976

RYAN'S HOPE Is a New Yorker's Fantasy

By Francis X. Clines
New York Times
November 27, 1976

Contrary to the city's official boosterism, you don't have to be crazy to love New York. But you have to fantasize a lot.

Pushing that certain someone down the stairs, for example. Being so eloquent on your deathbed that you finally evoke all the understanding and tears you deserve. Dramatically replacing a souring marriage with a new love. Serving mankind as an attractively selfless hospital resident.

At least five days a week, these very fantasies and more are put down on paper by two writers in the basement of a brownstone on Berkeley Place in Brooklyn. A few weeks later, the fantasies are acted out in public and in color, and the writers sit in front of a SONY screen in the dining room and stare at what they have done and wonder how well they will keep the imagined lives of "Ryan's Hope" moving along.

For New Yorkers, RYAN'S HOPE is not just another soap opera. It is fiction of a tantalizing sort because it includes such specific places - scenes set on the Long Island Expressway, in Central Park, the local Chinese restaurant, a Hamptons beach house and, yes, a shadowy, plant-infested brownstone - rather than the amorphously inoffensive locales of Middling, USA, that seem so often the telegenic rule. And the characters come from tangible roots - urban Irish Catholic and WASP families lost in each other's arms and intrigues.

One character has risen from cop to City Councilman, a career path that has actually been taken in the real (or is it unreal) City Hall. And there is a politician on RYAN'S HOPE named Charlie Ferris, who, some Brooklynites suspect, is a colorful amalgam of Joe Ferris, the current Park Slope Assemblyman, and Charles Monaghan, a "reform" Democrat familiar in the same area.

Any similarity between real persons living or dead is purely coincidental and, more importantly, very entertaining, according to the writers who created RYAN'S HOPE, Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer. Respected veterans of other soap operas, the two writers were hired by ABC-TV officials in an attempt to repair that network's standing in the afternoon ratings war. Not only have they succeeded at a record rate, but they had the opportunity to keep the producer's role as well for themselves.

As a result they control all of the things dramatic writers so often wish they could control. They control the casting, which is decidedly New York in tone, with actors shuttling between the West 53rd Street TV studio and various theater productions in the city. They control the lighting, bringing in an artist who can create the urban shadows and dinginess they visualize. They even control the color schemes, taking Ingmar Bergman-type liberties in limiting the number of tones and having certain actors and roles linked in color harmonies.

The production power, in short, lets them protect the special New York tone and characters they want. "We desperately wanted to show how New York has communities," Claire said in the midst of the Brownstone dream factory where she is raising three children as well as plotting and writing with Paul, a daily visitor. Her husband, Clem, is an editor of a newsletter who also works out of their home. Their paths cross during the day in the dining room when he has lunch and watches at 1 P.M. as RYAN'S HPE goes through its daily half hour cycles.

A full year's plot has been sketched into the future - tiny writing on eight sides of some taped filing folders. Its precise twists and turns are secret, Paul emphasized, as a visitor glimpsed one tiny notation of the adulterous fate of a character: "to bed; guilt; reflection." The scripts are completed with the assistance of a third writer, Mary Ryan (as in RYAN'S HOPE) Munisteri.

Even before the serial took to the air on July 7, 1975, with the fall of Frank Ryan (down a staircase), Paul and Claire began planting family roots and getting themselves up for the task by means of a 100-page "back story."

This book is a genealogy of the TV characters going back to the turn-of-the-century arrival of the immigrant Ryan family, a book full of details, traits and whole ancestors that were mere prologue, invented not to be televised as episodes but to give the writers their own kind of Yoknapatawpha universe. Clearly, an awful lot of effort has gone into sparking an afternoon's catharsis by the ironing board.

At first, it was suggested to them by network officials that they create a hospital serial titled "A Rage to Love." What they finessed instead was a tale centered on a family living near the hospital and a title that was plain, with no edge or rage or love or darkness in sight. "We wanted a play about people who were positive, who celebrated the human condition rather than simply enduring it," Paul said.

In this case, the human condition seemed a bit more credible the other day when Delia, a vixenish blonde, entered the brownstone set and explained away time spent on her latest intrigue by saying she was "stuck on a subway." Of course, there's more to successful soap opera than that as the character Jill, benign and suffering in a hospital bed, demonstrated a few commercials later. She was pregnant, but not by her beloved, Frank.

"Oh, Jill, you're in such a pickle," Mr. Labine said loyally, watching the TV screen on Berkeley Place as he finished his lunch and as his wife watched her fantasies come home.

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