Saturday, December 26, 2009

Nelson Aspen On The End of 'Search for Tomorrow'

The End of Search for Tomorrow - December 26, 1986
By Nelson Aspen
Guest Editorial

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 Guiding 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 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...

Suddenly: CRASH!

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

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


  1. Great piece, thanks so much for sharing this. A few days ago I watched the last episode and noticed Nelson's name in the credits.

    One little nitpicky item -- Capitol didn't really replace SFT in 1986. Rather it replaced SFT in 1982 (I think that was the year) on CBS while many of us 'Followed the Search' to NBC.

    The fact is, I believe, that many viewers did, in fact, watch Capitol. I believe that show had respectable ratings up until 1987, when it dumped for Bold and Beautiful.

  2. Bob, I think Nelson meant some fans moved to the show's CBS replacement and some just dropped soaps altogether. I'm pretty sure no one moved to its NBC replacement, WORDPLAY. I sure didn't!

    I do agree about CAPITOL's ratings. The show was doing well enough to stay on in 1987 but CBS wanted another Bell soap. I guess that has worked out well for them, but would have been interesting to see a show like CAPITOL continue over the years through all the DC scandals of the past 22 years.

    I never knew about the two takes for that final scene. It's just so perfect.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your memories of the last episode of Search. I always thought the writers did a pretty good job of wrapping up the show. I loved seeing the "future" through Jo's dream.
    I've ordered a copy of your book and I look forward to reading it.
    BTW, I would love to see that photo of the last cast & crew picture of Search if you still have it.

  4. Juba, here's a reply from Nelson Aspen:

    "Let me know what you think of my book...I'll await the review! LET'S DISH UP A DINNER PARTY also has some soapie memories scattered throughout. If you can find a copy of Mary's autobiography, BOTH OF ME, it's truly one of the best accounts of early television I've ever read. Highly recommended! That final cast photo is in some scrapbook somewhere! I shall endeavour to locate & scan it for my WLS friends. It looks a lot like a HS class photo! Of course I have tons of photos from our wild-child days in the 80s, but those shall remain in the vault for the foreseeable future LOL!"

  5. This was from Mary Stuart's annual Xmas party.

  6. Thanks Roger for posting Nelson's reply and pic. I would really love to see that old "HS" pic of 86 Henderson.
    I've ordered the book from Amazon last week so it should be arriving soon. Thanks for the heads up about the other book as well. Tks!

  7. Great piece...

    Oddly, SFT was the first soap I watched because it was closed captioned and moved with it to NBC. I did see a few episodes of Capitol and wondered how it would play with the scandals of the last 20 years. It would have made for some interesting drama.

    SFT had a good cast and you could tell the shifts in storytelling. Interestingly, it was fun to see Matt Ashford go from playing a modestly nice guy like Cagney to a semi-nasty, troubled Anti-hero, Jack Deveraux on Days.