Thursday, July 19, 2012

FLASHBACK: Mirth Joins Melodrama In Soaps 1989 - Brian Frons, Jill Farren Phelps, Agnes Nixon

SANTA BARBARA's Joe Marinelli

By Libby Slate
Sun Sentinel
April 16, 1989

Near-death experiences as depicted on television usually are serious affairs, with beckoning white lights and comforting welcomes by previously deceased relatives. But on a recent episode of the NBC soap opera SANTA BARBARA, in which gunshot victim Mason Capwell (Lane Davies) unexpectedly found himself in heaven, he was greeted by none other than Joan Crawford, now toiling as God's receptionist -- and who was played by the cross-dressing character Bunny, in full drag.

God's office looked remarkably like that of a network executive's, with TV wall monitors and a copy of "Celestial Variety." Indeed, heaven turned out to be the GBC network -- 20 owned-and-operated clouds, 250 affiliates, a peacock-like logo with halo and a three- note chimed theme song. God himself, tall and dapper in white suit and hat, briskly told Capwell that his untimely demise was due to fallen popularity -- that is, low ratings -- but tried to comfort him that his fate could have been a lot worse.

"Worse than death?" asked an incredulous Capwell.

Replied God -- played by real-life NBC daytime program vice president Brian Frons -- "You could have been sent to cable."

Clearly, times have changed for daytime soap operas.

Once awash in melodramatic tales of illicit sex, unrequited love, murder, kidnapping and other assorted doom and gloom, the shows have added increasing doses of humor to their story lines. In recent years, daytime characters have become locked in gorilla cages and trapped in muddy pig pens; they've appeared on Wheel of Fortune with Pat and Vanna, and they've staged a wedding for a pregnant pet dog, complete with bridal gown.

And while SANTA BARBARA's Bunny -- a heterosexual gangster played by Joe Marinelli who initially donned women's clothing to hide from the mob and discovered he liked wearing dresses and panty hose -- may be daytime's first bona fide cross-dresser, other shows make comical use of drag disguises. On NBC's ANOTHER WORLD, for example, the character Cass once dressed up as his girlfriend's aunt so he could keep an eye on her.

Why this proliferation of daytime drollery?

Comedy provides an emotional balance, according to GUIDING LIGHT head writer Pam Long, whose staff includes two former writers for Bob Hope. "I never say, `This is going to be a ha-ha day,'" she said, "but if we see that a day is one of heavy, heavy emotion, where you know you've got scenes that will make viewers cry, we say, `What can we do across town to make things lighter?'"

The early days of soap humor may be traced to 1965, when Agnes Nixon, who would later come to be considered daytime's grand dame for her creation of ONE LIFE TO LIVE and ALL MY CHILDREN, was asked by Procter & Gamble to take over its then-floundering ANOTHER WORLD

"Up `til then, TV thought you had to be heavy," Nixon recalled. But I brought humor to the show, with characters like Lahoma Vane, whose biggest claim to fame was that she had been Miss Black-Eyed Pea of 1960."

Numerous characters have long brought comic touches to their roles, but the first genuine daytime "kook" generally is regarded to be ALL MY CHILDREN's Opal Gardner, as played by Dorothy Lyman from 1981 to 1983. Loud and brassy, bedecked in spandex pants and oversized, mismatched jewelry, Opal was given to fantasies that reduced the wealthy, pompous Phoebe Tyler Wallingford to maid status: Lyman won an Emmy for her portrayal.

A worthy successor in daytime ditziness is the character of Calliope Jones Bradford on NBC's DAYS OF OUR LIVES, played by Arleen Sorkin. Initially hired only for a few days, Sorkin has parlayed her antic flair to a five-year run and her own soap-opera spinoff, which probably will have its premiere later this year.

A somewhat eccentric fashion designer whose dress code was patterned after rock singer Cyndi Lauper, Calliope has become noted for her outlandishly themed hats, which depict everything from tennis matches to the Statue of Liberty.

"Calliope cuts through to reality," Sorkin said. "When she fought with her husband Eugene, it was about his picking his toes in bed, not over whether or not he should do espionage work."

If Opal and Calliope were trend-setting individuals, then the show that, as a whole, has broken new ground is SANTA BARBARA. It debuted in 1984 and last year won the Emmy for Outstanding Daytime Drama Series.

SANTA BARBARA's humor can best be described as irreverent, according to executive producer Jill Farren Phelps. "I don't know that we set out to be funny, but I think we just all are, across the board -- writers, producers and actors. I don't revere the art form of soap opera, so I'm not afraid to be different, to take chances," she said.

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