Friday, September 17, 2010

The Death of Love in the Afternoon

Another fictional city goes dark; at least on our television screens. The
Residents of Oakdale will continue to live, just not where we can see them.

Do you ever wonder if Joanne is still alive and living in Henderson? Do you think the Capwells and Lockridges are still enemies? What kind of havoc do you think Tabitha is wreaking? Can you still get a beer at Ryan’s? How about Sunset Beach, do you think it's had more earthquake/tsunami problems? Do you ever wonder if Ruth reconciled her past and present in that white man’s mansion? Was Sloane executed? Does anybody still live in Corinth? Do you think a vampire still walks the dark streets of Port Charles unbeknownst to the other residents? Is Reva still raising hell? Does Cory Publishing still publish Brava magazine?

Summer 1985. It was a big one for me. Two things happened: I was told I would no longer be attending private school but would start public school in the Fall for my freshman year of high school and we got a television. Both of these things coincided with my family changing churches. We left one very conservative Baptist church for another more liberal Baptist church. This meant we could get a television. Not just a television either. We got a VCR and cable to go with it. The combination of these things introduced the soap opera into my life. Don't misunderstand; I was familiar with soap operas. My grandparents had a television. My grandmother, June, watched The Young and the Restless from the first episode. She would take her lunch hour from 11am – noon, the time Y&R still airs in my hometown. Ah, love in the afternoon.

When school started in the fall of 1985, our VCR got put to work - overtime. We recorded Search For Tomorrow, Days of our Lives, Another World and Santa Barbara (my personal favorite). I would come home from school, do my homework and then watch the soaps. I'm not sure how I did it all. I got my homework done and devoured 3.5 hours of sudsy afternoon melodrama. I feel like there was a rush to get the soaps watched before Dad got home from work, but I could just be making that up. He didn't like them though. Sometimes Mom would wait and watch with me instead of watching them in real time. Real time; who does that these days? I loved knowing that I had my soaps to watch when I got home from school. It was exciting, something to look forward to. Of course there were occasional preemptions and the unfortunate mishaps of forgetting to set the VCR. My mom forgot to record Cruz and Eden’s wedding. All that time spent waiting for it to actually happen and then…nothing. Devastation. There was also the time that my sister forgot to record Tuesday and Wednesday of Santa Barbara’s final week. Anger! I managed to record Monday, Thursday and Friday myself. I sill have the VHS tape.

I watched the residents of Salem, Bay City and Santa Barbara for all 4 years of high school. I watched the residents of Henderson until Search For Tomorrow was cancelled in December of 1986. The residents of Chicago quickly replaced them in the form of Generations. It was the first soap I ever got to watch from the beginning. I wish I could say I had started Santa Barbara from the beginning, but I joined it a year into its run. It started in 1984, almost a year before I had a television.

I have been fascinated, or infatuated, with soap operas ever since. I love daytime drama. I love the never-ending possibilities. A character can do almost anything that a writer can dream up. The good turn bad, the bad get redeemed, the redeemed get amnesia, the amnesiac remembers and the memories cause all hell to break loose. It amazing. When the story is good, the unfolding is more exciting than the anticipation of the first bite of my Aunt Cindy’s homemade chess squares.

I used to want to be a soap actor. It was a dream, a goal. I had one afternoon of extra work on Guiding Light. I enjoyed it. On set, I was a customer in the diner and ate a burger. I talked to the actress playing the waitress. I was chosen to cross the room and go to the bathroom. You could actually see me cross, exit, and reenter. I used the money from that day to buy a comforter. I tried to get back on the show. I sent postcards all the time to the Extras Casting Director. I told her how I would love to come back to Springfield. I asked her if Springfield needed a singer, as that was my strength then. I tried, believe me, to get back on the show. She never responded. I’m not sure if I just wasn’t good enough at eating the burger or crossing to the bathroom, but I never got another opportunity on Guiding Light. I still have the comforter though. It’s been more than 10 years and that comforter now keeps my guests warm if ever they sleep over on my sofa or aerobed®.

When I went away to college in the fall of 1989, I moved into a dorm on the campus of Western Kentucky University. I was crestfallen to find out that the only channel I could get on my 13” black and white television was ABC. I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do without Santa Barbara. At this point, it was the soap I cared about the most. Anyway, my only option was to watch Loving, All My Children, One Life To Live and General Hospital. And watch them I did, all of them. I must say that my favorite of the ABC soaps was and continues to be OLTL. I came to it at a very interesting and important time. The first big storyline that resonated with me was a gay storyline. It was about homophobia and the fight to destigmatize gay people. That storyline culminated with the AIDS quilt coming to Llanview. It was very emotional for me. I wasn’t out yet. I knew I was gay, but was terrified to admit it.

Eventually, I moved into an apartment off campus and had cable and a VCR back in my life. I set that timer for Santa Barbara time immediately. I also started watching The Young and the Restless. It was my grandmother’s favorite after all. It was 2 hours of heaven everyday to come home and travel to Santa Barbara and Genoa City. I loved it.

I went so far in the summer of 1990 as to create my own soap opera. I really thought about it too. Where I wanted the setting. What I wanted it to be about. I wrote to the Chamber of Commerce in various towns in the states that interested me. I researched those towns. Once I decided on the state, I chose the town. At that point I wanted a real town. The piece continued to be a living, breathing, changing entity right into the ’00’s. I made changes periodically, but then, one day, it all just solidified. I settled on a fictional town because I thought it would give me more flexibility. I have the families in place, the businesses. I know who is related, who is single, who is dating, who has dated. I know what the houses look like and where they are. The map of the town is currently rolled up and stored in a poster tube in my bedroom. Yes, I mapped out the town. I was/am very serious about it.

There have been times in my life when I watched 3-4 soaps a day. Other times I’ve watched a couple. Most recently I only watched Y&R. I had a brief return to Llanview in the mid ’00’s when a friend of mine became a contract player. I started watching As the World Turns when they dove head first into a gay love story. I had to give my attention to a show willing to go to a place that for too long has been taboo in daytime drama. I found myself bored with the storyline fairly quickly though. The characters had one kiss. One amazing kiss, and I was excited beyond belief. After that kiss though, I never saw them kiss again before I gave up the show a few months later. It would always seem like the kiss was coming, but it was never seen on camera. It was treated completely different than a heterosexual couple falling in love. I was annoyed with the writers. I was happy they took the chance with their audience, but upset that they didn’t seem to have the guts to show the passion. We gay men can be very passionate. As the end of ATWT was approaching, I decided that I had to watch it again. I needed to see it end. It seemed the only option for a soap opera lover like me. I got angry pretty quickly though when the most predictable death happened. A gay character, after professing his love to another man for the first time, died in a car/train accident. My first thought was why couldn’t the gay couple have a happy ending like the hetero couple? I continued to watch though. I learned that the surviving gay character had never made love to one who died. He wanted to wait. He wanted to be sure. He wanted it to mean something. I then understood the slow moving process of the first storyline. He wanted to wait. Sex was important to him. He didn’t want to just jump into bed with any one. I feel that way. I had a moment of regret that I hadn’t stuck with the character and the original storyline. An important character and moment in daytime history. I was too frustrated by the pace; thinking that gay men move faster than this, to realize that the character was like me. Maybe my frustration with the storyline was a reflection of my frustration with my own life.

Most recently, I lost my love for The Young and the Restless. It’s not the show that my grandmother watched anymore. It’s not even the show that I watched back at the beginning of this decade. They have resorted to plotlines that seem out of character and very far removed from the stories that Bill Bell, the creator, used to tell. I remember several of Bill Bell’s edge-of-your-seat storylines thanks to watching with my grandmother. She watched until she passed away in 2004. I often wonder what she would think of the current storylines that have caused me to give up the show in disappointment.

It's sad, really, when an entire genre of television entertainment starts to die. It's been a slow death, a long time in the dying. Ratings have been declining for years. I know that the programs are expensive and need sponsors; advertising dollars just aren’t what they were. However, I continue to be shocked when I hear of a long running soap like ATWT being cancelled. Fifty-four years is a long time. A lot of stories have been told. I’m not personally invested in ATWT, but I do love the genre. Irna Phillips, sometimes called the mother of daytime drama, is now no longer represented on television by a show that she single-handedly created. Days of our Lives, a co-creation, remains on the air, but her longest running serials, Guiding Light and As the World Turns are no more. When ATWT bids adieu, so does Procter & Gamble. As the World Turns, according to The New York Times, was the last of the twenty soap operas produced by Procter & Gamble, the company that gave soap operas their name. So, no more Irna Phillips, and no more PGP. It’s the end of an era.

I occurred to me as I pondered my thoughts for this blog that I could just tune into my own family for a daily dose of drama. I mean we have out-of-wedlock pregnancies. We have engagements, broken engagements, weddings, and divorces. We have social drinkers and heavy drinkers. We have crazy. We have a gay man. We have a Vietnam War vet. We have car accidents. We have false paternity. We have job loss. We have heart attacks, open-heart surgery, kidney failure with dialysis, cancer and death. We have wonderful, traditional holidays. My family has the makings of a soap opera. Just add a little over-the-top drama, stir, and watch.

No longer committing my time to watching a daytime drama has opened the door for me in my writing. I decided to write a piece of fiction and publish it on my blog in serialized installments. I envisioned it as something that would play out over the course of the final episodes of a storyline. It was so much fun to write. Ending each installment with a cliffhanger. I put myself in the scenario. I would speak the words and walk through my own apartment to see if the action would work. I would often translate my physical reaction into words or descriptions and apply them to a character in the story. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, “Phillips created her stories by acting them out as a secretary jotted down what she spoke. Her process of creating by assuming the identities of her characters was so successful it was later adopted by many of [her] protégés.” My love of soaps helped me create the piece I called “Ocean Point.”

So to all the residents of Henderson, Chicago, Bay City, Santa Barbara, Sunset Beach, Harmony, Corinth, Springfield, Port Charles and Oakdale. We will never forget you. We will always remember the joy, the tears, the laughter, the fears, the sadness, the triumphs and defeats. Thank you for letting us share in your lives.

IN MEMORIUM (cancelled between 1985-2010)
As the World Turns 1956 – 2010
Guiding Light (radio) 1937–1956 (television) 1952–2009
Passions 1999 – 2007
Port Charles 1997 – 2003
Sunset Beach 1997 – 1999
Another World 1964 – 1999
Loving 1983 – 1995
Santa Barbara 1984 – 1993
Generations 1989 – 1991
Ryan’s Hope 1975 – 1989
Capitol 1982 – 1987
Search For Tomorrow 1951 – 1986

"None of us is different, except in degree. None of us is a stranger to success and failure, life and death, the need to be loved, the struggle to communicate." Irna Phillips

©2010 Michael Rohrer