This article originally appeared in The Miami Herald on April 2, 2006.
Time flies when you're having secret affairs, illegitimate children, quickie divorces in the Dominican Republic, drug-induced dementia or visits from vengeful ghosts. So even cast members of As The World Turns were stunned when they realized that the first television soap opera is celebrating its 50th birthday today.
"It's astonishing to me, as well as everyone else, " says Helen Wagner, 87, who spoke the first line of dialogue on As The World Turns (unportentous as it was: "Good morning, dear") on April 2, 1956, and will be in Monday's episode, just as she has nearly all the 12,000 or so in between.
That in-between includes 38 Emmy awards (with 12 more nominations this season), 20 years at the top of the daytime ratings, and a viewing audience that once numbered a staggering 10 million people a day. "At one point, everybody in the country was watching As The World Turns, " says Jennifer Lenhart, a senior editor at Soap Opera Digest. "It became a huge part of what people thought of as soaps."
Proud fans have included everyone from horror novelist Stephen King to historian Shelby Foote to concert pianist Van Cliburn, who called to complain anytime the show's organist went on vacation. (He couldn't stand the missed notes.) Betty Ford and Barbara Bush were regular viewers, though they couldn't match the fervor of Mamie Eisenhower.
"Every afternoon in the White House, Mamie said to Ike, 'You've got to come watch As The World Turns with me now, ' " says Julie Poll, a former ATWT writer who authored a history of the show. As The World Turns is even in the Smithsonian Institution, which regularly screens a clip from Nov. 22, 1963, when CBS broke in to report that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
Wagner, who plays Nancy, the serene but steely matriarch of the Hughes family, has seen it all: Baby swaps. Returns from the dead. Enough incest to burn out the Jukeses and Kallikaks. Adultery in treehouses. Dwarf gun-runners swallowed by crocodiles. But it's the simple stuff, she says, that has kept the viewers around all the years.
HOW IT STARTED
"The show is written about people, " she says. "Irna Phillips, who created the show, had the idea to write about people and how they get along. That's what the show has always done and that's what viewers like."
Phillips literally invented the soap opera: In 1930, she wrote Painted Dreams, the first radio serial drama. She eventually had five dramas on the radio waves, mostly sponsored by the detergent manufacturer Procter & Gamble. (Ergo: soap operas.) Though radio soap operas were making the transition to television as early as 1950, they were just 15 minutes long and usually consisted of nothing more than a single long scene.
As The World Turns, as Phillips envisioned it, was a radical departure in every way: A new soap, with no built-in audience from radio, that would last half an hour and include scenes on different sets. It was such a dizzying change that Wagner only laughs when asked if she envisioned a 50-year career on the show.
"We weren't sure it was going to even work at all, " she recalls. "We were more concerned about physical things, like moving furniture and backdrops on the set. The show was live, with a minute commercial at the beginning, a minute in the middle, and a minute at the end. All the changing of people and scenery had to be done in those minute-long breaks.