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.
"All we were worried about was were we going to get on the air, and were we going to stay longer than a week or two?"
But by the end of 1956, ATWT was firmly affixed to the top of the daytime ratings heap. The show concentrated then, as it does now, on the little town of Oakdale, Ill., and the intertwined lives of the Hughes, Lowell, Ryan, Snyder, Stewart and Walsh families.
"It's a show that's really stuck to its roots, " says Soap Opera Digest's Lenhart. "It hasn't veered too far out from the families where it began. Helen Wagner is a perfect example; 50 years later, she's still there.
"Other shows change casts, they change characters. The Guiding Light even changed towns. But on As The World Turns, you've got six generations of the Lowell family, five generations of the Hughes family, four generations of the Stewarts."
And the families are relatively grounded in the real world, at least by the standards of soap operas. "Of all the daytime shows, As The World Turns is the most relatable, " says author Poll. "It does not get into the supernatural like Days of Our Lives and Passions.''
"They've had their share of murders. But they don't take over the show like they do on General Hospital, where there's a shooting every other day. There's not a lot of violence. It's a more a comfortable show."
"Comfortable" is another word best understood within the sexual and ethical wonderland comprised by the soaps. Incest among the five families, hopelessly intertwined through not only marriage but illegitimate offspring of illicit affairs and even secret baby-swapping (Oakdale residents apparently regard infants as something like biological trading cards), occurs with the regularity of lunch. And that's the purposeful incest; when Poll first joined the writing staff as an assistant in the 1980s, one of her jobs was researching potential sexual liaisons to make sure the writers weren't inadvertently hooking up cousins or long-lost brothers and sisters.
Murder and rape, even if less frequent than on neighboring soaps, are still rampant, as are head injuries resulting in comas or amnesia. As The World Turns, in fact, was the first soap to discover the organic link between lingering comas and Nielsen rating points when it sent its popular young couple Jeff and Penny careening into a hellacious auto wreck in 1962.
"The car accident that shook the nation, " TV Guide dubbed it as viewers' calls and telegrams poured into CBS, offering prayers for the couple. Those for Penny were answered; but not for Jeff, played by a young actor named Mark Rydell who wanted to leave the show and become a director. He went on to make Cinderella Liberty and On Golden Pond, among others.
Even more threatening than the violence on As The World Turns are the seemingly random reversals of the laws of physics and biology. Oakdale was the site for the first known outbreak of a disease that has come to be known among daytime fans as SORAS, or Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome. In 1969, a character named Tom Hughes was shipped off to boarding school as a pre-pubescent boy and returned three weeks later as a young draftee headed for Vietnam. (SORAS apparently takes a toll on the cast members who play its victim: Tom Hughes has been played by 13 different actors.) The most severe case of SORAS struck the character Dan Stewart; just 11 years passed from his on-air birth to his graduation from medical school.
Oakdale is also home to some of the most vicious women in the history of the X chromosome. As The World Turns pioneered the concept of the soap opera vixen in 1960 when it introduced the indolent, predatory Lisa Miller ("daytime's first bitch, " CBS press releases proudly proclaim), who at last count has been through seven husbands and is hunting yet another. Audiences loved to hate Lisa so much that Eileen Fulton, the actress who plays her, at one point had to hire a bodyguard to keep strangers from accosting her on the streets.
"Irna Phillips was really great at sustaining a bad girl, " says Lenhart. "Practically every heroine on As The World Turns started as a bad girl or a schemer." The concept has mutated well past anything Phillips, who died in 1973, could possibly have imagined. Lisa earned her rep as a bad girl by using her pregnancy to avoid household chores and later, as a newlywed, taking credit for housework secretly done by a maid. Current bad-girl queen Emily Stewart (played by Kelley Menighan Hensley) recently disciplined a cold-footed fiancé by shooting him, rolling him over a cliff, and framing him for murder. "People looooove her, " says an admiring Lenhart.
EVIL, EVIL GAL
Probably the most palpably evil vixen of all time is the one who did in Irna Phillips herself, a character named Kim Reynolds. Played by Kathryn Hays, she joined As The World Turns in 1972, a single career woman who was the show's first real concession to the feminist movement.
But she went bad with a vengeance, getting involved in ever-more-perilous sexual hijinks that ended with her getting pregnant by her sister's husband, Bob Hughes. When the show hinted that Bob would divorce his wife to marry Kim, some fans complained - and CBS ordered Phillips to reverse courses: no divorce, and Kim would have a miscarriage as karmic payback for her adultery. When Phillips refused, the network fired her.
"At almost the same time, over on ABC, Erica Kane was having the first legal abortion in daytime history on All My Children, and nothing happened to her, " observes Lenhart. "CBS was a conservative place, and As The World Turns was, in many ways, kind of a conservative show." Agrees Poll: "There was an unspoken moral code. If a woman had an affair with a married man, not only did they never wind up together, he usually died."
Other characters die because writers hate them, or the actors who play them. One of the most infamous deaths in ATWT history occurred when an actress named Jane House ran afoul of Phillips.
"Irna wanted her actresses to stay in character all the time - she wouldn't even call them by their real names, just their character names, " says Lenhart. "And she didn't want them playing other roles while they were on As The World Turns."
House, who played a character named Liz Talbot, infuriated Phillips by taking a role on Broadway that required nudity. Phillips first gave Liz Talbot pneumonia; when that didn't get the point across, Talbot was killed by falling up the stairs and bursting her spleen.
"The Guiding Light had recently killed somebody by having them fall down the stairs, so this had to be different, " says Poll.
Even more indicative of the God Complex of As The World Turns writers is their propensity to bring characters back from the dead to spite former colleagues. "Nobody's ever dead unless you see them die in a hospital, they're pronounced dead, and then maybe their body is shot a couple of times in the coffin, " says Lenhart. ATWT characters have mysteriously returned from being shot in the heart, falling out of airplanes and even being still-born.
But the most memorable return was a young woman named Shannon, kidnapped and murdered by a vengeful romantic rival who then mailed her shrunken head back to Oakdale.
"There was a regime change on the writing staff, " recalls Pay, who was working on the show at the time, "and the new head writer told us we had to think of a way to bring Shannon back to life. And we sat there and said, 'How are we going to do that? She's a dead shrunken head.' " But they did, and the world kept turning, just as it has for 50 years.