A Belated Goodbye to Guiding Light

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Last Friday marked the end of an era—a very long era—with the final episode of the world's longest running soap opera and continuous story, Guiding Light. The CBS show closed after 72 years and 15,762 episodes, garnering 39 Daytime Emmys for the show itself and 30 more for the actors and actresses. Plus it launched the careers of the likes of Kevin Bacon, Calista Flockhart, Hayden Panettiere and James Earl Jones.

Guiding Light began shining in 1937, the brainchild of erstwhile Hollywood actress and successful radio actress Irna Phillips. Phillips was already an established name in the soap game, having virtually invented the genre of melodramas involving ensemble casts in increasingly bizarre circumstances. It was Phillips who pioneered the whole idea of an open-ended serialized format and the cliffhangers, and dictated that the more dramatic bits be punctuated by thudding organ music. (The descriptor, "soap opera," came after major cleaning product and hygiene companies like Proctor & Gamble began sponsoring the tortured melodramas.)

Set in the fictional Midwestern town of Springfield, Guiding Light began as a 15-minute radio show on NBC, centering on a widowed small-town pastor and the trials and tribulations of his flock.

The titular "guiding light" referred to the lamp the pastor would leave on in his window, a beacon of hope in troubled times. GL was one of the first soaps to boast "ripped from the headlines" plotlines—early on in her career, Phillips would write to the heads of charities like the Red Cross and Child Welfare, determine the major issues those groups were facing, and then fashion them into melodramatic story arcs. (GL would also help highlight the plight of another, oft overlooked group of people—those who have returned from the dead, typically after a fiery car crash, at just the right moment).

In 1941, sponsor Proctor & Gamble cancelled the show, prompting 75,000 letters of protest from angry fans; only 11 weeks later, the show was back. In 1952, CBS picked up the show for TV, dropped the pastor, and kept Phillips on as writer. (Read more about Phillips here.)

GL would weather the 1970s and '80s storm of ill-fated soaps looking to enter what was then TV's richest market, but today's viewers seemed to have tired of daytime soaps. CBS pulled the plug on GL after the dying program's viewers fell to 2.1 million, making it the least watched of all the network soaps. However, GL's decline and eventual death is symptomatic of a general plummeting for the daytime network soaps, of which only seven now survive.

But let's remember the good times, while we can. Here are a few memorable moments in daytime TV history:

First gay man on US daytime TV

As The World Turns, arguably one of the more conservative daytime soaps, became the first of them to introduce a gay man as a central character, with Hank Elliot in 1988. The same soap became the first to show two gay men kissing in 2007, when its characters Luke and Noah—two young, very attractive young men—finally kissed in August. But viewers were soon frustrated because the two, despite declaring their love for each other under the mistletoe at Christmas, didn't kiss again until months later.

Even Liz Taylor a fan

Say the names Luke and Laura to anyone who was generally conscious in the "˜70s and "˜80s, and they'll know instantly who you're talking about. Luke Spencer and Laura Webber of General Hospital were the first and the best of the soap supercouples, so beloved that even Elizabeth Taylor was a fan. She even guest starred during their wedding episode.

Talking about AIDS in Africa

In 2006, one of the most popular soap operas in South African television decided to address one of the most important issues in South Africa—HIV/AIDS. Isidingo head writer Greig Coetzee decided to have one of his main characters, a beautiful woman who has already had a pretty crappy life, even by soap standards (she was kidnapped, in an abusive relationship, lost a baby), be diagnosed with HIV in an attempt to erase some of the stigma against the disease. In the US, in the 1980s, soap operas were some of the first shows to deal with characters suffering from HIV/AIDS, in the same way that they were some of the first shows to deal with issues such as split personality disorders, alien abductions, and exorcisms.

Can't we all just get along? Not on a soap opera

In 1989, NBC's Generations was billed as the first interracial soap opera, moving beyond the typical soap milieu of rich, white families into the world of black and white families. Unfortunately, the program lasted only 13 months before NBC pulled the plug, citing low viewer turn-out and poor ratings.
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Are you a fan of any soaps? Or do you remember any pivotal soap moments or story lines, like Luke and Laura's wedding or Vicki's split personality? Or know of other big stars who got their start in the soap opera world? Discuss!

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September 22, 2009 - 9:10am
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