Random Play: “Guiding Light” (Part 1)

Springfield’s lighthouse no longer shines, but memories of Guiding Light, the longest-running soap opera in history, still burn brightly for Kelly Stitzel and Robin Monica Alexander.

 

Roger Thorpe, a.k.a. Adam Malek, a.k.a. Professor Schneider. Alexandra Spaulding, a.k.a. Baroness von Halkein. Reva Shayne Lewis Lewis Spaulding Lewis Winslow Cooper Lewis Lewis O’Neill. These colorful characters, among countless others, contributed to the success of the longest running drama in the history of television, Guiding Light.

When the lighthouse that was its symbol went dark, GL had seen nearly 16,000 episodes come and go—and that’s not counting its fifteen years on radio prior to its transfer to TV. Sadly, younger, sexier “soap operas” like The Young and the Restless (which has been #1 in daytime every week for the last twenty-two years) and the proliferation of shock-a-licious talk shows ultimately proved too much for the old girl, and she was put out to pasture in September 2009. But before it collapsed under its own weight, having succumbed to the kind of “jumping the shark” plot developments that lost them longtime viewers (clones, anyone?), it was appointment viewing for a young Robin Monica Alexander and an even younger Kelly Stitzel, who were introduced to the secrets of fictional “Springfield” by their respective grandmas. When Jeff Giles interviewed One Life to Live actress Kassie DePaiva for Popdose last month, both of us were thrown headlong into nostalgia—you see, before Ms. DePaiva was OLTL‘s Blair, she was GL‘s Chelsea Reardon, who was lucky enough to have affairs with a fine selection of Springfield’s hottest hunks. (Oh, Johnny Bauer…)

The Guiding Light was created in 1937 by actress Irna Phillips, whose goal was to spread Christian inspiration through good, clean soap. Phillips built a career providing entertainment to homemakers; she would go on to create and produce several more serial dramas, including As the World Turns, Another World, and Days of Our Lives (the last is the only one still in production). The Guiding Light began as a fifteen-minute program, was lengthened to a half-hour in the 1960s, and expanded again to an hour in 1977; for four years in the ’50s, it was being broadcast on both radio and TV concurrently. In 1975 the “The” of the title was dropped. More than a few of its hundreds of cast members went on to less sudsy careers, including James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Allison Janney, Hayden Panettiere, and…Kevin Bacon (proving that he really is the center of the show business universe).

Before TV, GL revolved around the Reverend John Rutledge, who as his community’s pastor found himself privy to everyone’s dirty little secrets, including a few in his own home. By the time the show moved to the boob tube, the Bauer family was the central focus. Despite their middle-class status and solid German-American values, those Bauers managed to attract a lot of A-level conflict:

Kelly: One of the first storylines I remember as a young GL viewer is that of the friendship between teenagers Rick Bauer, Phillip Spaulding, Beth Raines and Mindy Lewisa.k.a. the Four Musketeersduring the early ’80s. The core friendship of that group was that of Phillip and Rick, who, despite their different upbringingsPhillip was raised by the rich and morally questionable Spaulding family and Rick belonged to the salt-of-the-Earth Bauerswere practically inseparable after meeting in high school. Their friendship would endure a lot during their teens and twenties, including quite a bit of romance-swapping (they would each date the other two Musketeers, Beth and Mindy), but it was truly testedand for a short period, endedwhen Rick discovered that his wife, Meredith, had slept with Phillip and become pregnant with his child. Worse even, Rick found out that Phillip was the baby’s father after its death, since he’d chosen to save Meredith’s life over the child’s when complications arose during the delivery. Even though I was a pre-teen when this storyline aired, I remember being in awe of the brilliant performances given by Grant Aleksander (Phillip), Michael O’Leary (Rick) and Nicolette Goulet (Meredith)O’Leary’s especially. I hated that the friendship between two of my favorite charactersa friendship that was a main reason why I had become interested in the show as a little girlmight end for good. They took what could’ve been a standard, trashy soap storyline and elevated it to something heartbreaking and more meaningful. Of course, Phillip and Rick eventually reconciled and went on to be involved in many more shenanigans that would test their BFF-dom.

Robin: Speaking of unintended pregnancies…I remember being amazed that Dr. Ed Bauer (Rick’s dad), so ordinary-looking, soft-spoken and professionally respected, was such a chick magnet. By the time I began watching GL, he was already three-times divorced and now married to the much younger Maureen Reardon. Poor Ed was so unlucky that he even cheated on his wife without meaning to: believing that Mo had been killed in an explosion in war-torn Lebanon (which looked suspiciously like a TV studio), Dr. Ed engaged in some grief-stricken nookie with his colleague, Claire, only to find out the next day that his wife was still alive. Unfortunately, that battle-zone quickie had gotten Claire pregnant, a fact that was particularly painful for Maureen, who had suffered a miscarriage and found herself unable to conceive again. Luckily for (almost) everyone involved, Claire went nuts after giving birth (just one of many postpartum depression-fueled storylines GL would employ), so Ed and Mo were able to adopt little Michelle and raise her as their own. They were happy, until Ed “accidentally” cheated again (with a family friend who jumped him in the shower); Mo found out, flipped, jumped into her car and drove straight into a fatal wreck. The actress who played Maureen won a Daytime Emmy a few months after her character had been dispatched; in her acceptance speech, she described encounters with fans who called her “Maureen! Maureen!,” to which she responded, “I’m dead! I’m dead!”

 

The luckless Maureen hailed from the Reardon family, a clan so large that whenever the writers needed to introduce a new character who could instantly evoke an emotional response from the fans, they simply brought a new Reardon to town. The matriarch, Bea, ran a boardinghouse with an adjoining restaurant, conveniently providing a location for the town’s unending series of flirtations, confrontations, and reconciliations to take place. Not that the Reardons lacked for any of their own drama:

Kelly: Nola Reardon was one of the quirkiest, most eccentric characters Guiding Light viewers had probably ever encountered when she burst onto the scene in 1980. Nola used old movies as escape from her boring life working with her mother at the family-owned boardinghouse, often turning events in her life into film-related fantasies. She also passed the time stirring up trouble with a variety of local men, eventually tricking one into getting her pregnant so she could pretend the baby was fathered by another man she was trying to trap. But it wasn’t until she began working for the mysterious archaeologist Quint McCord (who would eventually be revealed to be Quint Chamberlain, son of local blueblood Henry Chamberlain and sister of diva Vanessa) that Nola would find the true man of her elaborate dreams and begin to change her ways. With a romance modeled after the Hitchcock film Rebecca, Quint and Nola captured viewers’ imaginations, and when they married in 1983, it was one of the most spectacular weddings in GL history. Besides the Four Musketeers, Quint and Nola’s romance is the storyline I remember most vividly from the early ’80s. As a wee lass, I may not have understood the shenanigans Nola was always up to with the men she was trying to bed, but I was enthralled with all of her movie daydreams. And when she and Quint took off in that hot air balloon at their wedding, I was completely captivated. I still say that their wedding was the best soap wedding of the ’80s. Suck it, Luke and Laura.

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Robin: I was super into Annabelle, Tony Reardon’s sweet but strange wife. First, her childhood flashbacks solved the decades-long mystery of her mother’s death, which—oh SNAP!—turned out also to be the mystery of Tony’s father’s disappearance. The denouement, in which her evil dad totally lost it and began confusing his daughter for his dead wife (and trying to kill her, too), was easily the creepiest thing I had ever seen on TV up to that point. Later, when she and Tony moved into their first home, a seemingly innocuous cottage, Annabelle started having psychic visions that revealed scandalous secrets about (what else?) murder, interracial adultery, and millionaire Brandon Spaulding, who—even though he had died on screen five years earlier—was revealed to be alive and well in Barbados…for one episode. Then he died again.

Ah, yes, the Spaulding family. On the other end of the spectrum from the Bauers and Reardons, they were a high-strung group of eccentrics who became very rich running a manufacturing business…that is, a shipping business…well, whatever, they were very rich. They all have Mommy/Daddy issues (see above storyline about the amazing undead paterfamilias, Brandon) and are world champions of intrigue and backstabbing:

Kelly: From the moment rich brat Alan-Michael Spaulding’s motorcycle collided with the car carrying a pregnant 17-year-old girl to the hospital on her way to give birth, I was completely sucked into what would become one of my favorite storylines. Ironically, the girl was actually named after a motorcycle—Harley Davidson Cooper. At first, Alan-Michael hated low-class Harley, but eventually the pair became friends. With a desire to not only antagonize his family, to whom he’d never felt like he really belonged, but also to make some quick cash, Alan-Michael talked Harley into marrying him in order to gain access to his trust fund.  Horrified that A-M wanted to marry someone they believed to be nothing but trash, A-M’s aunt Alexandra and brother Phillip devised a plan to break the pair up. Phillip attempted to seduce Harley, but when he failed, he grew to like and respect her and decided to give her lessons on how to be a proper Spaulding. A-M and Harley married and, though they didn’t get their hands on A-M’s trust fund, they did end up falling in love for real. However, their happiness didn’t last, as the father of the baby Harley had given up for adoption re-entered the picture and threw a monkey wrench into their newly wedded bliss. A-M and Harley eventually divorced and moved on with their lives. Several years later, the friendship between Phillip and Harley would be rekindled—and would eventually turn to romance and marriage, making Harley a Spaulding once again. The Phillip/Harley pairing would become one of the show’s most popular in the late ’90s, though it too would be doomed to fail because of Phillip’s lingering love for his old flame, Beth.

 

Robin: Lujack. Lujack, Lujack, Lujack. Alexandra Spaulding’s long-lost street-punk son, Brandon Luvonaczek, was only on GL for two years, but he frickin’ took over the show during his tenure. The surly young tough spent his time driving his guilt-ridden mother insane, luring the virtuous Beth away from his bitter cousin Phillip, and, as the frontman of a rock band, performing a piss-poor version of “Out in the Street” by Bruce Springsteen over and over. Why on earth they blew him up in 1985 I will never understand. Of course, when Vincent Irizarry, who played Lujack, wanted to return to the show, they had to create a storyline that explained why a guy who looked just like Lujack was suddenly hanging around. They came up with the “secret twin” excuse, wherein a woman is somehow unaware that she has given birth to two children instead of just one (please see sisters Lily and Rose on As the World Turns for a second example of this absurd storyline). Sadly, the reanimated Lujack was nowhere near as entertaining as the original.

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In our next installment of Random Play: Guiding Light—will more characters cheat on their spouses? (Yes.) Will actors who look/sound not even remotely Hispanic be cast as Latin Americans? (Yes.) Will people lose their memories, disguise their identities, and plunge off of bridges? (Hell yes.) Join us next time as we remember the charming Buzz Cooper, the scheming Blake Thorpe, and the diva to end all divas, Reva Shayne.