Thursday, April 2, 2009

Guiding Light


My buddy Larry Dahlke has mentioned on his blog the passing of ER, after 15 years. He makes an evocative point that, sometimes, the long-time presence of certain things, like TV shows, creates a bit of stability in lives which are otherwise full of change. I couldn't agree more, and echo his sentiment with my own bit of wistfulness regarding the announced passing of the longest running scripted program in television history (it's even in the Guinness Book of World Records), Guiding Light.

This show is so old, it predates television. The soap (by the way, any idea why they're called soap operas? Anyone? It's because, in their infancy, these programs were all sponsored, and even produced, by companies which sold soap. In fact, Guiding Light has always been produced by Proctor and Gamble, the makers of Ivory and Camay, as well as Cheer, Prell, Crest, and Pampers) began life as a 15 minute radio drama in 1937, and remained merely audio for 15 years. The initial premise concerned a paternal reverend who placed a light in his window to let everyone know he was available to guide them. When the show made the jump to television in 1952, the "Guiding Light" became a lighthouse, guiding rudderless characters to safety. The motif of the lighthouse must have been dreamed up by someone who failed geography, as the show takes place in Springfield, Illinois, which is landlocked.

Like every other soap opera, Guiding Light has been a training ground for scores of folks who went on to more high-profile careers, such as Calista Flockhart, Cicely Tyson, Taye Diggs, and Hayden Panettiere. Allison Janey, Kevin Bacon, and James Earl Jones all spent time on the show, which was also home to the actress whom TVGuide claims to be the best actress ever to work in daytime, Beverlee McKinsey. I would not dispute that claim, and reinforced it when I wrote of McKinsey's death last year.

But I have two personal reasons for keeping Guiding Light on my radar. My old college cohort Bob Newman joined the soap right out of school, cast most certainly for his hunky good looks more than his talent, which was pretty raw back then. (Bob played Conrad Birdie to my Albert Peterson in Bye Bye Birdie during our college days. Here he is in a group shot from the show; he's lying in my lap.)

When the show paired Bob with actress Kim Zimmer, who has won multiple Emmy awards for her work, his self-centered young hunk matured into the show's leading man, which he has remained ever since.

For several years, the executive producer of Guiding Light has been a woman named Ellen Wheeler, who is another with whom I have a bit of history. Ellen won a couple of Emmys for her acting on All My Children (playing twins) and Another World (also playing twins), but when I met her, she was in a career slump. There is no other explanation for her being in Los Angeles, directing a stage production of Damn Yankees at Glendale Centre Theatre. She cast me as Applegate in the show, and provided me with the opportunity to play one of my dream roles, after which she moved back to New York and resumed her higher profile career. She became Guiding Light's head honcho several years ago, and was responsible for the decision to film the show digitally. It was a spectacular cost-saving move, but the technique of using hand-held cameras was quite foreign to daytime audiences, and they deserted the show in droves. That decision was the last nail in the coffin for the show, which will be ending its historic 72 year run in September.