"General Hospital" Kicks Off Its 60th Anniversary Celebration

By Ed Martin Report Archives
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To refer to the ABC soap opera General Hospital as "long-running" is a massive understatement. On April 1 of this new year, the venerable serial will mark its 60th anniversary. Think about that for a moment. GH is a daily scripted broadcast drama -- once one of many, now one of only three -- that has since it began been in continuous production despite all manner of obstacles (from uncaring executives to extended preemptions for news programming to industry strikes), first at an episode length of 30 minutes, then 45, and finally, beginning in January 1978, an hour. That was the time when, under the auspices of executive producer Gloria Monty, the show began to soar from near cancellation to a ratings-juggernaut the likes of which daytime television (in any form) has not seen since.

The accomplishment of this show -- collectively represented by all the people who have worked on it, past and present, in front of and behind the camera -- is even more impressive when compared to primetime programs. We're lucky to get 20 half-hour episodes of a sitcom during a typical television season -- and they have formidable writers' rooms and comparatively outsized budgets. The creative teams of General Hospital and the other surviving broadcast soaps -- The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful on CBS (along with longtime broadcast staple Days of Our Lives, which migrated from NBC to Peacock in late 2022) -- turn out approximately 250 episodes of scripted entertainment per year. In terms of television production, even though they take breaks they truly never stop.

To mark the occasion of General Hospital's diamond anniversary, ABC tonight is presenting an hour-long special titled General Hospital: 60 Years of Stars and Storytelling that celebrates the longevity and vitality of this remarkable show, which has lasted longer than any other broadcast serial. (Purists insist that Guiding Light, which was cancelled in 2009, had a longer run. In some ways that is true. GL began as a broadcast radio program in 1937 and moved to television in 1952. But in terms of continuous television production GH now comes out ahead.)

I'm impressed by ABC's show of support for General Hospital for several reasons. First, it's great that the network has provided an hour of valuable primetime real estate to promote a daytime drama. Second, the special has been given a very strong lead-in with The Golden Bachelor: The Golden Wedding. Third, ABC isn't waiting until April 1 to call attention to this historic milestone. It has already started to do so.

60 Years of Stars and Storytelling (which is a terrific title, by the way) is filled from beginning to end with an abundance of clips (dating all the way back to the '60s) and commentaries about the show by past and present cast members. Wisely, these actors speak directly to the camera, in effect addressing every person watching, rather than respond to an interviewer, as is often the case in such programs.

Most of the actors who offer insights into the success of the show are members of its current cast. (Tellingly, each one makes a point of thanking the audience for supporting the show over the years.) This should serve GH well, because these are the people potential new viewers will see should they decide to sample the soap after watching the special. But for long-term viewers it is a real treat to see fondly remembered actors from the past turn up to reminisce. There are a couple of big-name stars on hand who got their big breaks decades ago when they were cast on GH. I'll avoid spoilers here, but one of them offers a touching tribute to the late Jacklyn Zeman, who portrayed Nurse Bobbie Spencer from 1977 until early last year. This person is an appropriate and inspired choice. (Note: General Hospital is currently addressing the loss of Bobbie in some of the most powerful daytime storytelling I have seen in years. The emotion is powerful; the drama understated.)

The famous faces aren't limited to past and present players. Jon Batiste, Chandra Wilson and Sarah Michelle Gellar are just three of the stars on hand to offer congratulations. Most interesting is the appearance of a current star from a CBS daytime program that runs opposite GH in some markets who turns up to express much love for this ABC show. It is often said that daytime television is one interconnected community.  There's the proof.

As for the clips, too much is never enough, as the saying goes. Happily, there is no shortage of them here. Scenes featuring such stars as Elizabeth Taylor, John Stamos, Emma Samms and Demi Moore are showcased throughout.

It will come as no surprise that there are clips from the record-setting, pre-VCR-era wedding of Luke and Laura, which was watched when it aired in November 1981 by more than 30 million people. (Genie Francis, who has played Laura off and on since 1977, turns up at just the right time to join the celebration.) But I am pleased to report that a clip from my favorite GH scene of all time is also included. In it, scheming Tracy Quartermaine withheld her father's medication when he appeared to be having a heart attack, tearfully refusing to help him unless he agreed to change his will. Edward eventually revealed that he was faking, which shocked Tracy as much as it did the people watching.

Forty-four years after it aired this scene remains at the center of my favorite (and most unique) General Hospital viewing experience ever. (You can read all about it here.)And that's the point. With every soap opera, past and present, millions of people have favorite moments, favorite actors, favorite characters and favorite storylines that they may never forget. Their enthusiasm is truly passionate; their criticisms even more so. Such intense emotional connectivity doesn't come along very often, and it rarely lasts as long.

General Hospital: 60 Years of Stars and Storytelling does more than simply celebrate a soap. It reminds viewers why they have enjoyed daytime drama for so long, and it reminds the industry why a greater effort should be made to preserve and, perhaps, restore a genre that was once crucial to the success of television.

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