For at least two decades, the cabinet underneath my grandparent's television was packed full of video cassettes and as I dug in search of Star Wars, I had to pass through stacks of tapes labeled "All My Children" or "General Hospital." My grandmother, like so many other women of her generation and the two or three after her, was - and still is - a devoted viewer of soap operas to the degree that the episodes were catalogued for posterity. Until, that is, they were taped over at the beginning of the following week.
Serial dramas have been part of the fabric of Western culture since the late 1930s when the stories were broadcast in 15-minute segments over the radio. During that time, countless viewers have molded the schedules of their real, actual daily lives in order to indulge in the realm of another family for a mere hour a day. That, however, is changing. Folks aren't watching as many soaps as they once did and nothing signified that more clearly than when As the World Turns aired its final episode last month, finally letting the Hughes family story rest after 54-years on the air. Last summer, Guiding Light met a similar fate when CBS brought that series to an end. With shows like The Real Housewives of God Knows Where, and every nonsensical self-obsessed shenanigan of each Kardashian running 16 hours a day on cable, there's less need for ongoing fabricated drama, because we can get it for "real"... as in a "reality show."
The soap opera, however, isn't totally dead. Several shows still survive, including All My Children, General Hospital, Days of Our Lives and One Life to Live, among others. That's a fraction of the number of soaps that aired in the mid 1980s, but the medium is hardly ignored by the mainstream - after all, renaissance man/highly sought after actor James Franco spent some time on General Hospital this year and the remaining shows still draw steady audiences. But things aren't what they used to be - that's what Bend's own Maralyn Thoma thinks, and she should know. Thoma wrote for soap operas for 26 years, but retired from the field in 2007 when Passions was canceled by NBC's less-than-celebrated Jeff Zucker (best known for presiding over the great Conan/Leno debacle of 2010).
Thoma, who owns Bend's 2nd Street Theater, which although closing down its production company last year, is still hosting local plays, including the current run of Evil Dead: The Musical, got into the soap opera writing world almost by accident. Thoma was a dancer on Broadway, then sang in a band when she made it out to California while also making an independent film that she now laughingly refers to as "a terrible movie." In 1981, she locked down a gig as the secretary to the head writer of General Hospital, which, among other responsibilities, required her to lie to producers when they called looking for her boss, who was often in Las Vegas.
Soon after, she began writing for General Hospital and learning the ins and outs of the soap opera production process, which requires intertwining countless ongoing storylines and bringing more than 40 regularly appearing characters into the script. She'd already been watching soaps for years by that point, and like many viewers, was attracted to the medium because it echoed her own life.
"When I was living in New York, my husband was a stage producer and I had a baby girl. My best friend became Lisa on As the World Turns because she had a baby just like I did," says Thoma.
Thoma was working on General Hospital during the golden age of soaps, highlighted by the wedding of that soaps' two stars, Luke and Laura, which drew some 30 million viewers, making it the most-watched moment in soap opera history. While the medium was popular, soaps were often hectic places to work and when new producers came in, that might mean most of the writers would lose their jobs, as Thoma experienced on several occasions, as she jumped between different shows, including three separate stints on General Hospital in between time on Days of our Lives and the short-lived Santa Barbara, before heading to Passions in 1999.
"In those days you might have 42 contract players and they all had different guarantees," says Thoma, "We had to keep charts to make sure we knew how many shows each had [parts] in."
While she was integral to the story of these soaps as a writer, Thoma says she had almost no day-to-day interaction with the actors and that was because all the actors wanted to know was what would happen next in the story. These actors weren't always sure of their character's future on the series and the same went for the lower level writers and producers - only the head writer and a few others were aware of the soap's six-month story arc.
"If [an actor] got into a contract dispute, they'd go into a coma and that happened all the time," says Thoma.
She adds that the other common soap opera story fixture was when one of the characters would come down with a nasty case of amnesia, and if you've seen a soap in the past 50 years, you're aware that amnesia is a more common condition than the flu on these shows. The only events that happen with more frequency in the soap world are extramarital affairs, the appearance of children and/or parents that no one in the existing cast knew existed and actors exchanging long dirty looks before eventually murdering each other and/or falling in love. Thoma's favorite story, which she penned, was when General Hospital's Anna fell in love with a man from another planet.
These days, however, Thoma is happily retired and has no intention of orchestrating more extraterrestrial love affairs. She's been watching from the sidelines as soaps go down one by one, but thinks some of the shows will survive through the age of reality television. In the end, Thoma thinks there isn't much difference between a soap opera and a reality show, and says the latter has writers just like the soaps do. The only difference is that they're writing for real people rather than actors and creating story points rather than specific dialogue. And like soaps, reality shows let people escape from life, if only for an hour or so.
"I think that no matter how bad your life is, you can always find a show with people who have a worse life than you do," says Thoma. "If they see people having a much harder time, it cheers them up."