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GH Marks Its Milestone 60th Anniversary

THE 1960s
GH was the brainchild of real-life spouses Frank and Doris Hursley, who cut their teeth as writers in the TV business on series like LASSIE and HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL before being appointed co-head writers of SEARCH FOR TOMORROW in 1960.

Hoping that the success of prime-time medical dramas BEN CASEY and DR. KILDARE would translate to daytime, ABC, which had yet to make any serious foray into scripted serials, bought the Hursleys’ concept for GH — a continuing medical drama set at a hospital in what was then an unnamed city, which focused on the intertwined personal and professional lives of characters like Steve Hardy, the workaholic chief of staff, played by John Beradino, unhappily married nurse Jessie Brewer, played by Emily McLaughlin, and her philandering husband, Phil Brewer, played by Roy Thinnes. Medical consultant Dr. Franz Bauer was a key player behind the scenes, ensuring verisimilitude in the hospital-based stories.

The show — which was initially penned by another set of spouses, Theodore and Mathilde Ferro, before the Hursleys assumed head-writing reins — was low-budget and broadcast live, leading to no shortage of stress on set. Executive-produced first by Selig Seligman, then by James Young (who also directed), ABC’s lone soap ended its first season in the 9th slot in the ratings (out of 13 serials then on the air).

In 1964, GH introduced the character of Audrey, the younger sister of stern nurse Lucille March (brought to life by Lucille Wall, who’d held the title role on the radio sudser PORTIA FACES LIFE), played by Rachel Ames. Audrey and Steve wed in 1965 but divorced three years later. In 1969, she married Tom Baldwin, a cardiologist (and the brother of attorney Lee Baldwin, played by Peter Hansen since 1965) — but due to her lingering feelings for Steve, Audrey balked at consummating the union. In a daring story twist, Tom raped his wife, who became pregnant.



THE 1970s
By 1970, ABC had added two additional soaps to its lineup (ALL MY CHILDREN that year, ONE LIFE TO LIVE in 1968), while the juicy travails of Audrey (who lied that her son, Tommy, had been stillborn, then plotted to “adopt” the very-much-alive tot with Steve, with whom she had reconciled) gave the show a ratings boost. In 1972, GH landed in the No. 2 spot, sandwiched in between AS THE WORLD TURNS and DAYS. But after this peak, GH began a ratings slide that plagued it for much of the decade, even as it expanded in episode length from 30 minutes to 45 minutes in 1976, then to 60 minutes in 1978.

In 1973, the Hursleys stepped down as head writers; they were succeeded by their daughter, Bridget, and her husband, Jerome Dobson. That same year, the show took advantage of a contract dispute between DAYS and one of its biggest stars, Denise Alexander (ex-Susan), and successfully lured her over to play Lesley.

The Hursleys exited in 1975, as did Young, who was succeeded as EP by Tom Donovan, a veteran producer fresh from his post as showrunner of LOVE IS A MANY SPLENDORED THING, who installed spouses Richard and Suzanne Holland as head writers. The following year, he replaced them with Eileen Pollack and Robert Mason Pollack, another husband-and-wife team, and for the first time, the show’s hometown was referred to as Port Charles. But the show’s creative woes continued, with Time issuing a scathing review: “If malpractice is this dull, it is worth insuring against.”

1977 was a year of landmark change for the show. On the casting front, Genie Francis (Laura), Leslie Charleson (Monica), Kin Shriner (Scott) and Jacklyn Zeman (Bobbie) came aboard, while behind the scenes, ABC threatened GH with cancellation unless its ratings went up by two points over a six-month period. The Hollands returned as head writers, but were quickly replaced by Irving and Tex Elman, who were soon thrown over for Douglas Marland, who came highly recommended by the creator of AMC and OLTL, Agnes Nixon. And by the end of the year, Donovan was out, with ABC hiring Gloria Monty, formerly a director on New York-based soaps THE SECRET STORM and BRIGHT PROMISE, as GH’s new EP.

Monty officially took over on January 1, 1978, and her impact was felt immediately. At considerable expense, she scrapped a week’s worth of shows that had already been taped and overhauled the show’s production module, shooting the show in segments instead of live-on-tape, and upgrading the sets and lighting. She also oversaw the advent of the moneyed Quartermaine family, adding Stuart Damon (ex-Alan), Anna Lee (ex-Lila), David Lewis (ex-Edward) and Jane Elliot (Tracy) to the cast, and an increased storyline focus on younger characters (e.g., the sizzling Bobbie/Scott/Laura triangle, adding Anthony Geary’s Luke to the mix). Marland left in 1979, succeeded by Pat Falken Smith and Margaret DePriest, and GH ended the 1979 season in first place in the ratings.

This remarkable turn-around did not come as a shock to Leslie Charleson. “I was from New York and I had worked with Gloria, so I knew her and she was incredible,” she declares. “I never really thought much about whether the show was going to be canceled or not because, at that time, it was a job for me and I was having a good time, and if it got canceled, well, that’s happened before [laughs]. It was just a matter of, we got Gloria and that woman did wonderful things with the soaps in New York and she then turned around and did wonderful things with GH. I never doubted that for a moment.”



THE 1980s
Monty’s golden touch continued into the new decade. The Luke and Laura coupling had become a gigantic pop culture phenomenon, catapulting GH to the top of the ratings, landing the show on the cover of Newsweek and People and netting an audience of 30 million for the characters’ 1981 wedding.
Falken Smith quit in 1981 after creative clashes with Monty and the show cycled through multiple head-writing regimes over the next several years, but fans found many new things to love about Port Charles, including the mega-popular love stories of Robert and Holly, Frisco and Felicia, and Anna and Duke.

Monty was known for a hard-driving perfectionism that was not everyone’s cup of tea. Notes Kristina Wagner (Felicia), “I admired her results and her product; I really admire what she did. She brought the soap world to the front of the media, right? She did that. But it was under a type of control where we kind of lived in a little bit of fear of her.” And under her leadership, the hours were grueling. “They were the longest days in history,” proclaims Charleson. “We would go sometimes until 2 or 3 a.m. and have to be back at 7.”

In practically every way imaginable, the GH Monty left in 1987 was a far cry from the show she had inherited, and after she stepped down, Wes Kenney was named EP. The following year, Y&R supplanted GH in the ratings, and has held an iron grip on the No. 1 slot ever since. Kenney was replaced in 1989 by Joseph Hardy.



THE 1990s
With the show’s ratings continuing to fall, Monty agreed to return as EP in 1991. She lured Anthony Geary back — but not as Luke. Instead, she created the role of Luke’s look-alike cousin, blue collar Bill Eckert, and the Eckert clan was created around him.

Alas, lightning did not strike twice, and fans loudly decried the outsize airtime devoted to this new family at the expense of fan faves like the Quartermaines. Recalls Charleson, “Gloria went, ‘The Quartermaines are old hat, passé.’ Well, I think the audience said, ‘Oh, no, they’re not passé and old hat, and we don’t want to see images of what we do, stirring spaghetti sauce in the kitchen; we want to see how the other half lives and that’s the Quartermaines.’ So, we proved her wrong, but it was a tough go. It wasn’t fun. It was embarrassing and it was feeling like, ‘What’s the point?’ at times. But it turned around and the Eckerts ended up in the Quartermaine living room. Literally!”

Monty was ousted in 1992, with Wendy Riche succeeding her as EP. The following year, Riche killed off Bill, with Geary reprising Luke and Francis returning as Laura. She hired the celebrated creator and head writer of RYAN’S HOPE, Claire Labine, as head writer, ushering in a new era of critical acclaim for GH with key hires (Maurice Benard as Sonny, Jonathan Jackson as Lucky), the poignant tales of Monica’s breast cancer, the death of little B.J. Jones, and Stone’s battle with AIDS, as well as the hit love stories of Sonny and Brenda, and Ned and Lois. Labine exited in 1996, with three different teams spearheading writing duties until December 1997, when Robert Guza, Jr. was named sole head writer.

In 1996, GH aired its first prime-time episode, titled “A Twist Of Fate”. In June of the following year, the GH spin-off PORT CHARLES premiered on ABC, with Riche pulling double EP duty until late 1999. In 1998, ABC aired a prime-time special on the occasion of GH’s 35th anniversary.

The decade also saw the deaths of the show’s two longest-running cast members, Emily McLaughlin (in 1991) and John Beradino (in 1996).



THE 2000s
Riche exited the series in 2001 and was succeeded as EP by Jill Farren Phelps.

During this period, GH again cycled through multiple head-writing regimes. Guza exited in late 2000, succeeded by Elizabeth Korte and Michele Val Jean (2000-01), then Megan McTavish (2001-02); Guza then returned with Co-Head writer Charles Pratt, Jr. Pratt left in 2006, after which Guza head-wrote solo (minus several months during the Writers Guild strike in 2008). He was known for placing storytelling emphasis on the mob (and the show’s most popular mobsters, Sonny and Jason), which could be divisive among fans. Says Maurice Benard, “No one told those stories like Bob [but] when I was doing that stuff, it was, ‘Enough! Enough with the violence, enough with the shootings!’ Even though it was so well-done, anything you do too long, it seems like [viewers] start saying, ‘Stop it!’ ” Guza’s tenure also saw devastating blows to the Quartermaine family, as Anna Lee (and subsequently her alter ego, Lila) passed away in 2004, and both Alan and Emily were killed off in 2007. The ouster of longtime cast member Stuart Damon sparked a particularly loud outcry from viewers.

From 2007-08, another GH spin-off, GH: NIGHT SHIFT, ran for two seasons in prime-time on SOAPnet.

Sonny and Carly’s on-again, off-again love story continued throughout this decade, as did the similarly stormy romance of Jason and Kelly Monaco’s Sam; she was added to the GH cast in 2003, following the cancellation of PC, where she had played Livvie. GH was ABC’s top-rated soap for each year of the 2000s, but lagged behind CBS’s Y&R and B&B in the rankings.



THE 2010s
When AS THE WORLD TURNS was canceled in 2010, GH became the longest-running soap on the air.
2011 was a year of major change both at ABC and at GH. The network announced the cancellations of both AMC and OLTL, leaving GH as its lone remaining soap. Guza was out as head writer, succeeded by Garin Wolf, and at the end of the year, ABC Daytime chief Brian Frons confirmed that Farren Phelps and Wolf were both out; he tapped OLTL’s outgoing EP, Frank Valentini, as GH’s new showrunner, while OLTL’s head writer, Ron Carlivati, would take over those duties at GH.

When the men officially assumed their positions in 2012, GH’s continuation was far from a sure thing. “When I came in, it wasn’t looking very good,” Valentini admitted to Digest that year, after GH, which had been dogged by cancellation rumors for months, was given an official reprieve in the form of a renewal. The show marked its 50th anniversary in grand fashion in 2013, resurrecting the Nurses’ Ball (a beloved tradition from 1994-2001) and welcoming back a slew of fan faves ranging from Jack Wagner (ex-Frisco) to Vanessa Marcil (ex-Brenda) for celebratory visits. In 2015, Anthony Geary retired, followed by Jane Elliot in 2017, though her return to the show is imminent.

Carlivati exited as head writer in 2015, succeeded by Jean Passanante and Shelly Altman. In 2017, Passanante retired and Chris Van Etten became co-head writer. When Altman retired in 2019, Dan O’Connor was tapped as Van Etten’s co-head writer.

Over the course of the decade, GH picked up three additional Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series.



THE 2020s
2020 was an unprecedented year for GH, as the Covid pandemic forced the show to halt production from March to July. The show won the Outstanding Drama Series Daytime Emmy in both 2021 and 2022 and, on April 1, becomes the first soap opera to mark a 60-year run on television, and the longest-running scripted series in American television history. Marvels Rebecca Herbst (Elizabeth), who marks 26 years on the show this summer, “It’s hard to wrap your mind around how long the show has been on the air and how many generations of families have watched and fallen in love with these characters and storylines and stayed so loyal. To know that I’m even a small part of that is truly mind-blowing. It’s hard to put into words how incredibly grateful I feel to have landed in this place, because I love it with all my heart. I love the people I work with. We truly are a family, in front of the camera and behind the camera — sometimes a dysfunctional one [laughs].”



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