Next week will bring with it an extraordinary broadcast milestone: on April 1, the 50th anniversary of ABC’s “General Hospital.” Given all the excitement surrounding this event, it is somewhat sobering to note that just last year ABC seemed ready to cancel this still-vital series. Had either “The Revolution” or “Good Afternoon, America” succeeded, it is entirely possible that “GH” would have been unceremoniously terminated before reaching its history making golden anniversary.
Happily, “GH” survived a real-life cliffhanger that rivals those of classic serials on the radio and at the movies, not to mention prime-time and daytime soap operas themselves, and now here we are, marking a significant broadcast accomplishment at a time when significant broadcast accomplishments are increasingly few and far between. Further, “GH” is celebrating this milestone just four weeks before “All My Children” and “One Life to Live,” the two long-running soaps ABC dumped in September 2011 and January 2012, respectively, are poised to be reborn as daily Web serials on The Online Network. If they succeed, broadcast will have lost claim to the one programming genre that it could still call its own.
Later in 2013, I’ll be marking an anniversary of my own. It will be 35 years since I began watching “GH.” That was in 1978, several years before the arrival of the VCR. Like millions of similarly impressed young people at the time, I somehow managed to adjust my schedule and visit the fictional town of Port Charles, N.Y. several days a week without benefit of a recording device. I’ve stayed with the show through good times and bad, almost bailing on it during the last decade, when it became a poorly written mob drama that favored murder and gun violence over romance and escapist adventure. Happily, the mob mess seems finally to have been put to rest.
Hundreds of features about “GH” will likely appear next week across all media platforms. I’d like to mark the occasion by telling a simple story that illustrates not only my relationship to the show but the amazing connection it had with the television audience long before that audience was connected via the Internet and social media. It’s also a reminder of the singular power and influence broadcast television had before cable spread across the landscape.
It was Memorial Day of 1980, about two years after I began watching “GH,” when I first realized how outrageously popular the show had become. The previous Friday’s episode had ended with a cliffhanger that many long-time “GH” fans still consider the show’s best ever: Tracy Quartermaine (played by Jane Elliot, who is still with the show and still commands the screen whenever she is on) had been arguing with her father, millionaire business tycoon Edward Quartermaine, who had seen fit to cut her out of his will. As their argument escalated, Edward suddenly grabbed his chest and collapsed, gasping for breath and begging Tracy for his heart medication. Tracy refused to help him unless he promised not to sign his new will. As the episode ended Edward lay on the floor, apparently dying, as Tracy gazed out of her penthouse doors, hauntingly telling her father that it was a “beautiful night.”
Was Edward really dead? Would Tracy really let her father die? Like millions of other viewers I couldn’t wait until the following Monday – which happened to be Memorial Day. A friend from school was staying at a house on the beach in Milford, Conn. that holiday weekend and had invited my friends and me to a Memorial Day beach party. The forecast called for a perfect beach day, but a terrible problem threatened to ruin our fun: There were no television sets in the beach house. (Imagine that!) Those of us who watched “GH” wouldn’t be able to see whether Edward lived or died.
I saved the day when I produced a portable black and white television (with rabbit ears), but then a second issue arose: The reception in the house wasn’t very good. So we ended up running a series of extension cords from the house out onto the beach and put the TV under a large umbrella. The reception was much better there, even if sun glare made it difficult to see the screen.
Here’s the really interesting part. When the iconic “GH” theme blared from the TV, people up and down the beach came running over to our area. As a crowd formed around the umbrella, people were asking about Edward. Was he dead? Had Tracy let him die? We were all watching when Edward snuck up behind Tracy and tapped her on the shoulder, revealing that he had been faking his heart attack to test her loyalty. Most of the people in our ragtag crowd of “GH” fans jumped or yelled or laughed.
Every “GH” fan has a favorite memory of the show. Mine is from that Memorial Day, and not simply because that episode was the conclusion of an awesome cliffhanger. Social media communication was still several decades away, but we had a bit of it (in the prehistoric sense) on the beach that day. That “GH” episode was certainly unforgettable, but the spontaneous fan flash mob that afternoon made it even more memorable.