Created by writers Frank and Doris Hursley, General Hospital was one of two hospital-based daytime dramas to premiere on April 1, 1963 (The other was The Doctors). Though pre-dating the height of the feminist movement by several years, it nonetheless appealed to a female audience that enjoyed broadening its attention beyond the home by shifting the conventions of the soap opera from the kitchen to the workplace, and from a focus on the family dynamics to one on relationships between coworkers. The show's developers created the hospital staff as a large surrogate family, and wrote storylines that were in a constant state of flux between the personal and professional challenges presented to the main characters.
During its first few years the drama centered on the friendship of Dr. Steve Hardy and nurse Jessie Brewer, and on their complicated love lives. The self-sacrificing Brewer had suffered for years in a marriage to an unfaithful husband who was much younger than she; although she went on to have a number of relationships and several marriages, she always seemed to return to her original spouse and to further abuse until his death finally freed her. For his part, Dr. Hardy faced his own problems due to an on-again, off-again relationship with an ex-stewardess named Audrey March. In one storyline Audrey becomes pregnant by artificial insemination during a separation from Steve, goes to Vietnam, returns, marries someone else, becomes pregnant again as a result of marital rape, leaves that husband, and reconciles with the always understanding Steve, who adopts her child.
General Hospital seemed to lose its focus during the late 1970s despite the efforts of the Hursleys and later writers, including their daughter Bridget, to stick to themes that had brought the show success in the past. When ratings hit rock bottom in 1977 and ABC was considering canceling the program, a last ditch effort at resuscitation brought in writer Douglas Marland, who had created a number of highly successful, youthful storylines on The Doctors, and Gloria Monty, who had directed Secret Storm, as the new producer. Monty infused the show with prime-time production values by introducing new scenery, crosscutting, and new lighting, and demanding that the actors speed up the pace of the show. Marland created a new storyline centered on 15-year-old Laura Vining (Genie Francis), a previously peripheral character, and her relationship with Scotty Baldwin (Kin Shriner). The story was further complicated by the introduction of a new rival for Laura, the scheming Bobbie Spencer. When Laura killed a taunting older lover in a rage and allowed her self-sacrificing mother to take the blame, the show's ratings really took off, bringing in a younger audience who became particularly hooked on the unfolding tragedy of the mother and daughter.
While Marland continued to develop the stories into the 1980s, Monty continued to shorten scenes, emphasize action over dialogue, and synthesize emerging trends into the show's plots. The efforts of the two practitioners returned General Hospital to a top-ten spot in the ratings.
The show reached its peak in popularity in the early 1980s following the departure of Marland and the hiring of his replacement Pat Falken Smith. Smith created what many considered the most controversial story in soap opera history, that of having Laura marry Scotty, but then become fascinated with an older, more sophisticated man, antihero Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary), who raped her in his deserted disco. The show couldn't afford to slow its pace by having a trial or ordering the incarceration of Luke, so the incident was passed off as a seduction, although Laura subsequently spent a year in therapy trying to recover from the emotional damage done by the attack. Nonetheless, whether it was rape or seduction, the chemistry between the two characters incited fan interest to a fever pitch and, despite critical outcries denouncing the producers for condoning rape, the show began to increase its focus on Luke and Laura. As this happened, mainstay characters Steve and Jessie were demoted to supporting status with but a few lines of dialogue each week.
Luke and Laura's wedding on November 16 and 17, 1981, became the most-watched event in the history of daytime TV, even attracting a guest appearance by Elizabeth Taylor, a fan of the show. Monty then steered the show in a more fanciful direction by having Luke and Laura confront the efforts of a mad scientist who, in an attempt at global domination, decides to freeze the world. Although the storyline disappointed GH purists, the theme attracted a new teenage audience, and ratings soared. Within a couple of years, however, both actress Genie Francis and writer Pat Falkin Smith departed the show to develop their careers further. Monty assumed the role of head writer. Although plots were both hit and miss among fans, the ratings continued to increase.
By early 1985, after a succession of writers had tried to move the show in different directions with limited success, Smith returned many of the original characters to prominent roles while his focus continued to be on action-adventure themes. When Smith was succeeded by Claire Labine in the 1990s, the emphasis shifted to social issues such as AIDS, organ transplants, and other emerging medical/ethical issues, and General Hospital came full cycle, returning, at least in part, to its original premise of drama in the lives of hospital personnel.
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