Guiding Light

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Guiding Light

The longest running soap opera in broadcast history, Procter & Gamble's (P&G's) The Guiding Light, premiered on radio in 1937. Although recognized as one of the many soaps developed by the legendary Irna Phillips, a 1946 lawsuit ruled that a former writer, Emmons Carlson, share credit for its creation. The veteran soap's logo, a rotating lighthouse beacon, was an apt metaphor for its significance as a guidepost in the cultural lives of generations of fans and for the genre itself. Over the decades, Guiding Light evolved into a paradigm model for the melodramatic excesses of soap opera, both influencing, and being influenced by, its imitators and successors. Within the liberating parameters of its world, it was frequently a ground-breaker, daring to dramatize previously taboo topics, and through its sheer longevity, has permeated American popular culture.

Reverend John Ruthledge (Arthur Peterson) served as the program's central character for many years, counseling not only family and flock in the fictional hamlet of Five Points, but the nation's radio audiences, comforting them through economic depression and war, and preaching against such evils as racism. When the show moved production from Chicago to Los Angeles, Peterson resigned, Ruthledge was killed off, and Five Points was transformed into the town of Selby Flats, California. The original thrust of the program was left far behind, and a new set of characters, the Bauers, became the core family in Guiding Light's new incarnation. The ratings suffered and, with Hollywood thought to be the culprit, the production migrated once again, this time eastward to New York.

The Guiding Light premiered on CBS television in 1952, and ran parallel with continuing radio broadcasts for the next four years. Meta Bauer (Jone Allison, later Ellen Demming), who would maintain a presence for four decades, emerged as a popular young heroine at this juncture. When Phillips exited the show in 1958, she eliminated Meta's stepdaughter by having her crippled and then killed in a traffic accident, eliciting a howl of protest from viewers. The proprietorial involvement of soap opera fans thus made its existence known to the creators.

The 1960s saw The Light's setting shift once again, this time to the Midwestern town of Springfield. Agnes Nixon, future creator of All My Children, took over the reins as head writer and proceeded to afflict matriarch Bertha Bauer (Charita Bauer) with cervical cancer, a trend-setting idea that had both P&G and CBS worried about negative fallout. However, the only consequence was to educate female viewers about the need for a yearly Pap smear. Nixon was also instrumental in bringing racial integration to Springfield, with Billy Dee Williams and Cicely Tyson, and later James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, inhabiting the roles of Dr. Jim and Martha Frazier, a professional, African-American couple. This new strand happily failed to valida te the misgivings of executives who thought ratings might suffer; rather, it influenced other soaps to strive for racial diversity. In the 1970s, the husband-and-wife writing team of Jerome and Bridget Dobson offered a timely marital rape story based on the real-life Rideout case. The installment, involving nefarious Roger Thorpe (Michael Zaslow) and his wife Holly Lindsey (Maureen Garrett), was imitated by such programs as Days of Our Lives and Another World. In 1978 the series title was simplified to just Guiding Light.

The writing turnover continued in the 1980s. General Hospital had recently set the standard for appealing to Baby Boomers and Light was now duty-bound to follow its lead. When writer Douglas Marland left General Hospital due to creative differences, Guiding Light snapped him up. After listening to his own teenage niece's romantic fantasies, Marland paired teen Morgan Richards (Kristin Vigard, later Jennifer Cooke) with much older medical student Kelly Nelson (John Wesley Shipp) and added a jealous golddigger, Nola Reardon (Lisa Brown). Morgan and Kelly slept together while she was still a minor, but CBS balked, albeit briefly, at allowing them to marry. The story turned the coupling of innocent teenage girls with experienced older men into a soap opera staple.

The newly introduced Reardons provided a working-class presence, and after Nola manipulated Kelly into believing he had fathered her unborn child while in a drunken stupor, and as she contemplated abortion, a series of vignettes in which she imagined herself the heroine of such classic films as Dark Victory and Casablanca delighted fans and prompted mimicry on other programs. In 1982, Marland's tenure with the show ended when he challenged the dismissal of a favorite actor. During this period, scholar Michael Intintoli had ventured behind the scenes at Guiding Light, generating a published study entitled Taking Soaps Seriously. Among other things, Intintoli chronicled the creators' concerns about targeting youthful demographics.

Various writers tried their hand in Marland's wake, continuing to highlight tangled teen romances. The Lewis oil dynasty and the upper-crust Spauldings had been added to the cast of characters in the early 1980s, with the Spauldings, especially, slowly displacing the Bauers at Guiding Light's core. But it was brazen Reva Shayne (Kim Zimmer) who emerged as the program's vixen-turned-heroine by marrying her former father-in-law, Lewis patriarch H.B. (Larry Gates), and finally settling on her former brother-in-law Josh Lewis (Robert Newman) for an on-again, off-again, "super couple" turn.

The 1990s began at a cracking pace with the resurrection of villain Roger Thorpe and the death of Reva, and quickened further under executive producer Jill Farren Phelps. A blackout story produced new and intriguing character links. Later, soaps such as All My Children and Sunset Beach attempted similar shakeups with their own disaster scenarios. Phelps angered fans by killing off matriarch Maureen Bauer (Ellen Parker) in response to focus group data, but the working-class Coopers, led by Vietnam veteran Buzz (Justin Deas), gained a foothold. The super-coupling of Buzz's daughter Harley (Beth Ehlers) and her fellow police officer encouraged replication a few years later on Another World. A planned love story between Buzz's other daughter, virginal Lucy (Sonia Satra), and drifter Matt Reardon (Kurt McKinney) did not materialize after Matt's affair with forty-something divorcée Vanessa Chamberlain (Maeve Kincead). Fans enthralled with the May/September romance wanted more, and writers obligingly shepherded the pair into matrimony and parenthood. Lucy was eventually raped by a cross-dressing psychopath in a story line that had Internet fans fuming about women's victimization and creeping sensationalism.

Guiding Light's top-tier ratings of the 1950s and 1960s had dipped downward with the Baby Boom influx. Caught lagging behind in its attempts to lure this generation and younger viewers, the show failed to recoup its losses during the next two decades. The 1990s saw a parade of personnel, including Phelps and several older actors, axed, while Reva was brought back, first as a spirit and, later, fully embodied—an absurdity that actually gave the show a boost. However, when producer Paul Rauch went further and tried to ape the fantasy-oriented NBC soap Days of Our Lives by cloning Reva, Internet fans, who named the clone "Cleva," bristled. Still, as the millennium drew near, the show had become such a comforting fixture in its continuity, trend-setting social relevance, and comparative verisimilitude throughout the better part of six decades, that many of these sometimes disgruntled viewers have remained faithful and "keep turning on the Light. "

—Christine Scodari

Further Reading:

Allen, Robert. Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Intintoli, Michael. Taking Soaps Seriously: The World of "Guiding Light." New York, Praeger, 1984.

Matelski, Marilyn. The Soap Opera Evolution: America's Enduring Romance with Daytime Drama. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland, 1988.

Museum of Television and Radio, editors. Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera. New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997.

Poll, Julie, and Caelie Haines. "Guiding Light": The Complete Family Album—Anniversary Edition. New York, General Publishing Group, 1998.

Scodari, Christine. "'No Politics Here': Age and Gender in Soap Opera 'Cyberfandom."' Women's Studies in Communication. Fall 1998, 168-87.

Waggett, Gerard. Soap Opera Encyclopedia. New York, Harper Paperbacks, 1997.