Photo: Errol Lewis/SON

Monday, February 22, 2010 12:00 AM ET | By Scotty Gore

(SoapOperaNetwork.com) — Writer and presidential historian William Joseph Reynolds shares with SON his participation in an upcoming book about the world of the daytime drama.

The Survival of the Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era is set to be released later this year by the University Press of Mississippi. The anthology, which is edited by Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik, and C. Lee Harrington, discusses the current and future state of the faltering soap opera genre, and will feature “contributions from scholars, critics, industry practitioners and viewers.” In his interview with one of the book’s editors, Sam Ford, Reynolds discusses his more than two decade long obsession with the since cancelled sudser “The Edge of Night.”

In conjunction with The Survival of the Soap Opera’s impending publication, Reynolds will join the editors and others featured in the book, as speakers at the American Popular Culture Association Conference in St. Louis from March 30th-April 3rd, 2010. As part of his presentation Reynolds, who was one of only two fans to attend the final taping of “Edge” in 1984 (as a special guest of Fan Club President Frances Nonenmacher), will show a video montage of some of the finer moments from “The Edge of Night” and “As the World Turns” from over the years. 

In an e-mail to SON, Reynolds provided the following statement:

“I literally grew up with both ‘The Edge of Night’ (‘EON’) and ‘As the World Turns’ (‘ATWT’), as I was born only three weeks after their CBS debuts in April 1956. When I was in college some twenty-five years ago, I was enrolled in a course entitled ‘The History of American Popular Culture.’ One of my class projects was ‘The History of Radio and Television Soaps.’ It was while I was doing this project that I was fortunate to meet my now dear friend, Dagne Crane, who played Sandy, the second Mrs. Bob Hughes, on ‘ATWT’ from 1965 to 1971.

The way I first met Dagne was most unusual. I guess it is every soap fan’s dream to wake up in a hospital setting and have your favorite soap star hovering over you and caring for you. Well, that’s exactly what happened to me. Dagne was working as a paramedic for our local volunteer ambulance corps. Even though she had been off the show for a dozen years, I recognized her immediately. A short while later, I got up enough nerve to interview Dagne for my ‘History of Soaps’ project. To this day, I never tire of hearing her stories of how it was, back then, to do a live thirty-minute drama, five days a week, fifty-two weeks a year.

One of the things I enjoyed most about ‘EON’ was the fact that, for its entire run on CBS (1956-1975), the show was done live. [‘EON’ was subsequently picked up by ABC from 1975 to 1984.] To be able to successfully pull off a half-hour of mystery every day, with all the pitfalls of a live show, was masterful. The scholars of today can also look back on a show that was not afraid to take risks. For instance, the monologue of Adam Drake in his closing summation during the Julie Jamison murder trial, which took up an entire episode, was soap opera at its very best, and has – as far as I know – never been duplicated.

Similarly, a decade later, when the two leading characters Mike and Nancy were facing marital separation, the only two actors used on that pivotal day were Mike and Nancy’s portrayers, Forrest Compton and Ann Flood. Nothing like that has ever been remotely duplicated. In particular, ‘EON’s’ format stuck out from the rest of the pack. Its crime-themed melodrama was first and foremost. The standard soap themes of jilted lovers, extramarital affairs, and teen pregnancies took a back seat on a show that was mystery-oriented. One of my all-time favorite EON storylines involved the Whitneys, whom head writer Henry Slesar, who held the position from 1968 to 1983, fashioned after America’s real-life political royalty – the Kennedys. The revelation that the younger son Keith was not dead but actually disguised as hippie Jonah Lockwood was masterfully told. In order to keep his secret, Keith/Jonah sent many a character to an early grave. The storyline was riveting and truly kept you on the edge of your seat every afternoon. And, if I recall, the storyline played out over an eighteen-month period, culminating with Keith’s fatal fall off a tower in one of those early ‘on-location’ shoots.

It does my heart good to see polls that indicate that not only was ‘EON’ one of the top soaps of all time, but it is still warmly regarded by its fan base a quarter-century after its cancellation. In more recent years, Web sites that offer vintage clips and episodes of old TV shows have been offering ‘EON’ and opening the doors for a new generation of fans to enjoy. The soaps of yesterday, in my opinion, which were only thirty minutes in length, told more in-depth story than today’s hour-long shows. Yes, I know that boggles one’s mind and does not make mathematical sense, but it’s true. Further, today’s soap producers feel compelled to outdo themselves and their competition with large-scale special effects and exotic remote location shoots. Soaps feel compelled to give us tornadoes, floods, and explosions to draw the audience in. However, sets do not have to be elaborate, nor do special effects have to be over-the-top. Soaps in their radio days did more to capture the attention of their audiences, only through the use of a script, than any of the shows today. I swear they try to outdo each other with Emmy reels of nominated shows full of car blow-ups, murder, kidnappings, rapes, etc.

The state of the American soap opera is, sad to say, on ‘life support.’ I grew up in America’s golden age of television, both primetime and daytime. I saw the soap opera genre at its best. To see it like it is today is like seeing a dearly loved family member with a long terminal illness. In 2010, with great reluctance, we have to say goodbye to ‘ATWT’ on CBS after more than 54 years on the air. It’s a crying shame, and I am not optimistic.” (Reynolds notes that in light of the recent announcement by CBS concerning the cancellation of  “As the World Turns,” the book’s publisher allowed him to “address with with the last two lines [above], but we worded it in such a way that the show could be picked up by another network.”)

William Joseph Reynolds is published historian, whose work focuses primarily on the Presidents of the United States and the Ossining, New York area. He also researches and writes on the history of American soap operas, and participates in both on and offline soap fan community events. He is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Mercy College, as well as a 1986 inductee of “Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities & Colleges,” and has pursued graduate studies at the Westchester campus of Long Island University. To learn more about Mr. Reynolds, click here.

Also featured in the book is Middlebury College professor Jim Mittell, who discusses “how my approach to prime time serial television relates to the traditional daytime soap opera.” You can read his comments here.

SON would like to thank Mr. Reynolds for taking the time and effort to share this information with us and our readers.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Comment Below...