This week, the CBS soap opera Guiding Light will fade to black after an unprecedented 72-year run that began as a radio serial in 1937 (it was first broadcast five days after FDR’s inauguration), and then moved to TV in 1952.
The show still gets around 1-2 million viewers per episode, but that’s not enough for CBS executives, and the residents of the fictitious town of Springfield are being asked to pack up and move on. The show’s last episode is this Friday.
Who do I think of most as this television institution is drawing to a close?
My mom, of course.
Lynn Houk was a Yale-trained actress who had quite a resume of leading performances in local and regional theater during her acting run, as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of movie history. And because of this acting base, one of her great joys was spending thousands of weekday afternoons, cigarette in one hand and often an iced coffee or tea in the other, watching the CBS soaps, with Guiding Light as the 3pm anchor leg to the 3 1/2 hour slate of programs.
For those of you who think soaps are vapid, overdramatic and ridiculous, well, given the outrageous plot lines, they often are. But especially on the CBS soaps, the acting is strikingly good, and that is often backed up by the many Daytime Emmys that CBS soap actors take home every year. It’s a fact that many well-known actors and actresses got their start on soaps, including the likes of Alec Baldwin, Meg Ryan, Kevin Bacon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mark Hamill, and many more; hey, even Leonard Nimoy was on a soap before he donned the pointed ears and played that guy on the Enterprise. Jonathan Frid, the vampire-like character on the ABC gothic soap Dark Shadows was one of Mom’s Yale classmates, and she had many other theatrical acquaintances that were soap actors.
And that’s why my Mom appreciated the soaps so much. Sure, she laughed and even cringed at some of the more outlandish plot lines, and the way characters could die a violent death only to return six months later to wreak havoc amongst the still-mourning survivors. Or maybe they were so disfigured from their “accident” that they would have plastic surgery and return as another actor. Or how soap kids seem to grow three times as fast as real kids.
But it was really because of the acting that Mom watched Guiding Light every weekday that it was on from probably 1970 or earlier right up until around the time of her death in 2004. She developed her stable of favorite actors and characters, and was never shy about conveying her feelings about the characters, or the acting. Comments like “Oh no!” or “That’s not fair!” or “Come on!” would echo from the living room during the afternoon soapfest. Heck, she had a right to criticize, she could have played any one of a hundred of the soap divas she would cheer for or against. I remember thinking she could have assumed the role of Alexandra Spaulding or Vanessa Lewis, two of Guiding Light’s main characters, very easily.
Now it may sound kinda depressing that she spent so much of her time with the TV, inside, watching these soaps, and maybe, well, it kinda was. There were so many other things she could have been doing. But hey, it was a true joy for Mom to dissapear into the towns of Oakdale, Genoa City, and yes, Springfield, every day, analyzing the performances, becoming in tune with the nuances, watching the actors go through their paces. I’m sure she secretly wished she was down in NY or out in LA on the sound stage running through scene after scene as one of the cast. In fact, I’m sure part of the allure of watching these shows was dreaming she was doing just that. And ya know, she woulda been great at it.
But part of it was also the comfortable routine of it all, her knowing that not long after the soaps ended for the day, and she did a little housework and made sure the cats were all fine, that my Dad, the love of her life, would come bounding through the door, mix the martinis and the next part of the day, the night, her favorite time of day, would begin. There’s something to be said for that kind of routine and comfort. Not for everyone, but it worked for my Mom.
So, as the hugs and tears intermingle between the members of the Guiding Light family this Friday, setting the sun on a 72 year tradition, I’ll think of my beautiful Mom, watching the closing credits, putting out her cigarette, taking a last sip of that iced coffee, shooing the cats into the kitchen with her, and waiting for her husband to come home, so they could be each other’s…..Guiding Light.