Guiding Light Memories

My Guiding Light memories taste like iced tea.

In my grandmother’s aluminum-sided ranch outside Pittsburgh, the iced tea was fresh-brewed, heavily sweetened, and served in 1940s gold-trimmed highball glasses. I would sip it and wait impatiently for my grandmother’s “stories” to end so I could watch Brady Bunch reruns, or Match Game, or anything else.

As the minutes passed, certain images seared themselves onto my young brain. Alan Spaulding and Hope Bauer floating on the wing of a downed plane. Barbara and Holly and Chrissie together—three redheads who caused my grandmother (a rather naïve television viewer) to wonder if the actresses were related in real life. Phillip’s adoptive and biological parents forming various marital configurations. Roger terrorizing Rita in a funhouse hall of mirrors. (By dressing up as a clown to lure Chrissie, Roger also terrorized my younger brother, who never forgot that unnerving scene.)

Later, in junior high, my best friend and I drank instant iced tea from amber crinkle glasses as we watched Guiding Light in her family room after school. While our peers who watched soaps followed General Hospital, we watched as Nola and Quint floated away toward marital bliss, Carrie broke down on the witness stand at her murder trial, and Phillip finally learned the truth about his parentage.

I started sneaking to the local convenience store to buy Soap Opera Digest with my own money because my dad considered soap magazines trash. I littered my diary with references like “GL was boring today” or “Can’t wait for GL tomorrow.”  In ninth grade, when a change in schools and a long bus ride made me miss most of the show, my absentee rate soared. I ordered a GL t-shirt by mail (and received, with it, the mid-1980s promotional brochure displayed in the gallery above). I kept watching, through Reva’s slut of Springfield speech, Bert’s death, Beth and Lujack’s romance. Once, I even convinced my dad to drive me and my best friend to a mall 20 miles away to see Vincent Irizarry in person.

I stopped watching briefly around 1986 when the show seemed adrift. Thankfully, I returned to see Michelle Forbes’ harrowing performance as Sonni/Solita and the brilliant period that followed. From about 1989 to 1994, the writing, the direction, and performances by actors like Michael Zaslow, Maureen Garrett, Beverlee McKinsey, Sherry Stringfield, Grant Aleksander, Beth Ehlers, Peter Simon, and the rest came together to create something perfect. At the end of each episode, when the announcer said, “This has been Guiding Light,” I felt sad that another hour had elapsed.

Three years ago this week, when the final GL episode aired, I cried throughout it, even though only the opening logo montage and Josh and Reva’s happy ending really resonated with me. The truth is, I was part of GL’s problem. I stopped watching in 1994 for what I thought would be a temporary break and never really found my way back. The times I tried to watch, it just didn’t capture my attention. I seemed to lose my taste for the genre’s conventions. (Bad writing didn’t help—in 2003, actors like Tom Pelphry and Gina Tognoni sucked me back in; the continuity-shredding Mary Ann Carruthers story sent me screaming for the exits.)

Hypocritcally, though, I wanted GL to last forever. I wanted to turn it on every Fourth of July to see the Bauer barbecue, to turn in on in December and watch Springfield residents preparing for Christmas while I was wrapping last-minute presents, to know that the show my grandmother had listened to on the radio was still airing every day, even if I couldn’t be bothered to watch it.

According to TV Tropes, Guiding Light “may be the longest recorded narrative in the entire history of mankind.”

Sometimes I wish entertainments could be declared historic landmarks, the way buildings are.

But, of course, entertainment is a business, and business doesn’t work that way. When tastes change, whole forms of entertainment die out. Soap opera audiences began declining sharply in the 1990s*, and now only four daytime soaps remain on the air.

When GL ended, the saddest part for me was knowing I might never be able to re-experience my favorite moments. Soap opera episodes were produced to be aired a single time and then forgotten. I’m thrilled with the Guiding Light DVDs Soap Classics has been releasing, and I will continue to gobble them up. I even ordered Guiding Light DVDs from Germany.

Watching these old episodes has helped me fall in love with the show all over again.

I only wish my grandmother was here to watch them with me, over a glass of iced tea.

*You can find an interesting discussion about the reasons for this decline here.

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