The world's most influential entertainment form becomes a bit less mysterious

November 23, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

On a warm summer's evening some years ago, I was walking to dinner on New York's upper Fifth Avenue with a friend, a soap-opera star by trade. Ahead, there appeared a well-turned-out quartet: father, mother and two teen-agers, a boy and a girl. The woman, hands outstretched, greeted my companion, a total stranger, as if she were an intimate.

"Hope," she said, with emotion, "you are our very favorite. We all just love you." My friend, whose name is Elvera Roussel, beamed back with the enthusiasm of an actress deeply responsive to fans.

The four clustered around her, chatting away. I heard that since the father was busy lawyering during "Guiding Light's" air time, each daily, hour-long episode (which all included Hope, the romantic-lead character) was taped. That was watched en famille in the evening - though, the mother confessed, "sometimes I cheat and watch twice."

Elvera signed autographs and came toward me. The family talked intensely together. As Elvera reached me, the mother called out "Hope!" and swiftly strode to us, taking her firmly by both hands. She looked earnestly into Elvera's face. "Hope, I hate to be the one to tell you," she said, with the gravest seriousness, "but we have decided we must." There was a pause. "Your husband is seeing another woman."

I took this first to be a joke, but the woman's face made it clear that she was dead serious. She was talking about the Hope on her television screen, with no consciousness of the fact that my friend was somebody else.

Elvera thanked the woman and took my arm. We were a full block away before I found words: "What in hell was that?"

"Not hell," she said, "It's heavenly. I've almost never talked with a fan who could recognize me as a person separate from my role."

100 million strong

Today, at any given time, industry authorities report, more than 100 million people are watching soap operas - daytime television serial dramas - worldwide. In numbers of people and hours, watching soaps is arguably Earth's most popular occupation, besides eating. Those programs may be more influential than all the "serious" books, periodicals and broadcasts conferred upon the public.

Now comes a book that at least opens a fair-sized window on the subject: "Worlds Without End: The Art and History of the Soap Opera," edited by Robert Morton. (Abrams. 176 pages. 145 illustrations. $29.95).

It is related to an exhibition that will open at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City and in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Dec. 5 and run through March 8, 1998. The exhibit is significantly sponsored by Proctor and Gamble, which supported radio soap operas from their beginnings in the early 1930s, and which by 1959 had 12 soap operas on the air on television and radio. (This year P & G will spend an estimated $1.2 billion on television commercial time.)

The book contains three of James Thurber's famous 1948 essays in the New Yorker about soaps. But mainly the chapters are by currently well-credentialed specialists. All are clearly written and free of flackery. Understandably, they are neither critical of nor condescending to the genre. Well written throughout, the text is punctuated by little boxes of informative, provocative quotations from participants. It is full of delightful photographs.

There are few if any industries that are studied as carefully or as scientifically for audience and effects. Yet the book establishes, fascinatingly, that the guiding force of the soaps for almost 70 years has come from the individual intuitive genius, if that's the word, of a tiny handful of people.

The phenomenon is not just American. Brazil produces and exports more soaps than the United States. Mexico is a major producer. So is China. So are Britain, Japan, Russia, Belgium.

If you get truly serious, there are a lot of other books - if you count fan-stuff, dozens. One other just out: "Women and Soap Opera: A cultural Feminist Perspective," by Dannielle Blumenthal Praeger. 152 pages. $49.95). It is scholarly, but makes an interesting, intently iconoclastic case that the soaps are actually agents of feminist liberation. The 1995 "Love and Ideology in the Afternoon: Soap Opera, Women, and Television Genre (Arts and Politics of the Everyday)," by Laura Stempel Mumford (Indiana University Press. 165 pages. $12.95 paperback) is interesting, but dense.

The meaning of it all

What does it all mean? Well, a very smart, tough-minded friend who no longer watches soaps but who knows many people who do put it well, and more succinctly than the books: "The soaps define the margins, the boundaries of life for the real watchers. There are exceptions, but mostly they show the dangers of going beyond the edges. And when the extremes of the soaps are not proscriptive - which usually they are - they are cathartic releases. They let the audience live out their impermissible fantasies."

Healthy, it seems to me. Heathily fantastic; even more heathily stabilizing. But despite almost 70 years of continuity, this stuff is not your grandmother's agony hour. There has been rapid growth of the female African American audience, in content and respect - and more recently the gay male fan group, which has been recognized and written into soaps. The medium responds quite daringly to contemporary challenges.

"Guiding Light" started on the radio 60 years ago, went to television in the 1950s and has been on the air ever since, the record holder. Elvera Roussel is no longer Hope.a In fact, there no longer is a Hope. But that's another story.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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