You might have read that the longtime soap opera, As the World Turns, is being canceled after 54 years. The soaps are the daily newspapers of daytime TV, once everyday staples that are now dying off like dinosaurs in a meteor-induced dust cloud.
In the not too distant past, the soaps seemed eternal, playing endlessly on television with characters who never died, family feuds that were never settled, tragedy that never stopped, and holiday episodes that would never end.
The soaps relied on the appeal of unchanging archetypes: wronged women, strong men, wise fathers, and mothers who wheedled information out of their neighbors and offspring as confessors and ceaseless meddlers. Even the names of classic soap operas had a kind eternal, ethereal ring: The Edge of Night, Guiding Light, Search for Tomorrow, Another World. The titles sound like Jehovah's Witnesses pamphlets. Their content might be mundane, but in that mundanity we would be uplifted by sacredness of the ordinary.
Like you, I scoffed at the silliness of the soaps, but I had a special connection to them. My aunt, Barbara Berjer, was a soap star. She was born and raised in Seattle, a Mt. Baker girl who attended Franklin High (where she dated, to my grandfather's disapproval, a young baseball phenom named Fred Hutchison), and Cornish. She studied acting in Chicago, then wound up in New York. She appeared on Broadway (in Gore Vidal's Best Man, in Dylan with Alec Guiness), popped up occasionally on network TV (Law & Order) but day-in, day-out, she brought home the bacon by acting in the soaps. In our house, the TV set was tuned to whichever show she happened to be on, whichever slow-motion train wreck was her life at the moment, courtesy of the script writers.
In the 1950s, it was From These Roots, a pioneering soap reportedly a favorite of Tennessee Williams, no stranger to melodrama. From the mid-1960s to the early '70s she was a mainstay on As the World Turns as the character, according to Wikipedia, "Claire English Lowell Cassen Shea #4." So many marriages and mutations. From the '70s-'80s, she lit up Guiding Light. Having aged from young love interest to middle-age matron, she was out of the soaps for a few years until she returned in the mid-'80s on Another World, this time as a mysterious old lady who seemed to show up for holiday specials, a kind of Yoda figure with a Scottish burr who was, in fact, an uncanny impression of my grandmother.
When I visited my aunt in New York, she would arrange for me to come to the CBS studios in lower Manhattan to watch the show being rehearsed and broadcast. In those days, As the World Turns and Guiding Light were done live, meaning soap operas had to hire real actors who could memorize their lines and do everything in one, live take. They relied on trained theater people. It was astonishing to sit in the control room and watch these productions, as complicated to pull off as a NASA moon landing. In later years, when shows were taped, they began hiring models, often young hotties who couldn't perform live but looked great with editing and retakes.
My aunt was a wonderful actor, convincing in her roles, a mentor to people she worked with and, in later years, coached (like a young Anne Heche, an Another World cast member). But I was baffled about why she was in the soaps. It seemed so tacky. I got up the nerve to ask her once and she bristled at the suggestion that they were somehow beneath an actor. She told me that from the standpoint of craft, it was the hardest job in acting. Why? Well, there was the fact that you had to learn a new script each and every day and perform it live. This wasn't a stage show that was the same day after day during its run. But she said the main challenge was to play the same character every day and make her convincing. It's tough enough to be oneself everyday, let alone let a character inhabit you for years.
So soap actors lead double, or maybe even triple, lives. There was Barbara Berjer (sometimes she also used her married name, Foley), there was "Claire English Lowell Cassen Shea #4," and then there was the amalgam that the public saw, a person who was some combination of the two. Strangers would stop my aunt on the street and lecture her about her soap opera relationships as if she were the character she played. One male actor who portrayed a cad on Guiding Light was attacked on the streets of New York by a fan who could not tell the difference between the soap and reality. Then there was the celebrity who enjoyed a degree of fame, but Barbara Berjer the actor was also a kind of performance, a persona.
Aunt Barbara was a very pretty young woman and got glamor roles. In her late middle years, she was dropped as too old for romantic leads, too young for village elder status, which meant your role was often to shred lettuce in the TV kitchen while grilling the young folk about their lives. In the end, she aged into that wise woman role, but when the script writers on Another World killed off her character, Bridget Connell, the fans rebelled and they had to return her to the show as a ghost. In that role, she popped in from time to time, rocking and knitting in the attic, dispensing wisdom from the beyond.
The impending death of As the World Turns in poignant, not just as a cultural shift, but a tectonic one. Characters on soaps often survive the actors who played them; they come back to life, appear as phantoms, or are resurrected as evil twins. In recent years, the soaps mostly jumped the shark plot-wise (gangsters, terrorism, exotic locales, erotic dancers), but they seemed to get even less interesting as they raised the stakes in search of viewers. The soaps of my aunt's era, particularly in the '60s and '70s, dared to be common, predictable, and numbingly about life as we mortals could relate to it. The plot twists weren't caused so much by crime and violence as by miscommunication, by people not telling each other the truth or how they really felt, by the lies family members tell each other.
Adding to the poignancy for my family is the fact that the day before Thanksgiving, my cousin Michael Foley, Barbara's only child, died. Mike was the last of that branch of the family, my aunt having died in 2002. She'd moved back to Seattle by then, but her son remained behind, institutionalized in a home for people with severe cerebral palsy.
Mike was devoted to his mother's soaps and proud of her career. Though mentally and physically disabled, he'd been a big part of her life backstage, in the studio, often traveling with her. He would tell anyone who would listen about his mom's TV stardom. At his memorial service in New York, a funny story was told. Mike was interviewed by a shrink who asked him about his mother. "My mother," he said, "is from another world." The shrink was baffled. "What did you say?" Mike reiterated, "My mother is from another world." The shrink was concerned about whether Mike had lost touch with reality, and insisted that Mike's mother was in fact from this world, planet earth. "No," an exasperated Mike insisted, "she's from Another World," it was the TV show, he explained.
Indeed she was from another world. And as we learned this week, it's a world that soon will no longer turn the way it used to.