Very detailed article looking back at 20 years of GH.
Happy anniversary Dr. Steve Hardy, Nurse Jesse Brewer, Luke & Laura, Drs. Alan and Monica Quartermaine, Noah Drake and everyone else who has drifted in and out or still remains in the fictional harbor town of Port Charles.
For the uninitiated, Port Charles happens to be the setting of General Hospital, the ABC-TV daytime soap opera which is by far the most popular program on daytime television. This month, General Hospital celebrates its 20th anniversary. Attracting some 14 million viewers daily, with an amazing 75 percent of them in the 18-34 age bracket, General Hospital has become a bona fide cultural phenomenon. College kids hover around the TV set in their dorms; housewives stay glued to the set while ignoring their dusting and cleaning; grandmotherly types have become absorbed by the show's passion filled storylines. There's never been a daytime serial as addicting as General Hospital. While General Hospital has been chalking up mega ratings throughout the years, it also has been compensated with countless awards. Its list of Emmys encompasses every aspect of production, from acting and writing to design and technical achievement. During its 20 years, General Hospital has come a long way both in format and production techniques. No longer is it — or for that matter, other afternoon soaps—confined to few rudimentary sets, some schmaltzy organ music and drab dialog. Daytime soaps have become kissin' cousin to prime-time dramas with state-of-the-art production, opulent costumes and location shooting.
Although production wasn't as sophisticated in 1963 as it is now, from its inception General Hospital has been an innovator in various facets of production. From a technical standpoint, General Hospitals history is as colorful as its storylines. First, General Hospital was the first soap opera to be produced on the West Coast. New York traditionally was the hotbed of soap opera talent, due primarily to Broadway and the theater. General Hospital remains the longest running daytime serial originating from the West Coast. General Hospital also was the first soap to utilize the wireless RF microphone and it was at the forefront in experimentation with camera and lighting work. "ABC was the first to use the wireless microphone," recalls George Hillis, General Hospital's first technical director and now general manager of ABC network news ENG, remembering back to 1963 when they were introduced. "No one wanted to touch them because they felt they were unreliable, and they were. "The boom mike was the most antiquated piece of equipment. We attempted to break through that and give the characters full freedom and the chance to talk softly. The lighting directors had freedom from the boom shadows and the actors didn't have to speak up," Hillis said. "But we used them because Jim Young (General Hospital's first director/ producer) wanted the actors to be free. They had a range of between 10 and 15 feet. We had to hang antennas over all the sets." Emily McLaughlin, who plays nurse Jesse Brewer, was the first actress to wear an RF wireless mike wrapped in teflon, Hillis said.
"I remember telling Roy Thinnes (an original cast member) not to wear clothes with starch because they would crinkle against the mike," Hillis said. "We had a lot of trouble with the mikes because they were never used before," recollected Jim Young, who produced and directed the soap for 12 years. "The audio men, though, got to know the ladies very well. Bras were a problem if they had any metal on them. Little things like that caused problems, and there were many." Another problem encountered with the wireless mike, said Hillis, was that the bedsprings would soak up much of the transmission. "We would have a character brought into the hospital room and then the voice would disappear just as they were laid down on the bed." Hillis said mikes were placed strategically in such places as the nurses station or Dr. Hardy's desk in a way that the cameras couldn't pick them up. "The actors would stop in pre-arranged places to talk." Until 1966, General Hospital was shot in black and white on 2-inch videotape, using RCA TK 12 cameras that Hillis praises as "the most sophisticated black and white camera at the time." The TK12s were so huge and heavy that a crane and three people were needed just to move them. "In the early days the cameras cranked," said Young. "If you had someone standing, all you could do is crank down, which looked dumb. It was a slow, noisy process. We also had turrent lenses instead of zoom. On each camera we'd attach four lenses which had to be manually flipped all the time." "In 1963 we had fixed lenses," said Hillis. "Zoom lenses were just over the horizon. Fixed turret lenses were more difficult for the •camera person. If you weren't on the mark, each shot would be different. More accuracy was needed. With zoom lenses you can cheat and compensate for it." Young said that General Hospital pioneered use of the camera-supported pedestal, forerunner of pedestals that are now hydraulically propelled. The pedestals back then, Young said, were supported with counterweights. "If someone sat, then the cameraman would lower the camera as the person sat which made it look more like film. "But the counterweights tended to clank. Audiences didn't mind as long as it was believeable," said Young. "We even had some sets fall down at times," he noted, referring to the clumsiness of the pedestal. "But audiences ignored it."
In 1966 when General Hospital went to color, the cameras were upgraded to the Norelco PC60. Both Hillis and Young recall no major problems with color. "It did create a problem with wardrobe," said Young. "White uniforms had to be dipped in color so they would look white on camera. Physically the sets became more important because of the dimension of color." No soap would be worth its weight without a dramatic musical score to highlight the tensions, romance and turning points. General Hospital's music, under the supervision of George Wright, was innovative once more. "Scoring the show was a major task," said Hillis. "George Wright had this instrument called the Chamberlain, which resembled a piano. Each key had an audio loop with a different sound effect. Wright would mix the sounds as he played it. He improvised filters, telephone clicks and other sound effects because we didn't have the equipment then. Today, you can buy it. In those days you had to build it. "The audio men would flip a key and put a filter on. Sounds were created manually and improvised on the spot. Now, effects are punched up with camera numbers and they automatically switch when the technical director switches cameras." Recalled Young: "The machine looked like a piano because it had a keyboard. It had thousands of reels of tape inside. If you wanted a trumpet sound, you'd get a recording of a trumpet note, or a violin or whatever was needed.. And it gave an organ sound. You had to have a nutty mind to invent something like that. But it added a dimension that was quite different then. I didn't want canned music and I hated the organ. It was still there when I left."
Because production of soap operas was new to Hollywood, the talent pool was more limited than in New York. "In New York you had the Broadway theater people who could do soaps," said Robert Trachinger, ABC vice president and general manager of broadcast operations and engineering, West Coast, a technical innovator in his own right. Trachinger is responsible for initiating the concept and experimental work in slow motion black and white on tape and for the development of the first broadcast quality hand-held camera. "California is a film town," Young said. "The star system had to be used in the credits while in New York it was listed alphabetically. I seldom had to deal with agents. There were good people in New York because of the theater, but physically I thought it was easier in California. "The hardest thing was making the actors understand the show was live television. Even though it was taped, we shot as if it was live," Young said. "If we had to stop, it broke up the creative flow and it was unhealthy financially. We were 10 minutes late on one show because of the mikes." Like most soaps of the time, General Hospital confined its action to what went on in one location, in this case the hospital. Opulent decor and location shooting were still years away. General Hospital's sets included the nurses station, Dr. Steve Hardy's office, an elevator door and two basic hallways. If action took place in someone's house, some furniture was constructed. "The number of sets was irrelevent," Young said. "That wasn't of interest. And besides, we didn't have the kind of money then as you do today. The most important thing were the stories and second most were the actors. "It is probably the hardest kind of acting. Actors would have to learn 30- 35 pages of script and they were on camera three or four times a week. It was just too much to go on five times, although sometimes the situation demanded it. When we finished a day's shooting, we immediately had to start on the next one. A lot of actors couldn't do it," Young said.
When General Hospital debuted in 1963, the program's cast was anchored by Dr. Steve Hardy, played by John Beradino, and Nurse Jesse Brewer, portrayed by Emily McLaughlin, both of whom still remain with the show although in diminished capacities, Plots dealt with such medical traumas as alcoholism, obesity, mental disorders and the like. By the end of the '60s, General Hospital had risen to the top in daytime dramatic television with such progressive storylines as Dr. Hardy's wife's secret artificial insemination. Pretty tame stuff compared to modern day tales of rape, infidelity, lust and passion. But as the times changed, so did the scripts. "In the '60s and '70s there was a lot of social upheaval," Young said, "which had ramifications. At one time we couldn't say 'oh Lord.' Censorship is necessary but dramatically there were certain times when such language was necessary. I remember talking it out with broadcast standards because they didn't want to offend anyone. "One time we put a dummy under a sheet on a gurney. In a hospital you always see bodies. All you saw was a sheet. It was hardly grisly and on for only about four seconds, but it was objected to. It's innocent now but it depends on the times. I don't remember any serious problems with scripts. Broadcast standards always came to dress rehearsals even though they read the scripts beforehand," Young said.
General Hospital expanded its format from 30 minutes to 45 minutes in mid-1976, but by the end of 1977 ratings had taken a nosedive and the show faced cancellation. In January 1978, General Hospital expanded again to 60 minutes. At the same time, ABC hired a movie-of-theweek producer by the name of Gloria Monty to rejuvenate the show's terminally ill ratings. It was Monty who singlehandedly made massive changes that included new sets, new wardrobe, new writers, location shooting, state-of-the-art production techniques and a quick-cut pace that brought General Hospital back to the top. "When I took over General Hospital, I wanted to combine theatre, which was my background, with film, but with the immediacy of tape," said Monty "Just because we were daytime, we still had the same audience as nighttime. I had 1- inch tape (as of 1979) and I knew how to edit." Monty credits people like Alan Landsburg, whose specialty was documentary, for helping her create the image of film using tape. "I said to him, `If we were to do General Hospital on film how would it be done?' So we put our skills together and used a tape camera doing it the same way," Monty said. Monty changed General Hospital's lighting and the entire way the serial was shot. Instead of three cameras, Monty went for five. At the time she joined the show, there was one technical director, one lighting director, one associate director and one stage director, David Smith. "She made it easy for us technical people," said Smith. "Gloria listened. She was instrumental in getting us the best equipment because she was in tune with all the new equipment." From a camera standpoint, Monty went for better angles, more lows and highs, more drama to accentuate the performances. "We went for nonstandard shooting," said Monty. "I went for cinema vente. We went from 13 scenes to 26 scenes in each show. We taught the director and the cast to keep the action moving. We didn't do dissolves but hot cuts. "The first thing I did was.get rid of any dissolves even in flashbacks. We decided to go for hot cuts and I knew where the edit points were." Monty also credits the creativity of her engineering staff. "One cameraman is good for a love scene, another for an exciting action scene. The engineering staff is as creative as the actors. Unfortunately, they have been ignored in television." The next major upheaval was the music. "I did a whole switch on the music," she said. "I loathed the organ and strings. To me, the music was most important. I wanted a completely new sound so I used electronic music and the music of today. I have an ear and I know when it's right. Music and drama are the same today." Ask any avid General Hospital fan about the music and chances are that Herb Alpert's "Rise" would immediately come to mind as they recall Luke Spencer's (Tony Geary) now famed rape of Laura Baldwin (Genie Francis) on Luke's deserted disco floor. Monty also brought a sense of repertory to the General Hospital cast. She introduced younger charaeters, who succeeded in attracting younger viewers.
Monty had the sets redesigned, giving the hospital a more modernized interior. "The number of sets was really the number of scenes," Smith said. With three sets, if we kept the action going back and forth quickly, it looked like a hundred. Gloria's success was in how to make a scene transition. She created a swift transition with movement, movement, movement. Each edit point was like a story." Monty also dressed the actors in more contemporary clothing, often listening to their opinions and advice on the latest trends in clothes. And she brought General Hospital out of the confines of its fixed soundstaie set to different on-location cities and places. General Hospital has been averaging a minimum of four remotes a year to such places as Catalina Island, London, Utah and British Columbia. Said Monty, "We do a lot of location shooting but only when it's required. I don't do it for beauty's sake, only if it can't be done in the studio." Since Monty's arrival, General Hospital has remained at the top of the daytime ratings heap. Looking back at General Hospital's early days, George Hillis said, "We were trying to learn everything by ourselves. Today's cameramen and engineers have someone to teach them. We learned as we went along. We stayed up and burned the midnight oil to make everything look normal."