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The Circus Comes to "The Young & The Restless"


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Text and Photos by Tony Rizzo

ONCE UPON A TIME, in the tiny kingdom of soap operas, every daytime drama - from All My Children to Search for Tomorrow - looked alike. The same flat lighting, the same slow-moving storylines, and the same traumas day in and day out. Then one day, a new ray of hope appeared on the horizon, and it was called The Young and the Restless. The cast, by and large, was beautiful, and all the other soaps followed suit by hiring the young and the fetching. While no one on Y&R ever boasted that their young, inexperienced cast members could rival Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, they did go to great pains to light the cast so they looked as attractive to viewers as they did in the studio.

For several years, Y&R seemed to have a monopoly on the glamorous California look, but in time the rest of daytime caught up. So Y&R gave viewers storylines like rape, mastectomy, and even a nervous breakdown in Central Park during a rainstorm following a purse-snatching. These innovative plotlines, created by William Bell and expertly executed by executive producer John Conboy, kept Y&R in the forefront of daytime popularity.

To compete with Y&R, other soaps like All My Children and The Guiding Light started spending big bucks taking cast members on location in far-off exotic places, successfully luring viewers and soaring high ratings for their shows.

John Conboy and producer Ed Scott have never been ones to copy the other soaps, because, for some time, they have set standards many of the show have been following. Rather than wrack their brains trying to find a new location to top all the others, they decided to use the production values of a film spectacular on the show by bringing the better part of the "Greatest Show on Earth" to Stage 43 of Television City in Hollywood, where Y&R is shot five days a week.

A phone call from associate producer Tom Langan afforded the invitation to visit the set and see the circus come to Y&R. When I arrived on the set, I found that this particular segment, which would run under five minutes on the show, had been two weeks in the planning stages, and there were to be 67 extras working on Y&R that day. That's a lot of "atmosphere" players even for an independent movie production!

The set was no longer a TV studio but the Big Top of a circus. Clowns and men on stilts were walking around the sidelines. Bleachers had been set up and were loaded with children and their makeshift TV parents. Behind the cameras were the scores of mothers who had brought their children to a day at the circus. Live animals were in the hallway of the vast CBS complex, awaiting their cue to be brought onstage. With all the confusion and excitement, the unpredictable nature of animals was something the director Howard Quinn could do without. For another thing, the social worker on the set was there to make sure the children worked only within the limits of the law. They had to be off the set by 6:30 p.m. or there would be trouble.

Needless to say ,the sawdust on the stage floor slowed things down, too. It took longer to set up the shots, since the cameras couldn't be moved easily. To add to the pressures were the problems on the other stage, where they were taping a scene in The Bayou which featured a fourth appearance by former President Gerald Ford's son Steven. He landed the role after a series of readings for the casting people, who weren't even aware of the connection between him and his famous father.

Meanwhile, back at the circus, Leslie, played by Victoria Mallory, was seated in the bleachers beside her TV nephew (who is actually her son by Lance), Brooks Prentiss. Brooks is being played by R.J. Williams, whose real name is Robbie Williams. He is not allowed to use his full name, since the Screen Actors Guild felt there might be confusion with Robin Williams, star of nighttime's Mork & Mindy.

While the actors were awaiting their cue to begin watching the aerial acts which would be cut in later, I sought out R.J.'s mother. To my surprise, I found she was my old friend Cindy Williams (not of "Laverne and Shirley"). Cindy and R.J. are from a real show-business family. Her aunt is famous sister Helen Greco, her sister is Judy Strangis, who played Helen Loomis on Room 222. Their brother is Sam Strangis of 10-4 Productions, which produced Rainbow with Andrea McArdle (the story of the young Judy Garland), and R.J.'s father is Bob Williams, who was the producer of Love American Style and now owns Sunwest Recording Studios in Hollywood. A background like this may explain why R.J., at four-and-a-half, is a veteran actor. He played Robby Benson's son in the upcoming film The National Lampoon Goes to the Movies, and appears in a McDonald's commercial, and a North West Orient Airlines commercial. In his spare time, R.J. models for Robinson's Department Stores and works on Y&R.

Cindy, who gave up her career as a singer to be a wife and mother, admitted: "It's really funny how Robbie got his job. His agent called to say he had an emergency interview for a soap opera, because the boy playing the role had broken his leg in a bicycle accident. We rushed Robbie to the set, and after he read for the part they took him upstairs to the studio, put him before the camera, and he became the new Brooks Prentiss. All in all, it took only one hour form his reading to his debut as Brooks!" Last week R.J. did the voice of a little boy named Tommy in an animated special for the holidays called Alvin and the Chipmunks.

As time began running out, R.J. and Victoria moved from the bleachers to the next set, which had a puppet show. They then looked at themselves in fun-house mirrors, ate cotton candy and hot dogs, and capped the experience with a pony ride - R.J. that is - not Victoria! R.J. is a total professional, never complaining once about the pace or doing retakes. He and Victoria have a warm and wonderful working relationship.

By some miracle, the director managed to finish the scenes with the children and get them bundled off for home, breathing a sigh of relief. I watched as the crew began striking the circus set and tearing it down piece by piece.

The following week, Tom Langan invited me back to see the finished tape. I sat in amazement as I watched the modern technology that made it all happen so believably. The scene begins with an exterior of the Big Top, then cuts to the inside of the tent and the circus jugglers, intercut are shots of Brooks and Leslie watching the circus. Elephants, horses, aerial acts, and trapeze acts followed.

Everyone involved with Y&R should be very pleased that they've done it again. Leave it to Y&R to bring a spectacular look to daytime television, with high production values and a new form of soap opera entertainment. After all, where else can you get a taste of the magic of a circus - with lunch and all - for free.

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That's one of the reasons I posted it. Between the title and all the talk of how innovative the show was and how they didn't try to ape any other soaps, it was like a big laugh from 19 years ago.

It's interesting though how many people working behind the scenes in this article went on to such long careers in soaps.

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