It’s been an eventful 25 years for Laura Spencer since marrying Luke in a fairy-tale wedding seen on television by 30 million people.
She died, and was brought back to life. She killed her stepfather. She gave birth to a son by an adulterous affair, and now Nikolas is a single dad after the baby’s mother died of a virus. Her other son, Lucky, is addicted to painkillers. Her daughter, Lulu, recently aborted a child after being impregnated by a stepbrother.
Oh, and Spencer spent the last four years in a catatonic state — waking up just in time to marry Luke again this Thursday on “General Hospital,” 25 years to the day after their first wedding.
This is a soap opera, after all. Nothing is easy, including ABC’s attempt to relive the show’s glory days, which has a bittersweet feel because of the actors’ conflicted feelings and the slow decline of daytime drama as an institution.
There had never been a more influential soap opera moment than Luke and Laura’s wedding. There never will be again.
“You could walk down the hallway and talk to anyone on our daytime staff and they could tell you where they were when Luke and Laura got married,” said Brian Frons, president of daytime TV for the Disney-ABC Television Group.
Carolyn Hinsey was among the crowd around the television set at her Indiana University sorority house. Laura Spencer — like the actress portraying her, Genie Francis — was only 19 at the time and leading a much more glamorous life than the girls in Indiana could imagine, said Hinsey, now editor of Soap Opera Weekly.
The relationship had creepy overtones, since Luke had raped Laura two years earlier, yet it captured the imagination. Francis and her TV husband, Anthony Geary, landed on the cover of Newsweek. Elizabeth Taylor appeared on their show. Another fairy-tale bride of the time, Princess Diana, reportedly sent champagne.
“I didn’t really understand how big it was,” Francis said. “I really enjoyed all my time at work. The hard time was when I was not working. Fortunately, there were not many of those hours.”
She was still a teenager, idolized by her peers. Yet, she was lonely.
Geary had an even tougher time.
“It just wasn’t anything that I was prepared to deal with as an actor, because I was in daytime,” he said. “We were international celebrities, but still considered small-screen. People didn’t take it seriously and those that did took it too seriously. It was a very, very odd place to be.”
Seeking a place where he could freely walk unrecognized, he moved all the way to Amsterdam, where he still lives today.
“He’d go to events and women would come up to him and go, ‘rape me, Luke,’ which I guess is a bit disorienting,” Hinsey said.
Can wedding revive soap genre?Neither Francis nor Geary were enthusiastic when ABC suggested revisiting the time with another wedding. Producers, writers and other actors didn’t like it, either, Geary said.
There were complicating factors, like Luke being married to another woman, but that’s barely a distraction when you’ve already resurrected a dead character (a soap opera, remember?). The actors came around to appreciating the new story, and Francis was coaxed into returning after having been away from the show for four years.
Geary said he liked how “General Hospital” uses the wedding to draw unfamiliar viewers into the ongoing stories of their TV children.
That’s the ultimate goal, to revive a television format that time seems to have passed by.
“General Hospital” averaged 3.4 million viewers last season, less than a third of the 11.8 million who typically tuned in during the year of the wedding, according to Nielsen Media Research. The most popular soap, “The Young and the Restless,” has seen its audience drop from 10.3 million during the 1991-92 season to 5.3 million last year, while “All My Children” tumbled from 8.2 million to 3.1 million during the same period, Nielsen said.
Lifestyle changes have a lot to do with it; more women are working and those that aren’t have many more choices on TV. Blame O.J. Simpson, too. His lengthy trial in the mid-‘90s bumped many of the soaps from TV and viewers became addicted to a different kind of daytime drama.
“That opened up a rift that has never really been stitched back together,” ABC’s Frons said.
Frons was encouraged that the first day of Francis’ return to the show boosted the “General Hospital” audience by 20 percent. Given the popularity of telenovelas in the Latin market, he’s pushed to make ABC’s daytime more multicultural, with the Vega family on “One Life to Live” and the Santos family on “All My Children.”
Soap writers have to “find the stories that haven’t been done and have real resonance for young people as opposed to those stories that have been done for a long time,” he said. An upcoming “All My Children” will feature a lesbian who falls in love with someone confused about their sexual identity.
It’s a touchy transition; the way “All My Children” threw a bunch of teenagers front and center this past summer had the whiff of desperation, Hinsey said.
Both Geary and Francis said they’re disheartened with the creative shape of daytime dramas today. Soaps have “stumbled around for quite a while,” Geary said.
Francis, who now runs a furniture and gifts store in Maine, said soaps seem to have lost touch with real life and no longer have characters that the audience can relate to.
Meanwhile, prime-time shows that owe a lot to the genre, like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Desperate Housewives,” are thriving.
“Daytime television seems to be disappearing,” Francis said. “It doesn’t seem to be re-creating or reinventing itself. It seems to be eroding. It’s alive and well at nighttime, it’s unfortunately not that way during the day.”