The longest-running ABC daytime soap opera, General Hospital, began in 1963, when soap operas were targeted to women who did not work out of the home. Back then, plots centered around romance, unrequited love and intrigue.
The main characters were part of the hospital's seventh floor: Dr. Steve Hardy (John Beradino), Chief of Internal Medicine, and his nurse, Jessie Brewer (Emily McLaughlin).
As the series progressed, events took place out of the hospital, and younger characters were brought in to appeal to a wider audience. Toward the late '70s, General Hospital plots entered the realm of adventure with Luke and Laura (Anthony Geary and Genie Francis), which would change the face of soap operas forever.
Today, with a record for the most Daytime Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series, General Hospital deals with social issues such as AIDS, breast cancer and single mothers; plot lines involve the mob rulers of Port Charles, led by Sonny Corinthos (Maurice Benard).
General Hospital continues to target new audiences while remembering their viewers from the past by bringing back "legacy" characters. The landscape of soap operas is ever-changing. General Hospital continues to adjust to the times - but never forgets its roots.
Early Days: Less than a Legend
It all began on April 1, 1963. Husband and wife writers Frank and Doris Hursley created the half-hour show, which debuted on the same day that NBC premiered their medical soap, The Doctors. In 1976, GH was expanded to 45 minutes, and in 1978, to a full hour. The program began with the shot of an ambulance rushing up the driveway of a large, white hospital to the accompaniment of music that suggested a siren.
People perhaps think that General Hospital was always set in Port Charles, New York, but in fact, it was set in a decent-sized city on the East coast. In the 1970s, that city was given a name, Port Charles, and later, "Port Charles" began to sound and look suspiciously like Rochester, New York. It had the same area code; when Luke and Laura returned to Port Charles in the '90s, they filmed their outdoor scenes (including jumping from a helicopter and driving a pink Cadillac down Main Street) in Rochester. Both Port Charles and Rochester are towns with vast waterfronts.
Steve Hardy worked side-by-side with Nurse Jessie. Jessie was married to a younger, unreliable philanderer, Phil Brewer (Roy Thinnes and Martin West). One memorable story arc centered around Phil's murder in 1974.
When nurse Lucille's sister Audrey came to town, the sparks between Audrey (Rachel Ames) and Steve flew. They married - three times. There was always an implied "something" between Steve and Jessie, but it was not to be. Steve, Audrey and Jessie were the backbone of General Hospital. Rachel Ames is still Audrey, the grandmother of a modern character, Elizabeth Webber (Rebbeca Herbst); Emily McLaughlin played Jessie until her death in 1991, and John Bernadino was Steve Hardy until his death in 1996.
Lesley, David Hamilton, Laura, and the threat of cancellation: The Dismal '70s
By the late 1970s, General Hospital was suffering from dismal ratings. In 1976, in a controversial move, ABC head Fred Silverman changed the show's format from 45 minutes to an hour, a bizarre thing to do to a flop show!
It had been a tumultuous decade for the soap. In 1971, the show was ranked the #1 soap opera, ahead of As the World Turns, when Audrey (Rachel Ames) allegedly murdered her son's babysitter. Soon, however, General Hospital was huffing and puffing behind the popular soap The Doctors.
Writers began to lean heavily on the strong acting talent of Denise Alexander, who played Dr. Lesley Webber. Her daughter Laura (Stacey Baldwin, followed by Genie Francis) was introduced. Laura, at 16, became the lover of David Hamilton, a man who had pursued the married Lesley and been rejected. Realizing that his only motive in being with her was revenge on her mother, Laura killed him.
This was a successful storyline that resulted in the character of Laura becoming a major force on the show. In her next story arc, Laura fell in love with Scott Baldwin (Kin Shriner), which later led to the love triangle of Laura, Scott and Bobbie Spencer.
Despite these bumps in popularity, by 1978, General Hospital was on death row and in need of a pardon. That pardon arrived in the form of dynamo Gloria Monty, a director from The Secret Storm. She teamed with writers Douglas Marland and Pat Falken Smith, and little did any of them realize that General Hospital would soon make soap opera history.
Luke and Laura: The Golden Era
NBC President Fred Silverman gave Gloria Monty thirteen weeks to bring General Hospital up to par before giving it the ax. Monty decided to attract a younger audience by focusing on younger characters. She moved away from the hospital setting and moved toward more action/adventure and mystery, at the same time updating the sets and stepping up the pace, so that there were more scenes.
Impressed with edgy, offbeat actor Anthony Geary from her previous series, Bright Promise, Monty brought him on to play Luke Spencer, a man involved with the mob organization of Frank Smith (George Gaynes) and currently in charge of The Campus Disco, where Laura Spencer Baldwin got a job. Thus began the love triangle of Luke, Laura and Scott.
With Luke and Laura, Monty invented the soap opera supercouple, still in existence today. Their "Love on the Run" adventure helped propel General Hospital to the #1-ranked soap opera, and their 1981 wedding was viewed by approximately 30 million viewers.
Other supercouples followed: Robert and Holly (Tristan Rogers and Emma Samms), Frisco and Felicia (Jack Wagner and Kristina Wagner), Duke and Anna (Ian Buchanan and Finola Hughes), and Stone and Robin (Michael Sutton and Kimberly McCullough). Luke and Laura made the cover of both Newsweek and People Magazine (with Elizabeth Taylor, who played their nemesis, Helena Cassadine), honors never before bestowed on a soap opera.