‘Soap’: Fan Memories 1

Part of the fun of putting this book together has been getting to hear how different people discovered Soap, and what it meant to them at the time. From the beginning I’ve encouraged you all to share those stories with me, some of which will end up in the book. However, I also wanted to share some of those with you here. (I would also ask those of you who shared your stories via the Facebook page‘s discussion thread to do so again here, because the last Facebook redesign seems to have gobbled them all up. Sigh.) If you haven’t done so already, please click the “What’s YOUR Story” button at the top of this blog and, well, share your story there. I think I’m also going to bring some of the stories already there to the front of this blog soon, too. In the meantime, many thanks for your continued interest 🙂

Jeff Krueger’s Soap Memories

“Before the start of the fourth season, TV Guide published a profile of Susan Harris that really stayed with me. {Read it here: p.1, 2, 3, 4} I mean literally. I kept it all these years. I think that was the first time a behind-the-scenes storyteller caught my attention… The third season finale had blown me away and I even taped a microphone to the TV and recorded the audio of it on the summer rerun. The syndicated reruns later cut the hour long episodes to hell so that uncut audio version remained a treasure for 15 years until the VHS version from Columbia House. And I was itching to see what happened next. (To make matters worse, the fourth season got delayed.)

So TV Guide had this profile of Susan Harris, the writer of this incredible show, and they treated her like an artist. She didn’t disappoint as an obsessed creator. It talked about her struggles juggling single parenthood with trailblazing as a female TV writer, and her preoccupation with mortality, which had just been on full view in Season 3 courtesy of Burt and Jessica. And it talked about how she put her own interests into the show and elevated it above the usual TV fare. The article gave me an interest in creative expression and wanting to create my own stories and characters. (After an episode of “Soap” ended I remember often thinking if I was the writer, I wouldn’t have to wait until next week to find out what happens.) To this day I’m more interested in who is the “voice” behind something. I’ve learned to appreciate the creators who push the boundaries because they seemingly have to. That’s why they stand out, though not to everyone’s taste. I can see a connection between Susan and favorites like Oliver Stone, David Lynch, even Charles Schulz the cartoonist. (At the time of “Soap” I wanted to be a cartoonist and have my own comic strip.) And I can point to that TV Guide article as the start of my love of personal storytelling in popular art.

But the incredible end to the third season also marked the end of “Soap’s” salad days. Everything just seemed to go wrong for the fourth season. It started late because of the actor’s strike, I believe. I remember the actors couldn’t show up at the Emmys the year both Richard Mulligan and Cathryn Damon won, damn it. (I recall he later dedicated his “Empty Nest” Emmy to “Skipper” Damon.) The only one to accept an Emmy was Powers Boothe for playing Jim Jones and I remember seeing Richard Mulligan on the news the next day criticizing him.
Anyway, the season started late. ABC took it out of the solid two hour Tuesday/Thursday comedy blocks it had been in for three years and put it on Wednesday, and later on Mondays at 10 pm as an hour-long show. And the quality seemed to go down. Now I see it more as a shift in tone. The other seasons seem more balanced. Season 4 kind of hangs out on the extremes between silly and dark comedy. It pulls the rug out from under the core relationships of the show: Jessica and Chester (divorced), Burt and Mary (struggling), and even the bedrock of Jessica and Mary wasn’t safe. I’ve come to appreciate Season 4, but at the time it seemed off, though still funny and moving. The “curse” on the family talked about in Season 1 seemed to be catching up with the Tates and the Campbells. For me the quintessential Season 4 scene is when Burt visits his boyhood pastor looking for some hope and not finding it. The show wasn’t meant to end the way it did, but as it stands one could assume the season is a rocket ride toward some key characters eating lead. Even the music seems more dramatic. Maybe I’m seeing what isn’t there but the season has an ominous quality to me, and it’s kind of weird to think of a sitcom that way. There’s a finality, a summing up, in the scene where Jessica talks to God. Maybe not what was intended but it’s the closest “Soap” got to closure.
And with that, “Soap” was over. I remember reading somewhere that a show needed five seasons for syndicated reruns. So I assumed I’d never see “Soap” again. Such a good show, the cancellation seemed like a crime. And then a year later, Fall 1982, there was an ad in TV Guide that it was going to be shown again. Groovy! And then a couple months later I got my first VCR. You mean I can tape stuff and watch it when I want? It was the beginning of “time shifting” and the crazy viewing world we have today. OK, for some reason they are repeating “Soap” but it’s not going to be around forever and now I have the ability to tape it and archive it before it’s gone forever. Little did I know “Soap” would be alive and well 30 years later, but it seemed iffy at the time so I taped them all eventually — the fourth season proved elusive for a while.
It’s taken for granted in these days of instant access but being able to tape something and watch it anytime was unique and cool. I have a close family and we were anchored by our own “two sisters”: my mom and my aunt. The family loved “Soap.” I could kind of relate to it as the young “Billy” of the family, wondering about the “secret lives” of my own cousins. One of my fondest “Soap” memories was, I think, Christmas Eve 1982 doing a mini-“Soap” marathon as the family was slowly arriving. We watched some episodes of “Soap” and had a blast. It was the episodes of Elaine’s kidnapping and death and Jodie’s (almost) marriage. Very much story lines about family banding together and, in retrospect, perfect.
Anyway, it was great to have “Soap” archived on VHS in the ’80s. Meanwhile, some from “Soap” were doing really well. Billy Crystal became a star, Katherine Helmond starred in the popular “Who’s the Boss,” and Witt/Thomas/Harris became a powerhouse production company with “Golden Girls” and “Empty Nest,” which, of course, also brought Richard Mulligan and Dinah Manoff back together. “Soap” did well but it seemed underrated to me. It was great to see the alumni so popular and respected. Susan Harris even tried to bring back the “Soap” style with “Hail to the Chief” (1985) and “Good and Evil” (1991). I remember a TV Guide review of a Susan Harris show (probably “Golden Girls”) calling her a “national treasure.”
And “Soap” even seemed to be following me personally (no, I’m not paranoid!). I was working at Disneyland when “Golden Girls” hit, produced by Disney’s Touchstone company. Susan Harris and I were working for the same company! And one of my teachers in college was “Beautiful Barry” Haworth, unit manager on “Soap” (because you can’t let those units get out of hand). He seemed proud of having worked on the show and mentioned it on occasion. One of the assignments was to create a sitcom, so of course he also brought up Susan Harris’ writing. Considering what a “Soap” fan I was (and am), I can’t believe I never pressed him for “Soap” stories. But sometimes he’d wear his official “Soap” jacket and I’d look at it with awe.
The ’80s was a very “Soap” decade for me and I couldn’t ask for a better way to cap it off than with the “Soap” reunion in early 1990 put on by the Museum of Broadcasting. My mom and my aunt, the “two sisters,” went as well as a college friend from Sweden who was a big “Soap” fan and claimed to have learned English watching it. It was great to see so many “Soap” fans in one place, clapping in time to the theme music and treating a TV writer like the star of the show.  People hadn’t forgotten.
Flash forward 20 years (yikes!). The original versions of “Soap” is on DVD, mostly uncut. My aunt died in 2010. I had given her the complete set of DVDs. She loved the show. When my cousin, her son, came out from St. Louis for the memorial I gave him the DVDs because he’s a fan, too. “Soap” was about family and it’s become part of family memories. And a new chapter begins (literally) with the first book about “Soap.” A very important endeavor to get those memories down at this late date. Hopefully my memories will help.

2 comments on “‘Soap’: Fan Memories 1

  1. Absolutely shameless, Jeff. (Go to the Facebook page where Duane had some very nice things to say about your memories.)

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