The culmination of General Hospital’s incredible success occurred on November 16 and 17, 1981, when Luke (Anthony Geary) and Laura (Genie Francis) were married. No other episodes in the history of daytime television were more watched than these shows.
General Hospital Becomes Iconic
The General Hospital “phenomenon” had started a few years earlier, beginning with the takeover of the show in 1978 by producer Gloria Monty. It became a top-rated soap in 1979 and continued rising in popularity until it became part of our popular culture. It seemed that everyone watched the show.
Stories about General Hospital and its actors appeared on television, as well as on the covers of mainstream magazines and newspapers. Merchandise was everywhere. The actors couldn’t go out in public without being mobbed. You literally couldn’t walk down the street without some reference to the soap. Those “in the know” started calling it “GH.” The frenzy was compared to that of Beatlemania years earlier, and nobody could deny the comparison.
At the center of the pandemonium was the pairing of Luke and Laura. They were clearly the fans’ favorites, and so, they received the most attention. The chemistry between the two was indescribable; many just called it magic.
Director Marlena Laird once said, “They had a good time together and the audience really saw love in those two people’s eyes for each other. When I directed them, I’d get hung up in their scenes because I never knew what I was going to get on tape.”
And you could sense that the actors were having a good time. Gloria Monty recalled, “I remember one night, we did their scenes first and I said ‘Go home and get some rest.’ And I think we got out of the studio at about nine at night. And as I was leaving, I looked to where a work light was on. There was Genie and Tony, both stretched out on the bed, talking. I said ‘What are you kids doing here? I broke my neck to get you out of here early.’ And they said ‘Gloria, we just love it. We don’t want to go home.’ They were really enjoying it.”
“Tony is brilliantly talented,” noted Denise Alexander, who played Laura’s mother, Dr. Lesley Webber. “You had to start with somebody who had to offer what Tony did. But I think you had to complete the picture with somebody who had the heart and soul of Genie, not to mention the talent, to bring truth to the moment. Lieux Dressler [Alice Grant] said many times that what tied the ribbon on that relationship was that shining face and those bottomless eyes looking up at him, combined with that mature talent looking down at her.
“Tony had a wealth more experience and growth time as an actor and was enormously intelligent and graceful. Genie was much younger, but with a gift and dedication beyond her years, extraordinary beauty, and this sweet spirit that you can’t manufacture. It was a powerful combination,” recalled Alexander.
That combination, along with a few other factors, generated an excitement that the soap opera world had never seen before or since. It truly is difficult to describe what it was like if you didn’t live through it.
Fans would tell stories of skipping classes when GH was on or running home to catch the show before it started. The television section in department stores would fill up when the show was on so people could catch it. Bars began having General Hospital Happy Hours.
Even people who didn’t watch General Hospital knew who Luke and Laura were and what GH meant. And people also knew Gloria Monty’s name, which was a rarity for a producer of a television show, much less a soap opera. Monty acknowledged that “it got to the point where even I couldn’t be walking down the streets without being asked for autographs.”
To what did Gloria Monty attribute the amazing success of her show? “I think acting… talent. We had vitality. We had humor. And we were daring.”
Denise Alexander adds, “It was a golden, golden time – that time of GH. It was a wonderful cast. I worked with people who were so talented and so full of life and vitality and energy and creative energy and so dedicated to what they were doing and so dedicated to their show and so dedicated to achieving the impossible and following this tiny little bizarre Pied Piper that we had. It was amazing. And I think that’s why that show at that time became the phenomenon that it did. It was the sum of its parts.”
That sentiment is shared by writer Sheri Anderson Thomas. “It was fabulous. It was great. [Head writer] Pat Falken Smith was wonderful. Tony and Genie were wonderful. It was one of those situations where all the right elements were in place. You could take Pat or me and put us on another show, or you could bring Gloria back and it’s just not there. It wasn’t just one person. It’s really a collaborative effort. That’s what made it work. That’s what made it the best.”
Popular culture phenomenons tend to have a shelf life, and this was no different. After a few years, General Hospital went back to being just another soap opera. But for a time, it was a soap opera like no other!