Eight years ago Gloria Monty performed emergency surgery on ABC's lackluster afternoon soap opera "General Hospital." The patient recovered. In fact, it grew into a money-making monster--not unlike Cosmopolitan magazine's resurrection a dozen years earlier under the guidance of Helen Gurley Brown.
Now ABC has turned again to the former theatrical director to help revitalize another area that's hurting: prime-time programming, where the network, third in ratings last season, doubtless will still be when this season ends. "My deal is very unusual," Monty points out. "It's 10 hours of committed on-air prime time, not pay-or-play"--a statement later confirmed by ABC. The only other producer she knows with a similar deal at ABC is Aaron Spelling.
A TV pioneer, Monty, now 63, started in the medium in 1954 when CBS hired her to direct the pilot for the daytime drama "Secret Storm." Since then, she has produced and directed daytime serials, movies of the week, specials and one limited prime-time series ("The Hamptons," 1983).
She is 5-foot-2, slender and formidable. She's accustomed to getting things done--her way. Sitting in her office at Hollywood's Gower Studios one recent morning, she recalls the day in 1978 when she announced her "General Hospital" revamping plans:
"Jackie Smith (then vice president of ABC's daytime programming) and I met with 50 men. At the end of the meeting, one man said, 'You've put your head in a noose if this doesn't work.' "
Unintimidated, Monty replied, " 'General Hospital' has a two-month cancellation notice. We can only go up."
By replacing the older actors with the young and beautiful, jazzing up the sets and introducing such realistic subjects as rape, murder and drugs, she did the impossible. "General Hospital's" ratings skyrocketed, and with them, ABC's daytime ratings.
Can she have the same impact on prime time? "I've had the prime-time commitment for about a year," Monty says, acknowledging that ABC backed her before Capital Cities took over the network. But she also points out that the new owners reconfirmed her contract in December.
Whether her programming brief has changed, she's not saying. "I'm going to do two two-hour pilots for series and six one-hour episodes for a series," she does allow.
"They're taking a sensible attitude," she says of the new management. "They realize it will take me a year or so to get some of the programming ready and still keep up the quality of 'General Hospital.' They see me as someone who has been very successful at what she's doing and as someone who knows drama. I can certainly help in putting good drama on prime time. Who knows?
"I'm beginning to start reading material and formulating ideas. I can either go for mystery--a good, stylized mystery with a couple of rich characters and a great deal of panache--or something about the family. I'd like to bring good dramatic structure to prime time. I'd love to do something with people trying to find their roots.
"My programs will be a little more family-oriented than Aaron Spelling's. Aaron is an entertainer, and so am I. My programs will have much more romance/suspense, along with some adventure. Something good will happen, as opposed to something negative. Life can be pretty wonderful."
Monty is more specific about what she will not do: "I am not bringing 'General Hospital' to nighttime television. I don't think the market is right for serials right now. The expenses are so great, and I think there's been a glut on the market."
She speaks favorably of "Moonlighting," "Murder, She Wrote" and "The Cosby Show," but adds, "I don't want to do things the way everyone else does them. I want to establish a tradition and have others follow me. 'General Hospital' really revolutionized daytime."
When Monty began her career in television, she recalls, "Sexism was absolutely appalling. They waited for you to fail. I had to know twice as much as everyone else, especially the technical part.
"I had a good theatrical background, which made it easier. I tried not to be assertive at the beginning--a man in my position could have gotten much further. I just hung in and kept on learning. Any slight mistake was really exaggerated: 'Well, that's a woman for you.' Gals have taken tremendous strides forward since then.
"I remember at one point hiring a woman assistant director. Someone said to me, 'This is going to be difficult. With two women's voices on the earphones, how are we going to tell them apart?' I agreed it would be a problem. Then I went home, thought about it for 10 minutes and realized that no one had ever complained about the difficulty of telling two men's voices apart."
Raised in New Jersey, Monty was the first in her family to go into the arts. "My father was a builder," she says. "My mother didn't work, but her cousin was a woman doctor. I was going to go into medicine--until I had to dissect a cat."
Viennese actress Margaret Weiler provided Monty with her first directing job. "Margaret taught a drama workshop at the New School for Social Research," she recalls. "I was just a kid out of college teaching speech while getting my master's (at Columbia University). She took me under her wing and got me to direct 'Medea.' She knew I'd do what she said because I knew so little."
Monty married theatrical producer Robert O'Byrne soon after leaving Columbia--they're still together after almost 40 years--and for five years they operated a summer stock company and workshop on Long Island. "We were wonderfully successful until our money ran out," she says. "We did 50 plays.
"There are only two things in life," she believes, "work and love. Work became so much a part of my life. I found it very difficult as a woman in the beginning, having my talent stamped down. But I learned one thing: Keep on being a woman rather than try to be one of the guys. I watched a woman do that, and it was abysmally unsuccessful.
"I don't see myself as an Aaron Spelling. I want to do the work that pleases me."