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Retro : Before ‘ER,’ There Was ‘General Hospital’

Robert Rorke is a free-lance writer based in Brooklyn

In assembling his handsomely produced General Hospital: The Complete Scrapbook (General Publishing Group, $30), Gary Warner left no scrap unturned.

In a dusty warehouse somewhere in Southern California, the self-described “resident historian” of ABC found the crumbling payroll records of the 32-year-old soap. While sifting (and sneezing) through the pay stubs, one star’s name jumped out at him: Leonard Nimoy. “I looked at [the payroll] and said, ‘Leonard Nimoy? Leonard Nimoy!’ ” Warner raves. “This is like gold.”

Nimoy played Bennie the Pill Pusher in 1963, just a few years before he became a pop culture icon as Dr. Spock on “Star Trek.” He earned $145 per soap episode he was on. Such trivia is the secret weapon of these television memory books; Warner lucked out with “General Hospital” because its archives are richly stocked and accessible. Says the soap buff, who has been watching “GH” since 1966: “They’ve got all the early shows on kinescope out at UCLA. So we ordered up the show and they couldn’t find the sound. The sound was on a separate reel. I still don’t have the sound, but I’ve got Leonard Nimoy.”

A video still of Nimoy appears in the book as does one of Warner’s other finds--Emmy and Tony Award winner Tyne Daly. Her performance as renal failure victim Carolyn Beale in 1968 brought back a flood of memories when Warner viewed the tape. “I remembered the scene--I just never knew it was Tyne Daly,” he says, awe-struck. “They came to tell her she was dying. I got chills. She was fabulous. You never hear that she was on a soap.”

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If Warner’s latest performs as well as his last daytime coffee table book--the “All My Children Complete Scrapbook"--a lot more people will know about Nimoy and Daly’s humble beginnings. A New York Times bestseller, the “AMC” volume sold more than 200,000 copies, refuting once and for all the perception that a book about soap operas isn’t marketable. Indeed, the Warner book, with its high-grade paper stock, lovingly reproduced photos and “backstage tales” is indispensable for the avid watcher.

Long before monster prime-time hit “ER” reinvented the medical drama, there was the seventh-floor nurses’ station at General Hospital. It was a slow-moving world where doctors like the stalwart Steve Hardy (still played by series original John Beradino) and nurse Jessie Brewer battled medical and personal crises in a nameless city. (Port Charles, the show’s locale, was not named for the show’s first “15 years or so,” Warner reveals). They also searched for true love but, alas, the genre ordained that love would not come easily, particularly for targets like Jessie.

The saucer-eyed, perpetually forlorn Jessie (the late Emily McLaughlin) remains Warner’s favorite heroine. “A lot of people don’t even know how important a character she was,” he says. “Pivotal for exactly 15 years. From 1963 to the late ‘70s, Jessie was it. She got me into soaps. I just remember being mesmerized by her eyes, those sad eyes. Anything and everything that could possibly go wrong in her life went wrong.”

Warner’s elaborately detailed plot summaries, which make up the bulk of the book, will remind long-term viewers and educate newer viewers about the significance of characters such as Jessie, her errant husband Phil and other former “GH” denizens, among them the villainous Cassadine family (one of which was played by Elizabeth Taylor, a fan of the soap).

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Executive producer Wendy Riche says the characters on her show are like family to the audience. “They have lived in the hearts and minds of the audience for 32 years or 23 years or 16 years,” she says. “There’s a real legacy that I’ve inherited.”

Three years ago, Riche returned to the show to its original medical format, after a prolonged detour into espionage and fantasy masterminded in the late 1970s by Gloria Monty, the ground-breaking former executive producer who rescued the show from cancellation and made it the youth-oriented soap every daytime producer copied.

She gave the world Luke and Laura, “GH’s” most famous couple, and brought the show its highest ratings. With the couple’s wedding. Luke and Laura made the cover of national magazines. When GH sold Luke’s rape of Laura as romance, millions of teen-age girls got the wrong message. Warner, who once booked personal appearances for soap stars, saw it first-hand at a mall where Tony Geary (Luke) appeared. “There were girls unbelievably yelling, ‘Rape me, Luke, Rape me,”’ he recalls.

To his credit, Warner does not gloss over such misbegotten moments and celebrates many others (“Great Moments” are scattered throughout the book). “General Hospital” is now known for serving up socially aware story lines that helped earn the series five Emmys last year.

For 8,300 shows (with “no repeats”), “General Hospital’s” appeal has been its “life and death drama,” Warner says.

“General Hospital” airs weekdays at 2 p.m. on ABC.


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