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Back into the labyrinth of Luke and Laura

Times Staff Writer

Two hundred feet beneath the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania lies a closely guarded labyrinth, with more than 20 miles of tunnels and hundreds of unmarked rooms, where some of the most important records in the world are kept.

It’s also where SoapNet executives had to venture to track down the early years of the love story between “General Hospital’s” Luke and Laura.

This month fans will see classic clips that were unearthed, all-time favorite episodes that will air in their entirety, as well as a one-hour special with the actors who play the near-mythological characters, Anthony Geary and Genie Francis.

But this story doesn’t begin in the former limestone mine-turned-underground-storage vault known today as the Iron Mountain Underground. It launches in Burbank in the offices of a basic cable network devoted to all things soapy and the special task force that took four months to create the monthlong Luke and Laura stunt.

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It all coincides with Francis’ return to the show Oct. 26 -- almost 25 years to the date after Luke and Laura were married -- and picks up where their love story left off. (That would be with a divorce and the last four years that Laura spent in a catatonic coma.)

The romantic phenomenon of Luke and Laura attracted 30 million viewers who tuned in to their wedding in November 1981, still the biggest soap audience in history.

“That was a big year because Luke and Laura got married and Prince Charles and Princess Diana got married and I got married,” said Deborah Blackwell, SoapNet’s general manager. “And none of those marriages lasted, so I do remember 1981 in a big way.”

Every Sunday this month, during its “General Hospital” marathons of the previous week’s episodes, SoapNet will air classic clips that follow the biggest soap-opera romance of all time. Fans will be able to relive the day Luke and Laura met in 1979, the summer of 1980 that they spent on the run, their marriage, the births of their children, their return to Port Charles in 1993 in a pink Cadillac, their divorce in 2001 and their emotional reunion after Laura emerged from her four-year catatonic state.

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“We’ve all grown along with Luke and Laura and, in a way, it’s like looking back at our own early years,” Blackwell said. “It’s that undying love that Luke had for Laura that is so emotionally satisfying to us as women. She was always his angel, and there’s something so great about that.

“I think one of the reasons we love soaps is to have that vision of enduring love even when many, many problems in life intervene, that a man could love a woman the way Luke loves Laura.”

But, with an estimated 5,000 episodes to choose from, how did SoapNet executives even get started? First, with two women who have been obsessed with “General Hospital” since they were children: Linda Kirwin, a coordinator in the programming department, and Diane Desio, producer for SoapNet.com, have been watching it for nearly 30 years.

Aided by the Internet, books and mostly their own nostalgia, Kirwin and Desio made lists of moments in Luke and Laura’s relationship that they thought fans would want to experience again. They narrowed those to 50, but then had to hunt for the videotapes to select the clips.

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It turns out that the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC and SoapNet, stores its tapes at Iron Mountain, which houses everything from top-secret U.S. government documents to original Elvis recordings to private citizens’ wedding dresses. A limestone mine from 1908 to 1952, the facility became a storage vault with 50 different climate-controlled environments when the United States launched into the Cold War.

Privately owned, it is available to anyone who wants to keep valuables safe from attack or weather-related damage.

“It’s really one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to,” said Jeff Anthony, vice president of Film and Sound for Iron Mountain.

“We’ve got our own approved fire department, police department, water treatment plant and 2,000 people who report to work there every day. You would really be surprised what’s down there. If you’re an entertainment buff, this is the ultimate museum.”

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The significance of SoapNet’s mission was not lost on Anthony, who says he spent many afternoons of his college years watching Luke and Laura fall in love. “I played baseball, and after class I would have an hour or two break and, believe it or not, I’d watch ‘General Hospital’ before I had to jump out the door and go to practice. That was in ’79 and ’80. Weren’t they on some kind of ship or boat?”

Yes, they were.

The couple’s 1980 summer on the run is a cherished time for their fans, including SoapNet’s Luke and Laura Task Force, which was assembled to help Kirwin and Desio narrow the clips to the 25 best and pick the full episodes that will air Nov. 24 during a five-hour marathon. The highlight will be a one-hour special at 11 p.m. in which Geary and Francis walk down memory lane with additional Luke and Laura clips.

Sitting down recently to view the clips, some of which they were watching for the first time, Geary and Francis seemed to appreciate the hard work of the task force.

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“It’s a lot of tape,” Geary said.

Laughing at Luke’s curly hair circa 1979, Laura’s tan lines when she wore her beautiful evening gown at Wyndham’s department store, the infamous “Left-Handed Boy” statue with its coveted bars of gold, and the “artificial island” where they once sought refuge, the actors said they worked so hard in those days that they never had the time to watch some of the episodes.

The two-part wedding, which SoapNet will air as part of the marathon, was another matter.

“This we’ve seen and seen and seen,” Francis said.

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Francis recalled standing for 13 hours so she wouldn’t wrinkle the wedding gown in between shooting. Geary laughed at himself for volunteering to jump over the balcony because walking around the veranda took too long for the cameras, and not realizing until it was too late how far down he had to go.

“That’s the thing I never liked about this guy. He’s so bombastic,” Geary said of his on-screen alter ego.

“Everybody else loved it,” Francis pointed out.

Especially the woman who took charge of the network that would dedicate itself to Luke and Laura many years later.

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“I really remember how unusual they were,” Blackwell said. “And especially Luke, with his long, curly hair, and he had always had that quirky charm to him. He was really different from other people that you saw on TV. He really seemed like somebody you might know yourself. And that combination of her angelic quality and his bad-boy quality is still incredibly intriguing.”

Maria.elena.fernandez@ latimes.com


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