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Happy anniversary, Luke and Laura! (Even if it hasn’t been a blissful 25 years.)

Times Staff Writer

LAURA SPENCER -- who, in 30 discontinuous years as a lead character on ABC’s “General Hospital,” has gone from an ingenue to a catatonic mental patient -- is about to wake up.

In grandiose soap-opera style, Laura, famously played by Genie Francis, will come out of her state of “psychomotor disassociation,” to use the show’s diagnosis, thanks to an experimental drug procured in France. Laura’s revival on Thursday’s episode -- and Francis’ return to the show after a four-year absence -- will no doubt have repercussions for her three troubled children: Lucky is recovering from a nasty pill addiction, Lulu feels guilty about her recent abortion, and Nikolas’ life is being undermined by his son’s psychotic nanny.

But most significantly, Laura is snapping out of her delirium just in time for the 25th anniversary of her wedding to the lovable antihero Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary), and ABC and its cable sibling Soapnet have prepared a monthlong fete to capitalize on the occasion.

At a time when the soap audience is shrinking, the anniversary allows the network to remind viewers of an almost impossible-to-imagine high-water mark for “General Hospital” and the larger world of soap operas: a moment when they transcended daytime -- and Luke and Laura were part of the cultural mainstream.

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The “General Hospital” story line -- a secret, of course -- will make the most of Francis’ limited run on the show by hitting every nostalgic note it can. And on Soapnet, clips of Luke and Laura will run throughout November; the cable channel will also broadcast a special with Francis and Geary on Nov. 24.

“Daytime on broadcast lives in the present,” said Deborah Blackwell, Soapnet’s general manager, “but we have enough time on Soapnet to go back and look at the past.”

Geary, 59, put it differently. “None of us are going to be here for the 50th anniversary,” he said. “So they’d better squeeze every last drop of attention out of it now.”

It’s a maneuver that only a soap opera could pull off. While the rest of television has changed enormously in the last 25 years, time has stood relatively still in daytime dramas. And so these elaborate plans are designed not only to please current viewers, some of whom surely have been watching “General Hospital” for all of its 43 years, but to bring back stray ones, called “lapsed” in the business-side lingo of daytime.

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Brian Frons, the president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group, began watching “General Hospital” in the late 1970s when he was “a baby executive at CBS.” With Francis’ return, he said, “we’ll get some people that haven’t watched the show as often or in a while. They’ll see some familiar faces, they’ll meet some new people. And probably most importantly, they’ll meet their children: the children of Luke and Laura.”

Francis’ first day back on the set was earlier this month. The actress, 44, who began playing Laura at age 14, wore the white robe of her stricken character during an interview in her dressing room. Now living in Belfast, Maine, with her husband and two children, she hasn’t changed much over the years: Her group of friends call themselves “the hot wives of Belfast.”

Francis said she had been nervous about returning to “General Hospital.” But in the months since her reappearance was announced, she was able to gauge the audience’s excitement by the reaction of her Maine neighbors.

“I get people, especially now when they knew I was coming back, coming up to me and saying, ‘Lulu’s pregnant, did you know?’ ” Francis said with a laugh. She adopted the voice of a breathless fan, and said: “ ‘And Lucky? He’s on drugs. They need a mother!’ It’s so sweet.”

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Luke and Laura married on Nov. 16, 1981, after a rocky relationship that began two years earlier -- controversially -- when he raped her. Despite this violent beginning, then a common plot device in soap operas, the couple fell in love. And their two-episode wedding drew a record-setting 30 million viewers, an apex in daytime television. (Both episodes will be broadcast in prime time on Soapnet on Nov. 24, the night after Thanksgiving.)

That massive audience clinched it: On the brink of cancellation only a few years before, “General Hospital” had succeeded in reimagining the soap opera genre. The show was the talk of college campuses, and in addition to its legions of loyal female fans brought in male viewers who were drawn to Luke’s international adventures and Luke and Laura’s “It Happened One Night"-inspired banter. The couple and their gang of friends were an exciting respite from the drawn out adultery dilemmas and baby-switching plots of the past.

“General Hospital” was led by its executive producer, Gloria Monty, who retired in 1987 and died in March. When asked about Monty, Geary called her “the guardian angel of this show.” And Francis said: “We called her ‘Mother.’ That was her nickname. We were afraid of her, but we also desperately wanted to please her.”

Monty’s Luke-and-Laura phenomenon propelled “General Hospital” into the stratosphere. Elizabeth Taylor was a guest star at their wedding as the villainous Helena Cassadine. Earlier that fall, Geary and Francis appeared on the cover of Newsweek under the headline “TV’s Hottest Show.” At its 1981 height, “General Hospital” drew an average audience of 14 million each day. In the summer, the soap opera had even inspired a Top 30 song by Afternoon Delights, called “General Hospi-tale.” (“I just can’t cope / Without my soap,” went the song’s refrain.)

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The soaps slide

TIMES have changed. Jill Farren Phelps, now the executive producer of “General Hospital,” was its music supervisor from 1978 to 1984. “Nobody knew it was going to be the last heyday the show was going to have,” Phelps said in her office recently. “Or that any daytime show was going to have.”

Though it is still among the most popular soap operas, “General Hospital” struggles to maintain its audience. Its weekday episodes draw an average of 3.36 million viewers on ABC; Soapnet replays each show five times, adding an additional 908,000 viewers to the total. But the overall deterioration is profound: “General Hospital” on ABC has lost nearly 40% of its viewership in the last 10 years, which is emblematic of the across-the-board decline among the networks’ soap operas. In the last 10 years, three new soap operas have been created on the networks: “Passions” and “Sunset Beach” on NBC, “Port Charles” on ABC. “Passions,” which dabbles in supernatural plots, is the sole survivor.

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The shows have always been relatively inexpensive to produce, and they’re still moneymakers, but Frons notes that although they used to be vastly more profitable than their scripted nighttime counterparts, now, “it’s a fraction of that number. But, you know, we have decent margins.”

Frons blames soaps’ slide on the sheer number of choices consumers have. “I think that now to have a breakthrough that gets through 300 channels of noise, that gets through the fort that’s been built around American children, you have to make a much bigger bang,” he said. “I would even posit that if ‘General Hospital’ did today in this same competitive environment what they did 20 years ago, I’m not sure people would notice as much.”

To arrest the erosion, since late 2005 ABC and “General Hospital” have reached into the show’s peak years and brought back a parade of veteran characters played by the original actors, culminating with Francis’ Laura. This approach -- in the comforting but staid world of daytime, where stories never fully resolve and characters can survive an actual lifetime -- has shaken up the series.

It started when Kimberly McCullough, who joined the cast in 1985 when she was 7 and left in 1997, returned as the HIV-positive Dr. Robin Scorpio last October. In December, Rick Springfield reprised the role that turned around his flagging music career: After a 22-year absence, Dr. Noah Drake came back to the fictional town of Port Charles, N.Y., as a drunk with a failing liver.

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Then the floodgates opened: Robert Scorpio (Tristan Rogers) -- Robin’s deadbeat spy of a father and the best man at Luke and Laura’s wedding -- reappeared during the February ratings sweeps period (even though the character had blown up in a boat in 1992). At the same time, Emma Samms, who left “General Hospital” in 1985 when she was cast on “Dynasty,” reclaimed her old role of the con woman Holly Scorpio, Robert’s ex-wife. (Holly and Robert found themselves at odds during the reunion: He was trying to fight a monkey flu plague, and she was trying to profit from it.)

And for May sweeps, that pair, along with Robin and Luke, were joined in a tropical adventure story line by Finola Hughes’ Anna Devane (Robin’s mother and another ex-wife of Robert).

Each time the beloved cast members returned for their stints, the ratings bumped up a little. Phelps said that the reunions worked on both a commercial level and a creative one. “We’re all trying to reach a younger market, because we want to stay alive and stay in business,” she said. “But bringing back characters from a long time ago, reintroducing them to the audience, not only reinvigorated the show but reinforced my feeling that the audience just wants to see a good story.”

Geary, who is still one of the most popular actors in soaps -- he won his fifth Daytime Emmy this year -- echoed Phelps’ assessment. “It affords good storytelling because everybody comes in with a lot of past,” he said. “And relationships are completely interconnected.” Geary smiled. “So it’s been wonderful for me.”

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Throughout the year, he said, he felt that a reunion with Francis was inevitable (particularly as fans clamored for it on every available Internet message board). “Obviously with Laura, we’ve been hyphenated as characters for almost 30 years,” he said. “And Genie and I are soul mates in terms of acting -- terrific acting partners. So I’ve been waiting.”

Francis had left -- somewhat abruptly and under unhappy circumstances -- in September 2002 after a nine-year stint. (At the time, she told TVGuide.com’s Michael Ausiello, “I felt like after all these years that I’m kind of invisible there -- no matter how hard I try.”)

To be written out of the story, Laura became a killer and went loony. Francis said she thought she would never come back. “Not after what they did to the character,” she said. “It didn’t feel very warm and fuzzy.” But over the years, those feelings changed. She said: “About four months ago, I got a call from my agent saying that ‘General Hospital’ had called and that they’d made an invitation for me to return. And that it was a really nice invitation. He said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ ”

She added, “The historical characters obviously have a lot of value to them.”

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The network will not say how long Francis will be on the series other than that it’s not a long-term agreement (for now, at least). Is there an enduring payoff here? Frons hopes so. “To see Luke, to see Lulu, to see Lucky, to see Nikolas through Laura’s eyes is something we haven’t had for a long time,” he said. “To see her fall in love with her daughter is going to change the way viewers see those people. I think the audience will feel it and carry it with them after Genie’s gone.”

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The next plot twist?

THE growth of Soapnet, created in 2000, shows that daytime series have a life on cable television, where they can be shown in prime time, in marathon form over the weekends, and at 3 in the morning for insomniacs. But will cable eventually be the only place to find the soaps? Ten years ago, the idea of “Monday Night Football” appearing on ESPN, not ABC, would have been unimaginable, but this year it happened.

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The Walt Disney Co. owns both Soapnet and ABC -- as well as ESPN -- so the model for moving programs from broadcast to cable exists within the company. Is that the future of soap operas? “Not in the near future,” Frons said. “Soapnet’s in 53 million homes right now, and ESPN is in 100, or something close to it. So I think we’d need a little more bulk to ever be in that kind of situation.”

Geary has other ideas about how to bring the genre into its next iteration: The network needs to stop listening to focus groups, he said, calling them “a malady for American culture.” As an example, Geary recounted an instance when the hair department told him that the public likes his hair -- which has gone through many styles since 1978 -- on the longer side. “And I said, ‘You know what the public can do with that,’ ” he said.

He said that Monty used to push the network, rather than the reverse. That she used exterior locations and created amoral characters, like Luke, which soap operas rarely did before or since. “I long for the day when we would do things that the audience didn’t like, that would confound them or cause distress,” Geary said.

Francis feels the same way. “I think it’s a big cop-out to say that it can’t be what it was,” she said. “Gloria Monty never said that. She sweat blood to make it happen.”

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“We still seem to be in a radio-with-pictures kind of storytelling -- when I see a show like ’24,’ I think, ‘Why can’t we do something different?’ ” said Geary. “But daytime is tired, I think. And I think it’s going to remain tired, and we’re going to continue to hemorrhage audience until we find a way to startle them.” Geary paused for dramatic effect, and then said: “You’ll never startle them by giving them what they want.”

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kate.aurthur@latimes.com

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Reliving Luke and Laura’s special day

Video: Watch scenes from the wedding of Luke (Anthony Geary) and Laura (Genie Francis). Above: Elizabeth Taylor makes her 1981 cameo.

Video: Listen as The Times’ television editor, Kate Aurthur, brings you up to date on the “General Hospital” characters.

Online interviews: Read Q&A;'s with Geary and Francis and view a virtual scrapbook of their years on the show. All at www.latimes.com/soap.

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