Agnes Nixon: In tragedy and triumph

We learned Wednesday that Agnes Nixon died.

There’s not much I can tell you here that hasn’t been better said elsewhere. The New York Times published an excellent obituary.  Daytime Confidential and We Love Soaps have also paid tribute to Nixon. Many millions were impacted by the stories Nixon told, by the characters she created.

I had two thoughts when I heard about Agnes.

One was to really think about, and deeply appreciate, what she accomplished as a writer, as an artist. She rose from challenging beginnings and family tragedy and strife to become a successful working woman in the 1950s and 1960s, when such a thing was not common. Nixon was not just successful, but completely rocking it at a level that was unheard of at that time.

Even setting all the characters and creative achievements aside, she had few equals in ANY part of television. You had Lucille Ball, who owned Desilu for a time, and then you had people like Irna Phillips and Agnes Nixon. They may not have owned their shows per se, but their services, their creative abilities, became a company and an empire.

Agnes Nixon and her work became so popular because, like the best writers, she wrote what she knew. You can look at an uber-modern 2016 show like “Transparent,” with its core family, the dreams and hopes and disappointments of those people, created and written by someone spilling much of their own life onto that canvas, and you can see the DNA of a writer like Agnes Nixon in those strands. Erica Kane was long rumored to be based on Agnes herself.

Agnes got the balance right, the magic alchemy that gets people involved in a story. So many of her characters – Phoebe, Myrtle and Opal come to mind – were people we all knew, and also, at the same time, people who were just a little bit bigger, broader and brighter than our neighbors and friends.

The other thought, of course, is that it truly is the end of an era.

Her legendary work moves toward memory, the same memories so many of us have as children when we first saw these shows.

I heard the news on Wednesday and heard the first notes of this music, and I got goosebumps hearing this. It took me back to the opening of that book, to the telling of that story, and of so many others.

The words that Nixon wrote for the show, which appeared in the photo album in the show’s opening, hearkened back to the days of Preston Bradley, and the spark that Bradley ignited in Irna Phillps – to entertain people, to inspire them, to comfort them. Agnes Nixon did all that and more.

The great and the least, the rich and the poor

The weak and the strong, in sickness and in health

In joy and sorrow, in tragedy and triumph

You are all my children. 

Remembering Beverlee McKinsey

On point, and in charge .

On point, and in charge 

I’ve written about many stories and many shows, and especially about my two personal favorites, As The World Turns and Guiding Light.

Soaps to me were never the over the top, hair tossing, adulterous carnivals described by mainstream journalists who took snapshot of the genre out of context. For many of us, they were like a storybook come to life, with people you could visit for a half an hour, an hour a day.

I learned about those moving storybooks as a kid, on many days when rotten allergies meant I was cooped up inside, unable to go out and play. So there I’d be, on our hideously flowered 70s couch, right beside my mom, watching her shows.

I remember the names of the shows she’d watch: there was Search for Tomorrow and Jo, who reminded me of the women who worked at the doctors’ office, and then Another World, with Rachel, and, oh yes, the lady with the dazzling blond hair and raspy voice.

Iris reminded me of the mean, bitchy neighbor that lived across the street from us, the one that always acted like she couldn’t be bothered to talk to my mother.

But on TV, at least sometimes, Rachel would one-up Iris.

And yet….unlike our mean neighbor, I liked Iris. I rooted for her.

Beverlee McKinsey made such an enormous impact playing both Iris on AW and then Alexandra Spaulding on GL.

I’m remembering her in this post because she would have been 80 years old this month (August 9).

Her death, in 2008, came as the last of the P&G soaps were starting to reach their final destinations. There was, astonishingly, no tribute at the Daytime Emmys for her exemplary work.

Her last performance on-screen as Alexandra came 23 years ago this summer. But it’s safe for me to say that her performances are still etched in my memory.

They were also remembered by many of the writers who participated in the We Love Soaps poll of daytime’s greatest actresses a few years back. Despite being away from our screens for nearly 20 years at that point, McKinsey was number four on the list.

Over the last few months, I’ve watched and re-watched episodes of GL on YouTube, and I am always fascinated by the choices McKinsey made in those scenes. She was committed, engaged and stunning, whether she is in the background or the forefront.

A shot of Beverlee from one of her appearances as a guest on episodic TV.

A shot of Beverlee from one of her early appearances as a guest on episodic TV.

I ‘d originally planned to make a big fuss for this tribute. I was hoping to talk to a few of her colleagues, maybe get a few quotes from those who worked with her, and try to paint a picture of who she was, both on-screen and off.

But from everything I’ve read, she cherished her privacy. Michael Logan once referred to her as the Garbo of daytime. She quite famously avoided the spotlight, and her private life was just that – private.

So I decided to focus on the work — and on saluting her singular performances.

And by doing so, it’s also a salute to the New York-based performers, the ones who traveled so easily between theater and television, the ones who filled the industry with great performances and one-of-a-kind characters.

McKinsey gave us thrilling performances daily for over twenty years. She headlined two shows, all while pursuing theater and sharpening her craft.

We can say that the fall of the New York based shows was a necessary evolution of an industry — the ‘daypart’ — that was past its profitable age. And perhaps this is so.

Perhaps in this age of streaming video, of narrowcasting versus broadcasting, there’s millions of opportunities for us to see great performances across all sorts of media platforms.

The West Coast shows have their own long histories and their own strengths. But there was something unique and special lost when we lost all the NYC soaps.

We lost the chance to see a Larry Bryggman, a Kathleen Widdoes, a Helen Gallagher. And the amazing power of a performance from Beverlee McKinsey.

Another World writer Harding Lemay on McKinsey: “Beverlee became Iris, or Iris became Beverlee, and dominated the screen with unerring camera presence from her first sweetly malicious encounter with Alice. Her alabaster stillness, complemented by a wardrobe of chiffon pastels, created tension in a scene before she spoke a word….I quickly realized we had found [our] future antagonist.”

There are so many great McKinsey performances to choose from; she had so many great moments as Iris, but there are only a handful of scenes with McKinsey as Iris from Another World and Texas online.

There is a wealth of Guiding Light clips on YouTube, and so many great Alexandra moments: the story with her beloved son Brandon aka Lujack, and later with Nick, the delicious love/hate dance between McKinsey and Christopher Bernau’s Alan; and the wonderful relationships Alexandra had with her family, and with characters like Ross, Vanessa, Holly, H.B. and India.

But as part of this tribute, I chose the 1991 scenes where Alexandra brings down Roger at the country club.

GL was, quite simply, ON FIRE in 1991. In the wake of several cast departures, including the loss of the characters of Josh, Reva, Rick and Phillip, other stories moved to the forefront, and it was at one of those moments, those junctions of story and performance, where a show just SHINES.

The twisted web of Roger, Alex and Mindy as Roger’s mistress was the stuff that makes great soap.

I am still in awe of these scenes, because McKinsey hits every moment, and every note. And she shows the fullness of Alexandra as a character here. We see not only Alex’s rage and anger, but her vulnerability and sorrow as well. It is a bravura performance, and it seems unthinkable that McKinsey did not win an Emmy for it.

(note: I believe one of these is mislabeled and out of order but you get the gist)

So here’s to McKinsey and her stunning body of work. May they both be remembered for a long time to come.

Cautious optimism

Gramma's been messing around with Photoshop again!

Gramma’s been messing around with Photoshop again!

I’m cautiously optimistic about some new developments we’ve been hearing about over the last few weeks, all from veteran creative forces in daytime.

Writers Janet Iacobuzio and Nelson Aspen are launching a series, and the list of talent is impressive: Colleen Zenk (Barbara, ATWT), and Anna Stuart, Stephen Schnetzer, David Forsyth and Alice Barrett Mitchell (Donna, Cass, John and Frankie, AW), to name just a few.

That’s one project, with platform and viewing opportunities yet to be announced.

And then there’s Sudsville.

From what we know, Sudsville is a brand that will be dedicated to fans of soaps, and it’s led by former daytime writer Meg Kelly.

There’s a mix of content, from a proposed trivia show with Guiding Light’s Michael O’Leary (Rick Bauer) as host, to a soap called Year Rounders.

I’m really intrigued by what I hear so far.

I’m not exactly thrilled by the Sudsville name, though it does a great job in terms of short-handing what the network’s about.

And, OK, I don’t want to be Ebenezer Soap Scrooge, and I get that at this stage of the game, the money is going to production and talent. But this graphic for the website – oy, vey. This is very 1995 GeoCities.

But the idea of Sudsville? I am totally on board.

The “caution” with new shows, of course, is the very recent experience with Prospect Park, and the ways that the crash-and-burn of One Life to Live and All My Children’s 2.0 versions may have scared other production companies away from attempting new shows or reboots.

I’m also very intrigued by the company behind Sudsville: Conklin-Intracom.

Conklin-Intracom is not an entertainment company. Its “About Us” page includes a description for an arm that is a “global telecommunications systems vendor.”

On their website, they list one of their products as “Intelligent Personal TV” (IPTV).

This seems to be the likeliest possibility for where the Sudsville content might live.

So this makes me still “cautious.” Like Prospect Park, the company launching this has new and potentially great ideas, but also doesn’t have experience with serialized TV.

Granted, the runs of these shows, especially the first seasons, will be much shorter (I believe a handful of weekly episodes, instead of 40 episodes off the bat).

The lack of experience at Sudsville might be helpful if they get out of the creative team’s way and let them do their job.

With the Iacobuzio/Aspen project, their collective experience, and Nelson Aspen’s ability to promote the show, could be the shining jewel in the crown.

I’m not sure how this is being funded, or if any of the same contract/union issues will emerge with such a low-budget enterprise.

But I’m hopeful. If The Powers That Be, 2.0 Version, can figure out a space and a way where we can create content, get it to the audience and monetize it to the point that everyone makes money…..? Then we might see some really, really great storytelling again.

Hope (Memorial) springs eternal

Elizabeth Hubbard, always stunning.

Elizabeth Hubbard, always stunning.

Can we talk about the best new soap to hit the air in ages?

It’s smart, it’s funny and the characters are so well drawn, played by fantastic actors.

Okay, so perhaps “new” isn’t accurate.

We have to go back to the future – circa 1967-1968 – for the origins of this show.

I’m talking, of course, about the vintage episodes of The Doctors that have been running on RetroTV since late last year.

I expected to have a twinge of nostalgia when I saw these old episodes, though I was too young to see the years in question (I wasn’t even born yet!) and only caught a handful of Doctors episodes in later years.

What surprised me was how truly smart and contemporary the episodes were. THIS is the kind of smart, engaging drama many of us are looking for today, and it’s ironic that we have to look back nearly 50 years to find it.

And at this point, I can wait no longer to say it.

OMG ELIZABETH HUBBARD. 

Can we please talk about how truly, abundantly amazing her performance as Althea is in these episodes?

What a fully formed, strong persona Althea is, navigating her career and dealing with drama in her life, with Nick, her colleague and love. I would gnaw off my right arm for a character this well drawn, this authentic on any soap today. 

It’s a magnificent performance, and Althea in 1968 is everything that, say, Meredith Gray is in 2015 — minus the sometimes debilitating self-doubt. Althea knows she’s good, and the equal of any man at Hope General.

She is, in turns, strong, funny and heartbreakingly vulnerable.

And her friend Maggie (played in early episodes by Bethel Leslie, and in episodes after 1968 by Lydia Bruce) is delightfully droll and sarcastic. Maggie’s shade game is TOTALLY on point.

Here’s a series of episodes from 1971 that feature Hubbard AND future soap royalty Anna Stuart as Toni Ferra, who becomes involved with ridiculously handsome Dr. Mike Powers, as played initially by the late Peter Burnell, and then by Armand Assante.

Yes, some of this is probably a little too dry for today’s soap viewers.

But it’s these kinds of small, intimate scenes that, when layered together, build a character and a storyline. Many of today’s shows skip the buildup and only set off the fireworks – and wonder why we’re increasingly numb to the explosions.

There’s a lot that new web soaps and a new online soap, a la Netflix, Hulu or Amazon – could learn from this era of The Doctors. 

Names and faces: Longtime soap fans will catch a few familiar names. The executive producer of the episode posted above is Allen Potter, who would later go on to become Guiding Light’s EP during the Marland era (and whose falling out with Douglas Marland led to Marland’s resignation from the head writing position at GL).

An early episode featured James Noble, who would later play Governor Gatling on ABC’s Benson, as Althea’s analyst.

Here’s a piece from We Love Soaps earlier this spring about a very special episode of The Doctors.

Aren’t the “in color” bumpers for the show fun?

Bay City Confidential

According to We Love Soaps, yesterday was the anniversary of the launch of Another World.

I’ve had AW in my head lately, because I just re-read Harding Lemay’s memoir of his time as AW’s head writer, Eight Years In Another World. After many years of being out of print, I learned a few weeks ago that Eight Years had been published on Kindle. (As much as I’d love the hardcover, ten bucks trumps a hundred bucks – the price of some of the rare used copies!)

AW is, in fact, probably most responsible for the initial formation my soap watching habit.

My mother was a fan of DAYS and AW, so I watched both shows with her on those sick days and rainy days, and would often make a point to catch the shows during summer break. While DAYS served up high drama with Doug and Julie, something about AW felt so real.

AWIt felt like we were eavesdropping when we’d see Rachel and Iris and Mac, or when Ada and her omnipresent dishtowel were dispensing advice (or scolding the hell out of someone who was being an ass).

We laughed at Vivian’s mishaps and escapades, and some of Iris’ odd friends.

There are many different species of soap, and when the media covers soap operas, they usually talk about the hair-tossing, oft-wedded, no-one-ever-dies garden variety.

Every show, of course, has been guilty of that kind of trick from time to time – some more often than others.

But AW was the first show that felt like watching real people. It was like watching a theater performance every day. I’d feel that way about later iterations of ATWT (during the Marland years) and about GL. 

As I get older, I find the reminders of the passage of time increasingly rude. So the realization that AW has been off the air for sixteen years is one I find hard to believe.

But AW is still accessible, with a number of clips on YouTube. It continued as text-only for several years.

I mentioned that a big reason for rebooting this blog was the clicks my older entries have been getting, and the amount of chatter over the P&G soaps I was seeing online.

I cracked up when I saw someone on a message board identify themselves as “Ada Hobson’s Dishtowel.” (Lemay said in his book that Constance Ford loved using props during a performance.)

When AW was cancelled, many of us thought it was a sad ending for a show that had just suffered too many changes in producers, writers and cast in its last fifteen years.

What we didn’t realize was that it had been a cautionary tale and a harbinger of things to come.

As we start seeing more web soaps and more shows on new platforms like Amazon and Netflix, I hope that they’ll study AW and remember that the characters and their lives are the glue that kept things together and kept us in our seats — not mobsters, guns, doppelgangers and forensics.