`Guiding Light' has shined for 50 years on TV, one day at a time

Thursday, June 20th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ In the rehearsal room at ``Guiding Light,'' several actors are practicing a musical number.

To be aired July 4th, it's a fantasy sequence visualized by ailing Rick Bauer, who will jump to his feet from his wheelchair (he desperately awaits a heart transplant) and do a little hoofing, accompanied by pompon girls, to the tune of ``The Yankee Doodle Boy.''

``Remember, girls _ it's my fantasy!'' chuckles actor Michael O'Leary (Bauer), teasing his castmates, who are in street clothes (and some in hair rollers) as they cram this practice session into a day already crowded with blocking and taping the July 3 episode.

It's just another workday at ``Guiding Light'' (check local listings for airtime), as another episode joins an unbroken strand reaching back 65 years to its radio premiere in January 1937. That's 16,400 episodes ago.

The longest-running drama in broadcasting history, the CBS soap came to television on June 30, 1952 _ which means it soon will mark its golden anniversary.

``It's monumental,'' says Jerry verDorn, who has played attorney Ross Marler since 1979. ``This isn't going to happen again: Nothing in radio or TV is going to start today and go another 50 years.''

``The Guiding Light'' (its title had a ``the'' then) was created by Irna Phillips, mother of the soap-opera genre, just seven years after her ``Painted Dreams,'' the world's first.

Its original premise: A kindhearted priest furnished guidance to his flock in a tiny Chicago suburb. By the time the series came to TV, it focused on the Bauers, a first-generation German-American family whose kindly patriarch, Papa Bauer, was himself a guiding light to those around him.

On a live, 15-minute telecast a couple of weeks into its run, Papa Bauer and his son Bill play chess as he volunteers advice on chess strategy _ and, by the by, on Bill's troubled marriage.

``Figuring something out _ that ain't enough,'' counsels Papa Bauer in his Old World accent. ``It's figuring the RIGHT way that's the important thing.''

The electric organ throbs. Leisurely fadeout. Then a commercial for Ivory soap. (Procter & Gamble, the company that put the ``soap'' in ``soap opera,'' still produces ``Guiding Light'' as well as the 46-year-old ``As The World Turns.'')

In those early days, the TV edition of ``Guiding Light'' came from the long-gone Liederkranz Hall, a CBS-owned facility on 58th Street where Frank Sinatra cut a number of records for its Columbia label.

Since the late 1980s, the show has resided at an unimposing East 44th Street address where, on the sixth floor in Studio A, an expanse of seashore shares space with the Springfield police station and the Bauers' patio, site of the annual barbecue.

What goes on in this building yields an hour of TV every weekday that boasts slick production values and a sizable cast all year round.

``There's smiles and laughter, we poke fun at the material, then get serious,'' says verDorn, summing up the daily grind. ``Then we go home.''

There's plenty to poke fun at, as any soap star is first to point out. Like any daytime drama (and currently there are 10), ``Guiding Light'' is rife with tragedy, double-dealing, love and betrayal, not to mention amazing personality shifts (no matter how evil, anyone is redeemable when it serves the storyline).

Another rule: In the mythical Springfield (where the show ``moved'' in 1962), coinciding events are seldom coincidences. For instance, you don't need to be a prophet to connect the dots between Dr. Bauer's need for that heart transplant and the prospects for rakish Richard Winslow (played by Bradley Cole), who lies gravely injured following his recent car crash.

An open-ended story told in real time _ that's what sets apart a daytime soap from any other drama. And after decades of evolving narrative and a steadily replenished community of characters, a soap like ``Guiding Light'' has become what it always pretended to be: an alternate version of life, experienced by the actors and the audience alike in tandem with their own.

``I've met as many as four generations of `Guiding Light' fans,'' reports Kim Zimmer, who has played oft-wed Reva Shayne since 1983. ``I've gotten mail saying `My mother loved your show and she's passed now, but I have such fond memories of watching our show together.'''

This isn't the best of times for the soap genre (which has lost audience in recent years) or for ``Guiding Light'' (which ranks eighth in the ratings among the 10 contenders).

But ``Guiding Light'' shines on, and even insiders like Zimmer can't put their finger on exactly why. Most theories rely on circular reasoning: The show endures because of its fans ... whose support can be explained by its rich, growing legacy.

Just what is the essence of ``Guiding Light''? Besides a few enduring surnames, what is the DNA, or even soul, that ties it to its past? Can anybody say?

Tune in tomorrow for the answer.