Daytime soap operas are not what they used to be, yet they still hold a place in popular culture. Every few months, Oscar nominee James Franco does some brazen "performance art" on General Hospital, and The Young and the Restless star Eric Braeden recently made headlines when Neil Patrick Harris called him a "d-bag" on Twitter. Such news brings me back to a month ago, when I saw why soaps are hanging on.
On this sunny November Sunday, the main hall of Raleigh's Progress Energy Center looks more like Genoa City, Wis.—not the real-world city, but the fictional home of The Young and the Restless, a burg filled with ruthless billionaires, romantic rivalries and the occasional evil twin.
A line is already out the door, filled with fans of The Young and the Restless (hereafter, Y&R) and its fellow CBS daytime soaps. The people here have paid $150 a pop to mingle with the best, the brightest and the shirtless-est of the small screen at the "Soapstar Spectacular."
The crowd is large and diverse, but I do get the sense that I'm one of the few heterosexual men who came here without coercion.
The group of 10 soap stars that shows up around noon is a crew whose collective daytime experience spans more than a century, and fans have driven hundreds of miles for the opportunity to take pictures and get autographs from them. Some fans tell me they got up as early as 2 a.m. to drive down in time for the signing.
For many in the crowd of a couple hundred, the characters these actors portray are as much a part of their daily lives as getting up and going to work.
Many of the die-hard fans packing this room have watched these shows longer than I've been alive. Mary Hignutt of Wendell has been watching Y&R since it premiered in 1973, and this is her first experience meeting any of the actors.
"They feel like my family," Hignutt says. "I feel like I know them." She expresses sorrow for the other soaps that have gone off the air: "You love what you've grown up with. It was like part of the past was gone."
But now she's in line to meet Y&R troublemaker Phyllis, aka actress Michelle Stafford, with a group of other Phyllis fans she met online. These fans all support Phyllis' romance with a character named Nick by wearing matching bracelets.
Several "Phick" fans flew down from Syracuse, N.Y., and brought a gift of onesies for Stafford's new daughter. "My husband died a year and a half ago, and this is the first—and only—thing I've been excited about since," Hignutt says.
Stafford, clad in a silver-sequined shirt with a gray knit cap and scarf, exults a hearty "Here comes trouble!" to the group, several of whom she recognizes from past events. She offers profuse thanks for the gift before one of her fans chimes in with, "Whatever situation you're in, I'm for you!"
But it's getting hard out here for soap fans. Cable TV, DVRs and online streaming (not to mention increasingly poor writing) have cut into this tradition. Soap operas are declining these days—the past two years alone have seen the cancellation of Passions, As the World Turns and Guiding Light, the last of which predated the medium of television, originating on the radio. Two stars from those shows, Maura West and Kim Zimmer, are here. These days, they're cast as characters on other soaps.
Even the new distribution options are dwindling: The all-soap cable network SoapNet has gone off basic cable packages to digital-only, with the network itself scheduled to end to make way for another kids' channel. Some stars have migrated to online series, but in the eyes of many, daytime soaps are a dying medium.
And yet, those who love the soaps still love them dearly. Some fans have been fans of soaps even before there was television, like 97-year-old Viola Barger of Blountville, Tenn. Barger decided to attend the event while in Rolesville, N.C., where she was visiting her granddaughter, Amy Gupton, who was named for the star of an older soap whose title Barger cannot recall. Barger has been a fan since soaps were on the radio.
"I was married in 1950, and my husband died in 1996," she says, recalling how she spent the days of her marriage following such shows as Search for Tomorrow.
Gupton says her grandmother never misses a day of Y&R, which she's watched from the beginning.
"I hear her talking on the phone and saying things like 'the funeral is tomorrow,' or 'so-and-such is pregnant,' and it takes me a while to realize she's talking about the people on TV," Gupton says.
The event's promoter, Michael Gold, announces before the VIP signing that the oldest of the stars, original Y&R cast member Jeanne Cooper (Katherine Chancellor) was forced to stay home because the 85-year-old actress came down with viral pneumonia. Gold says Cooper offered to attend with her doctor. Mercifully, her offer was refused.
Cooper was a big draw for many of the fans I spoke with, but they're sympathetic to her situation. They're less sympathetic when a clearly irate Gold explains that another Y&R actress, Sharon Case (Sharon Newman) isn't here because the actress refused to fly coach on a last-minute flight. Gold's barely able to contain his anger at Case, and makes sure to mention that two of her co-stars, Stafford and Michael Muhney, took the coach seats.
A possible press event with the actors doesn't materialize, and it's not exactly easy to interview people with long lines of enthusiastic fans. Wandering the room, I encounter a behind-the-scenes veteran of the soaps, Adam Reist, who's directing an interactive segment in which fans act out scenes opposite the soap actors.
Reist spent two decades working on Guiding Light until its cancellation last September. A Triangle native, he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he created the campus soap Guiding Light (cast members included future film and stage star Billy Crudup).
Reist turns out to have worked with a high school classmate of mine, Aubrey Dollar, who played Marina Cooper on Guiding Light for a few years. Reist has started his own production company, and he shares details about how Guiding Light, in its last years, filmed on location in the small town of Peapack, N.J., with one "show house" serving as exteriors for five different houses.
Later, in an audience Q-and-A, Reist says his least favorite work on the show involved a story line where a plane crashed in "the snowy alps of a remote Caribbean island."
I watch the Q-and-A from backstage, looking at the audience and wondering how long many of these people have been watching these shows, what they've meant to them over the years, and if they've been company during times when these people were sick or lonely.
Even in their twilight, daytime soaps represent something meaningful to those who love them: a daily escape to a stranger, heightened reality where the problems of the real world seem insignificant by comparison. And for certain people, that can mean a lot—a group of fictional people as dear to them as anyone in the real world.
The questions begin. "So," asks one fan, "I was wondering—in a contest, which of you could get your shirt off the fastest?"
Well, yeah. There's also that.