NEW YORK — Mary Stuart and Larry Haines, better known to daytime television viewers as Jo Tourneur and Stu Bergman, were looking back the other day over 35 years as stars of television's longest-running soap opera, "Search for Tomorrow."
"We have just taken one day at a time," Stuart said. "It's become second nature to us," Haines said.
Stuart and Haines were preparing to tape a special "retrospective" telecast of the half-hour soap, scheduled for its usual 11:30 a.m. NBC time slot on Wednesday, 35 years to the day after "Search for Tomorrow" premiered on CBS.
But the longest-running soap is also daytime's lowest-rated soap, and while Stuart and Haines were reminiscing about the highs and lows of life in Henderson, U.S.A., the show's new executive producer, David Lawrence, was working behind the scenes to try and assure that there would be a tomorrow.
"If we don't rise in the ratings--or, God forbid, if we drop--I don't think we will be on the air this time next year," Lawrence said, in a cramped office adjacent to the soap's mid-Manhattan studio. The veteran producer of TV movies and miniseries, including last year's "Consenting Adults," was enlisted four months ago to help save the beleaguered soap.
The recent history of the show, which in the past has helped launch the careers of such stars as Morgan Fairchild, Robby Benson and Kevin Bacon, has not been bright. Earlier this year, Henderson was nearly wiped off the map by a much-publicized flood in an unsuccessful effort to recapture the attention of lost viewers and even entire network affiliate stations.
"We gave a flood and nobody came," Lawrence said good-naturedly. He quickly pointed out that more changes have been made in the soap since--in sets, costumes, music and writers.
And he expressed hope that the ratings would climb with even more changes to be made soon. They include two new major characters (a love interest and an uncle for the popular character of Quinn McCleary); more mixing of the familiar, like Stuart and Henderson, with the new, such as the McCleary brothers; and an upcoming four-week storyline from locations in Ireland.
Stuart and Haines traced the recent troubles to the soap's shift from CBS to NBC five years ago and to an increasing emphasis on "adventure" rather than on individual characters and families.
"Some viewers are under the impression we're off the air," Haines said.
"And we have taken something of a back seat," Stuart said, referring to Henderson's older generation of characters.
"Our heyday was in the 1970s," continued Stuart, around whose character the soap originally was written. "Technically, we had advanced to doing the show on (video) tape, which gave us more freedom. . . . Women's roles had developed."
"And program standards and practices were liberalizing and giving us more opportunity to deal with current themes," added Haines, who joined the cast in 1951, two months after the show's premiere.
"For several years there, it was like magic," Stuart said, nostalgically.
"The soap form always has to change," she added, expressing confidence in the current attempts at change. "If you're going to hang around the television viewer's house for 35 years, you had better have something new to say."