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

October 22, 2006|Kate Aurthur | 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.

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.

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."

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."

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