ABC's "General Hospital" celebrates 50 years on the air… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)
Fifty years ago, a gallon of gasoline sold for 29 cents, the Beatles were preparing the release of their first song in the U.S. and "The Beverly Hillbillies" loomed large as the No. 1 show on television.
And ABC's "General Hospital" debuted on April 1, 1963.
Monday marks the 50th anniversary of the show -- the longest running soap opera currently in production - after 12,776 original episodes.
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A year ago, fans fretted that ABC would cancel "General Hospital" following the demise of the Walt Disney Co. network's two other signature soaps, "All My Children" and "One Life to Live."
Show producers, however, accepted the challenge, introduced some younger and more diverse characters and downplayed story lines that revolved around the mob bosses of Port Charles, N.Y., the show's fictional setting. The result has been a ratings revival.
The show, which averages 3 million viewers an episode, is on track to have its best season in five years. It has experienced a 19% boost in viewers compared with last season, and a 44% increase among women ages 18 to 34.
"'General Hospital' was the soap opera that brought young people to daytime television," said Ed Martin, television columnist for MediaPost Publications. "Other soap operas like 'Young and the Restless' and 'All My Children' dabbled in it, but 'General Hospital' was most aggressive."
In 1977, the show was in desperate need of resuscitation when ABC hired the late Gloria Monty as executive producer. The show had recently been expanded to an hour from 45 minutes, and Monty was given a few months to produce results. She did so by increasing the screen time of young characters, including Laura Spencer, played by Genie Francis.
"That's when the show really came alive," Martin said. "Then, when they added Luke to the mix it was like catching lightning in a bottle."
The November 1981 marriage of Laura and Luke (played by Anthony Geary) attracted 30 million viewers, which still holds the record for the biggest audience for a daytime program. Martin said network executives used to boast that "General Hospital" generated enough profits during the 1980s to fund the network's entire annual development slate for prime-time.
"'General Hospital' changed the mold for soap operas," said Karen Herman, director of the Archive of American Television, part of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation. The archive has collected oral histories of nearly a dozen actors from the show, including Francis and Geary.
"It became one of the first soaps to go on location for shoots, they introduced younger characters and they tackled sensitive issues like cancer, AIDS and rape," Herman said.
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Unlike older soaps, which were produced in New York, "General Hospital" has long been a West Coast production. The hulking hospital exterior in the opening credits is familiar to Los Angeles residents because it is an image of the landmark USC Medical Center, east of downtown L.A.
Over the years, the show helped give rise to several stars, including Demi Moore, Ricky Martin, Rick Springfield and John Stamos. Mark Hamill appeared on the show, as did Elizabeth Taylor in the program's heyday of 1981.
Exercise guru Richard Simmons still pops up on the show, lending a comedic splash of 1980s charm, said Roger Newcomb, founder of the We Love Soaps website.
"It's always been the No. 1 soap in terms of pop culture," Newcomb said.
It is just one of four network soaps to survive waves of cost-cutting that resulted in the termination of such hallmark programs as "Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns." This month, the No. 1 daytime drama "Young and the Restless" on CBS celebrated its 40th anniversary.
"General Hospital" was created by Frank and Doris Hursley. Frank Valentini is executive producer and Ron Carlivati is the head writer.
Disney's SOAPnet cable channel plans a 50-hour marathon beginning Friday night with the first episode from 1963 and running through the weekend.
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