Remembering America’s Longest Running Soap: “Guiding Light”

David Arwood

David Arwood

June 30, 2014 mark 62 years since America’s longest running soap opera began its run on American television. That soap opera was “Guiding Light” and for the next 57 years, the Bauers, the Spauldings, the Reardons, the Coopers and many more came into homes each day to entertain, to teach and to offer comfort and support.

 “Guiding Light” was one of the first programs to air on the new invention of television, but it actually pre-dates television. “Guiding Light” began as a radio serial on January 25, 1937 on NBC Radio and was transferred to CBS Radio on June 2, 1947 before making the leap to CBS television on June 20, 1952. That’s where it remained until September 18, 2009. For that 57 years, millions of Americans tuned in each day to follow the trials and tribulations of their “Guiding Light” family. Over the years, -those viewers were taken on a ride through the history of soap operas.

By the time of its last broadcast “Guiding Light” was the longest running soap opera ever aired in America and the fourth longest running television show in American broadcast history. With the demise of many of the soaps that arrived on the scene shortly after “Guiding Light” and with the constant threat hanging over the remaining soaps, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that “Guiding Light” will forever be the longest running soap in history.

 “Guiding Light” is soap history. It was created by the legendary mother of soap operas, Irna Phillips. It was Phillips who single handedly created the soap opera genre and sold that concept to international power house Procter & Gamble, who eagerly promoted the genre in order to have a captive audience to advertise their products to, especially the flag ship product, Ivory Soap. This is where the soaps get their name, and “Guiding Light” was a mainstay of Procter & Gamble productions until its final air date.

 Phillips ruled “Guiding Light” with an iron fist until she left to work on her next creation “As the World Turns” at which point her protégé, Agnes Nixon took over as head writer. Readers of this blog will know that Nixon went on to create “All My Children” and “Another World” and “One Life to Live.” Phillips also served as mentor to another soap giant, Bill Bell, who created “Young & the Restless” and “Bold & the Beautiful.” With its rich history and role as incubator to the soap greats, “Guiding Light” is responsible for all soaps that came after, and all soap fans owe a debt of gratitude to “Guiding Light” whether they ever watched it or not.

 “Guiding Light” not only represented the rise and fall of soaps, but it also tracked the changing landscape of America over the years. When viewers tuned into “Guiding Light” in 1952 they had faces to put with the character voices they had become accustomed to on radio and they followed the lives and challenged faced by middle class immigrant families similar to their own. The Bauers, led by German immigrant Papa Bauer, quickly became household names, at least in households headed by women who would not miss their favorite soap. “Guiding Light” quickly became number one in the ratings, in large part because Phillips. CBS and Procter & Gamble never shied away from topics that were viewed as controversial for their time. Alcoholism, neglect, the pressures faced by women in the 1950’s who yearned for more opportunities, and those faced by men who were expected to provide for family and be “Father Knows Best” were all on display on the little black and white TV screens in homes from Maine to California.

 “Guiding Light” kept up the intensity through the 1960’s when the writers introduced the first African-American characters to reflect the changes in an American society that was grappling with the issue of Civil Rights. It was also in the 1960’s that “Guiding Light” first aired in color and expanded from 15 minutes per day to 30 minutes each afternoon. In the 1970’s, “Guiding Light” once again changed with the times and introduced many younger characters to capture the youth audience that other and newer soaps were going after.”Guiding Light” also expanded to an hour.

 “Guiding Light” also challenged that stereotypical notion that soaps were death for actors who wanted a career in nighttime TV or movies. In fact, “Guiding Light” can claim to have launched the careers of actors and actresses who went on to lucrative and long lasting careers beyond soaps. Perhaps best known among these was Kevin Bacon, who appeared on the show in the early 1980’s. The show was also home to Ian Ziering who went on to “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Sharknado,” Calista Flockheart, TV’s Ally McBeal, Francis Fisher and Jo Beth Williams. Notables like Billy Dee Williams and Cicely Tyson were also captivated by the Light!

 I came to watch “Guiding Light” in 1984, and stayed with it at various levels of interest until the end came on September 18, 2009. For me, “Guiding Light” was a home and a comfort. I could identify with many of its characters and felt at home in “Springfield.” The storylines were often solid and sometimes outrageous. No character held my attention more than Reva Shayne, who like me was often on the outside looking in and doing whatever it took to get attention. Reva, played brilliantly by Kim Zimmer, was always a scene stealer and I couldn’t wait to catch up on her latest exploits.

 The final epitaph on “Guiding Light” actually came in Zimmer’s autobiography “I’m Just Sayin’.” In that book, Zimmer painfully describes the death of “Guiding Light” and often alludes to her suspicions that it was allowed to die. As the oldest soap, it would be easier to cancel others if the longest running soap could be killed. New modes of filming, and taking the sets outside, which were sold as innovative ways to attract new audiences, in fact drove old audiences away and made the once proud soap look like a high school TV class assignment. Zimmer also speaks of how Procter & Gamble lost interest and hired Executive Producers who would oversee the soaps demise from a business perspective.

 The end was announced on April 1, 2009, and was so shocking many thought it an April Fool’s joke. Alas it was not, and on September 18, 2009, the last episode of “Guiding Light” aired with Zimmer given the last word…”Always” as she and her soul mate Joshua Lewis drove off into history.

 The story of “Guiding Light” is the story of soap operas. Its beginning was their beginning, its social significance was their social significance, its rise was their rise and its fall and demise is a cautionary note for the remaining soaps. In the end, if we understand why and how “Guiding Light” ended, we can work to prevent other soaps from meeting the same fate.


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