When I was a kid, our summers had a certain routine. There might be swimming lessons or vacation bible school in the morning, but afternoons were spent indoors in front of the TV to get out of the sweltering heat. After the game shows went off, my sister Karen would watch her soap operas. Being ten years older, she was my babysitter, and when she was later married and living away from us, I visited her occasionally.
I wasn’t immediately in love with the genre, as I preferred cartoons and sit-com reruns whenever they played throughout the afternoon. I could deal with the game shows, but I left the room when it came to that trio of ABC soaps, which dominated our TV viewing for 90 minutes each afternoon from 2:00 to 3:30.
As a five year-old, Dark Shadows scared the hell out of me when they showed a disfigured Angelique one day. I couldn’t go down the hallway at night without a light on for weeks. Our mother forbade my sister from letting me watch, and it was a pity because I wasn’t interested in General Hospital or One Life to Live. Mother was home one afternoon from work, and I heard her ask Karen if Viki was still Niki “or what.” Karen explained that the multiple personality storyline had been resolved years before, and that the issue at hand was Viki’s realization that her dead husband Joe was, in fact, not dead, and she had remarried Steve in good conscience. Now she would have to choose which husband she wanted.
I was sitting in the corner of the living room playing with toys when my interest was piqued. Some woman named Viki had been Niki, and now she wasn’t. How was that possible? I seemed to grasp that one was good and one was bad, and that both lived in the same body. Interesting.
Jump ahead another five years, and I was visiting Karen in her first apartment. She said we could go to the pool after our lunch was settled. There was something about having to wait a certain amount of time after eating before going in the water. Interestingly enough, that time coincided with the end of the day’s soaps. Bored but polite, I watched with her a couple of afternoons. It turned out that Viki’s father was very ill, and her wicked stepmother Dorian Lord was preventing Viki from seeing her father.
Little did I know, but these scenes were key to many future stories that would play out and be rehashed for over 30 more years, and like many an unsuspecting viewer, I had become hooked. When I returned home, I was allowed to stay by myself without a babysitter for the rest of the summer. Each day I tuned in to watch One Life to Live, and before I returned to school in the fall, I had already added General Hospital and All My Children. Fortunately, I had three friends who watched the same shows, and if someone were fortunate enough to get the flu at some point, the rest of us could get a play-by-play of the murders, trials and divorces during the winter sweeps months.
I had a portable black-and-white TV in my dorm room so that I could occasionally keep up with the shows without the world discovering my interest via some over-crowded TV lounge in the student union. This was a couple of years after Luke and Laura’s adventures, and the discovery that Phoebe Tyler Wallingford’s husband was a former circus carney. I wasn’t watching much One Life to Live at that point until I landed on an episode in 1985 and heard the name Nicole Smith mentioned. That sounded very familiar, and I remembered something about Niki Smith. Could it be? Could they be reviving a story from the past? They had, and I barely missed an episode over the next ten years.
My break with this great show was when I was finally disgusted with a particular story canvas (as I would learn it was called). The story had to have been the worst since I’d stayed committed to the show when Tina Clayton Lord Roberts had gone over the Iguazu Falls two months pregnant and reappeared three months later with a premature baby that was as developmentally on track as a full term baby several months older. I’d lived through underground cities, trips to Heaven, time travel to the old west, but I couldn’t buy into an Irish pub being dismantled stone by stone and reassembled in Pennsylvania in a matter of weeks. That was utterly stupid.
Two years later, Karen was living in the United States again, and she had caught up with her favorite shows. She indicated that I would be interested in the current stories, and I gave it a try. Like returning to an addiction, I was watching daily. I tried to watch less regularly over the next four years, but by 2001, I was a faithful watcher for the next decade.
Then came the tragic news that ABC was bringing an end to One Life to Live and All My Children. There have been world disasters and plane crashes that have not touched me like the news that these stylish people were going to fade from the American landscape and leave me with an extra 45 minutes each day. (I fast-forwarded through the commercials.)
Throughout the years, I was not only fascinated by the stories, but by the behind-the-scenes aspect of the shows. What most people probably never understood was that producing a one-hour broadcast five days a week, 52 weeks a year is the most difficult thing to do in television, and for the actors, it’s the hardest job. Primetime is weekly, films take weeks or months, and live theatre allows actors to say the same things each night. Daytime dramas are tough, and that has intrigued me.
At one point, I thought it would be great to write for one someday, and I suppose the news of the cancellations hit me with the fact that the door was closed. I’d never write about Viki’s tenth marriage or her fourteenth kidnapping. How many children did she have that were still out there, undiscovered and unaccounted for? And did Dorian kill Victor? She’ll never get to confess for real because the sets have been struck and the online version has been tied up in litigation.
The cancellations happened around the time that I was working with a very difficult personality on a professional level. The recession was taking place, and everything we tried in dealing with it was met with, “We’ve always done it this way.” I kept wondering how long she was going to keep this up. The world was changing, and she’d had her day in the sun. When were the rest of us going to be able to make a difference if we were constantly being blocked by a diva who was grasping at anything to stay in the leading position?
Out of frustration with the cancellation and a most difficult soul, I wrote the first chapter to my new book Tossed Off the Edge. I had thought it would be a few pages of a piece that would remain unshared. It would never go anywhere, and that’s where it remained.
A few months later, when my soap was approaching its end, I passed by a bookstore in Studio City. In the window was a celebrity biography, and it hit me. I could take that first chapter and weave it into a tribute to daytime TV while having a bit of fun with the self-indulgent celebrity tell-all. Two weeks later, I had three more chapters, and it wasn’t long before I was writing every evening when I got home.
The end result is a humorous look at a soap opera star whose show The Edge of Conflict has not been cancelled, but from which she has been “tossed,” fired, booted and left for dead. In fact, the network was so eager for her to go that they televised an on-air cremation so that there was no way for their phoenix to rise from the ashes.
For 40 years, Sheila Wozniak played the tragic Regina Knight Harrison Donavan Taylor Donavan McDonald McDonald Woodward Merriweather Todd, and after four decades, she doesn’t seem to know where she leaves off and Regina begins. In her confusion, she also weaves vintage and current television shows and films into her life’s narrative. Thankfully, she has a ghost-writer named, coincidentally, Patrick Brown, who does his best to research and sort out what he can determine is fact from fiction.
Tossed Off the Edge is currently available at:
© 2014 by Patrick Brown