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September 25, 2009: On the Fading ‘Guiding Light’

Last week marked the final telecast of the longest-running “soap opera” in history, “The Guiding Light”, which was originally on radio in the 30s and then on television for decades ( Although I hadn’t watched it in years (and apparently I wasn’t alone in this), I was very sad to see it go. Like so many things in my life (I admit; I’m a nostalgic, romantic sap), I have a sentimentality on the occasion of its demise, and wanted to give it my own blog-style eulogy.

In some ways, it’s like an old friend passing away, or an old landmark being torn down, or a “constant” in one’s life that is no longer there, like tearing down a lighthouse that has always been there in the water (for many years, the “logo” of the show on TV was a shining lighthouse, and I remember when they changed both that logo and the long-running theme song, I suppose in an attempt to “modernize” the show, the first of many attempts to stem the tide of the changing times that led to its eventual demise).

In my practice as a psychotherapist, I have often mused that if there is indeed an over-arching “key” to happiness, it is “living in gratitude.” So, today, I want to express to my dear, departing “Guiding Light”, the things I’m grateful for in it, with my godspeed and thanks.

I think the main thing it represents to me is “family”. As a self-appointed gay activist (though I don’t think I really do enough for our community to really earn the title of “activist”, yet), musing on the value of “family” is something my Arch Enemies of the Religious Right would be surprised to hear me spout. But, believe it or not to my skeptical and hostile opponents, I strongly believe in “family values”, I just don’t consider hate for LGBT people to be among them. Rather, I think of how “Guiding Light” supported MY family values. I started watching the show with my mother, when I was as young as people go. I watched that show a good 5 years before starting Kindergarten. My mom was a housewife (and boy was she a damn good one; Martha Stewart should commit hara kiri if she knew my mother, cuz my mom did it all first and better). She was dedicated to keeping a clean, comfortable, stylish, healthy, and loving home, and worked tirelessly for it, but she did have enough self-care instinct (also something I “preach” to my clients) enough to take time out in her day to watch “GL”. My mom is responsible for educating me in many things; she was actually quite the “teacher”, and patiently explained things to her somewhat precocious and inquisitive son. I couldn’t get enough of pressing her for what she knew about show business history (my mom must have known I was gay from a very young age; I used to pepper her frequently with all the questions I possibly could about what she knew about the stars of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Bewitched”, my two favorite childhood obessions, and what the stars were like in “real life” (somehow thinking she knew all the answers, cuz Mom knows everything). My mom explained that “GL” used to be on the radio, and that she started watching it in college in the early 1950′s (oops; sorry, Mom; I guess it was more MID 50′s) when the show followed the movements of the generation before the one we were currently watching. She explained how in the 60′s, the show expanded from 15 minutes to 30 minutes (I remember when it went from 30 minutes to 60). She explained how “grandma” Bert Bauer was the “leading lady” of the show in past years, while the show by the 70s focused on her two sons, a doctor (Ed) and a lawyer (Mike), who oddly actually looked nothing alike. She would explain, in such a gracious and age-appropriate way, answers to my questions about plot points that involved things like extramaritial affairs, murder, and other “grownup” themes.

My sister was an important part of this ritual, too, as we both watched it. Occasionally, her superior knowledge of All Things of the World (she was, after all, 3 years older) would occasionally enlighten me on a plot point. Only my dad was having none of it; I remember learning what the word “drivel” meant by his description of “Guiding Light”. (My dad was great for expanding my vocabulary, for although I don’t think he really thought of himself that way, he’s actually VERY smart and a talented wordsmith, and probably the source of much of my sister’s and my penchant for writing.) For my sister and me, “GL” (as she used to call it) and an afternoon snack was our reward for a school day well done.

At a certain point when I was a kid in the 70s, my grandmother mentioned that she used to listen to “GL” on the radio. That just made my world complete. I took a certain comfort that in my family, there was a continuity between something recreational that my grandmother enjoyed (my father’s mother) and that my mother, and now I, enjoyed, too. I think in families, “continuity” and “tradition” can give a person, especially a child, a sense of belonging and even security. It taught my very young self that some things endure for years, even decades, and when I was not even a decade old myself, that sounds like a REALLY long time.

My spotty memory only allows for highlights of moments from the show. I remember my mom getting angry at the screen when I think “Leslie” was on trial for murder, and the prosecutor tried to nail her because a witness testified that he overheard Leslie say, “I could kill him.” My mom railed at how sillly that was; “lots of people say things like that, it doesn’t make them murderers!” she’d say. I wondered if she was referring to herself, and perhaps a time when she said or thought “I could kill him” when either me or my dad (the only “hims” in the house) had misbehaved. But I learned a bit about how trials and the justice system works by watching “GL”, and these dramatic, compelling scenes paved the way for the entire “Law & Order” courtroom drama franchise that dominates television today.

Later, I remember the tense atmosphere created by the actresses (who were very good) and the director, when Kit poisoned Charlotte (for whatever reason, I can’t remember) and watched her die before her eyes. I was fascinated with the pure sadism and cruelty of this, and learned what villainous behavior really is, especially from self-indulgent, manipulative women. This was repeated when Georgene Granger set Rita Stapleton’s house on fire (again, not sure why). Later, in my own adult life, when I had a couple of incidents where very self-indulgent, aggressive, kind of evil people deliberately set out to undermine me in a case of workplace bullying, I had memories of these delicious villainesses on “GL”, and how their self-involved ambitions, jealousies, greed, lust, and entitlement led to irrational violent acts against innocent others.

The positive moments on “GL” inspired all the viewers, and me. Heart-tugging stories like when Rita’s little sister, Eve, went blind — and later regained her sight. I wanted to know in great medical technical detail how this was possible — how was medical technology used to help someone? This is perhaps one of the positive examples of the value of doctors and medical technology that helped me to never lose faith during my own medical challenges, especially in my 19 years of living with HIV. Watching Evie regain her sight through a combination of the intelligence, creativity, dedication, knowledge, and compassion of a handsome, heroic doctor (Ed Bauer) gave me hope that while it doesn’t always work (people do get sick and die), sometimes medical miracles happen, and we celebrate these. With the real news this week that a blind woman regained her sight after 9 years of blindness by having a hollow tooth stuck in her eye, little Eve and her storyline still live.

And for a young gay boy, the depiction of handsome, heroic characters was my first opportunity for the very mildest of “porn” (even though, in the 70′s, handsome actors really didn’t take their shirts off on soaps — that was to come in the 80′s). I still have a slight crush on a handsome 30-something actor buddy who is the spittin’ image of the young, 70s Ed Bauer (Mart Hulswit). Heartthrob characters like “Ben McFadden” and a very young Kevin Bacon were the heroes then that fascinated me. And I understood the appeal of the iconic “handsome bad-boy” in characters like Roger Thorpe, a true villain on the show (including a groundbreaking storyline that I saw, but don’t remember, on marital rape). Did the producers of “Guiding Light” realize that thousands of gay boys in the 70s were watching their characters with fascination? Who knows. But for many of my gay peers, soap actors and other TV heroes were the first introduction to crushes and even a child’s special version of vague “lust” (there is no other word for it; I remember looking at Kent McCord during the original run of “Adam-12″ in the late 60s (, and watching him the way a hungry lion watches a limping zebra at dinnertime — mind you, I was 5).

I am grateful that although my grandmother has since passed away, and “Guiding Light” has aired its last moment, my mom, dad, and sister are still around, and we can all share our nostalgia and “mourn” the loss of “our show” together (though I know my dad will make SOME kind of “good riddance” joke, right on cue). The creator of “Guiding Light” based the show on a series of inspirational sermons from a church that preached the universal “brotherhood of man”, perhaps not unlike the “appreciation of diversity” that I espouse when it comes to gay rights activism. For promoting that message, and for thousands of hours of entertainment, I’m grateful to “Guiding Light”. Long may you shine.

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