It was thirty-three years ago today that a new show debuted on ABC. The first shot showed a young woman walking down the street in New York City. She wore a bright green shirt and a jeans skirt. She wore a button that said RYAN FOR COUNCILMAN. She had long brown hair and looked like a Gibson Girl. She walked with a purpose and someone yelled out her name “Hey, Mary! Mary Ryan!” She turned around, waved, and then went in the bar that said in green neon RYAN’S.
This was the first scene of the new soap opera Ryan’s Hope. Ryan’s Hope was different in the way that for the first time in years, it would center on a working class family called the Ryans. They were Irish, Catholic, and they lived in New York City-not Springfield, not Oakdale, not Llanview, and not any made up town. They were in NYC, where all the action was. The actors were not the glamorous models popping up in The Young and the Restless, but people who looked ordinary, people you could know. Claire Labine, a soap opera vet who wrote for Love of Life and Where The Heart Is, wrote the show with Paul Avilia Mayer, basing the show on memories her Irish grandmother would tell her.
Maeve and Johnny Ryan, played by Helen Gallagher and Bernard Barrows, headed the Ryans. Maeve and Johnny met when Johnny was stationed in Ireland and met a young colleen named Maeve Colleary. She was sixteen, very pretty, and Johnny was smitten. After the war ended, he went back to Ireland, married her, and took her to New York. They had seven children: Frank, Kathleen, Patrick, Sean, Mary, Maggie, and Siobhan. Sean and Maggie died when they were babies. They were Catholics who walked the walk, and talked the talk. When Mary came home one night and announced she lost her virginity to Jack Fenelli, who did a hatchet job in his column on Frank. Worse off, Mary was going to use birth control. “Girl, if you don’t want to get pregnant, you better stay out of Jack Fennelli’s bed!” Maeve declared. Trust me, you didn’t want to cross Maeve Colleary Ryan when it came to some issues.
Maeve didn’t believe in birth control or abortion; every child was a gift from God, that was that. She loved babies and children and was a natural with them. I was shocked to learn that Helen Gallagher never had children; you couldn’t tell when she played Maeve. Maeve went to church every day and listened to the sermons. She made sure her children and grandchildren knew that God was there for them no matter what. I envy that faith of hers. There was a time in my life I had that faith, and although I still believe in God, I’m not as devoted as Maeve was. She was warm and loving, able to comfort her daughter in law who is devastated about her husband’s affair, and able to give comfort to her son’s mistress. She always had her hand out to people who needed it.
Johnny was a stubborn man who loved his family very much, and like Maeve, God help you if you crossed his family. He had a bar called Ryan’s where he held court and made sure, if something good happened in the family, everyone knew about it. When Mary had a baby, he made a point of making a sign that said Welcome Ryan Maeve Fenelli! Born 5/25/77, 5:00 AM. This might sound trivial, but it was total Johnny. He was so proud of his family, and he wanted everyone to know about it.
People flocked to the Ryans like, as Anne Lamott once said, lizards flocked to the sun. One person was Delia Reid. Her parents died when she was young and Delia craved the security and the love the Ryans radiated. She dated Patrick, and then married Frank. However, Frank wasn’t happy with Delia and started to step out with family friend Jill Coleridge. Upset, Delia pushed Frank down a flight of stairs, which led to one of Ryan’s Hope’s first storylines. Watching them back to back it’s funny because of course the show was supposed to be seen everyday, but the audience keeps on seeing Frank at the bottom of the stairs just when someone says “Where could Frank be?” I kept yelling at the screen “He’s at the bottom of the stairs in Riverside!”
Although the show wasn’t a ratings hit, it was a critical one. It swept the Emmys the first year it was nominated, won Best Show twice, and best writing four years in a row, and it swept the Writer’s Guild awards as well. Helen Gallagher would go and win four Emmys for her role as Maeve. It had a devoted following, one of the biggest fans was Rosie O’Donnell. Losing her mother when she was young, O’Donnell needed a mother figure in her life desperately. She turned to television for mothering, and found a mother in Maeve Ryan. After it premiered, she would check her schedule at school and figure out a day where she could pretend to be sick so she could watch the show. She would tape the shows so she could play them back and listen to Maeve’s calm voice. I have a feeling she pretended that she was Maeve’s young daughter that died, but was alive after all. Someday Maeve would find her and bring her to the family. Maybe this sounds silly to you, but it makes sense to me.
For people who want to see actors just starting out in their craft, they could see RH to see them. John Spencer as an orderly, David Caruso as a bellhop. Morgan Freeman once played a police officer. Such RH alumni who went on to greater things are: Marg Heldenberger, Christian Slater, Yasmin Bleeth, Grant Show, and Tichina Arnold.
The heart of the show’s first years was Mary Ryan played by Kate Mulgrew. She was on almost all the episodes that first year, and was an instant star. However, fate threw a wrench: Mulgrew found out in 1976 she was pregnant. Like Mary, she was a Catholic, and she decided to continue the pregnancy. The writers wrote the pregnancy in the show. Mulgrew had the baby in 1977, taking a couple of weeks off, then she gave the baby up for adoption. She went back to the show and as Mary, had to be a mother to baby Ryan. How she did it, I don’t know. It was pure bravery on her part. After Mulgrew left, she went on to the title role as Mrs. Columbo and Captain Janeaway in Star Trek: Voyager. A couple of years ago she was reunited with the daughter she had to give up.
In 1981, soap operas were changing. They were becoming more plot driven, and if you didn’t have a super couple like Luke and Laura, boy you were screwed. RH soon found itself without its head writers Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer. Without them, the show suffered and another family took center stage, the Kirklands. One embittered cast member called it “Kirkland’s Hope.” Labine and Mayer came back a year later, but fired again. Yes, that makes no sense.
Pat Falken Smith took over, and then everything changed. Ryan’s bar blew up by mobsters. We got a bunch of teens we really didn’t know much about. There was also a cast purging and several people were fired: Louise Shaffer (Rae Woodward); Karen Morris Gowdy (Faith Colridge); Bob Reid (Earl Hindman); Kevin McGuiness (Malachy McCourt) and Seneca Beaulac (John Gabriel). It also didn’t help that ABC changed RH’s timeslot for a new soap opera created by Agnes Nixon and Douglas Marland called Loving. The show kept on going, but was in creative limbo for a couple of years.
Then Claire Labine came back. She managed to get the show on track again and suddenly it became good again. Once again, it won awards. However, it was too late. The last call for Ryan’s Hope came in January 1989. Maeve sang her signature song “Danny Boy” with everyone joining in. Crying and smiling she said: “Have a good life” as everyone cheered.
Flash forward eleven years. A new channel made it debut called SoapNet. They started to rerun Ryan’s Hope. Suddenly people were hooked. What was this show? Why didn’t we see it the first time? It also helped people were hungry for good soap opera; the soaps were (and still are) going through a creative drought. Ryan’s Hope showed soap opera at its best.
Sadly, the man who played Johnny Ryan didn’t get to see the second coming of RH; Bernard Barrows died a couple of years earlier of lung cancer. When I see Johnny smoking on the show I want to yell, “Don’t smoke, Johnny! Don’t smoke!” Two other members have died: Nancy Altman Altman who played glamorous lawyer Jillian Coleridge-Ryan died of cancer, so did Earl Hindman who played steady dependable Bob Reid.
RH has restarted a couple of times on Soapnet; because of music rights, viewers can’t see beyond 1981. Last year it looked like we were going to see more new episodes, but without warning we once again saw Mary Ryan walking down the street, causing blogger Snark to declare “Oh, no! Not again! Not again!”
There have been rumors that RH would come back with help from Rosie O’Donnell. I like to think it would come back. I like to see what happened to them, all these years later, especially after 9/11. I like to think that everyone made it out okay, and that the Ryans had a benefit for the fire fighters at the bar. Maeve would have sat on the bar and sing “Danny Boy” which would have brought the house down, and somehow, someway, she would’ve said the right thing. In the meantime, I remember the last image we had of her, smiling at everyone, saying “Have a good life.” We’ll try, Maeve. We’ll try.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries