Tomorrow is May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, and I’m thinking of one of my favorite writers. His name was Douglas Marland. Now you might be scratching your head, thinking “That’s odd, I never heard of him. What books did he write?” He didn’t write books. Let me tell you what he wrote.
Douglas Marland was born Marland Messner in 1935. He didn’t start out as a writer, but as an actor. He appeared in The Brightest Day and Playhouse 90, and he also directed small stage shows. But soon he found his true passion: writing. And the medium he loved to write for? Soap operas.
He started writing for the soap opera The Doctors. After a year, he left the show for another soap called General Hospital. This time he had his work cut out for him. The show was bottom of the ratings and fading fast. But there was a glimmer of hope when Gloria Monty took over, picked up the pacing with the show and redecorated the aging sets. Marland then started to write for the show and his scripts became known for being dramatic, suspenseful, and funny. In a year, GH went to the top of the ratings. He didn’t stay there long because Monty wanted him to move to LA. He refused, and moved on, this time to Guiding Light. This is when I first saw his writing.
I was eight years old. My grandmother was dying of lung cancer, so time was valuable. So when I got home from school, I watched the show with her. No longer did she smoke watching the soaps, she would just watch. The episode I remember us watching was bad girl Rita seeing Roger Thrope, who everyone thought was dead, wearing a clown outfit. Scared, she entered a hall of mirrors (ala The Lady from Shanghai) and suddenly she saw him everywhere, but she wasn’t sure if it was him or not. I remember the two of us watching her fumble around, scared, and wondering if he was going to catch her. We held our breath as Donna Summers and Barbra Streisand sang enough is enough, I can’t go on I won’t go on. This was the first time I was exposed to suspenseful writing, writing that made me want to know what was going to happen next. Before that, I had read easy chapter books where I pretty much knew what was going to happen. This was different. This was scary, but I wasn’t scared. I just wanted to know what was going to happen next.
After that episode, everyday after school I watched the show with her, and I would ask her what I missed. I loved sitting there, watching the show with her.
But it wasn’t meant to last; my grandmother died in July, 1980. I was sad of course, and I missed her. But anytime I wanted to be close to her, I would watch Guiding Light, and every day, I would see on the end credits: “Written by Douglas Marland.”
But one day I noticed that his name wasn’t on the credits. He quit because he was upset they fired one of his favorite actresses on the show, Jane Elliot. Although the show would go on and maintain the quality he had for years, there were days I missed his writing. I missed seeing his name on the credits.
He went on to create the show Loving, but left that show when a storyline concerning incest was interfered with. However, with Loving, he wrote about topics not touched on television before: A nurse caring for AIDS victims. A priest doubting his faith. A Vietnam vet going to the Wall in Washington D.C. There were also the normal storylines of people having affairs, star crossed lovers being torn apart, and beautiful people pondering why life was so hard.
After creating a short lived show A New Day in Eden, he went on to write for As The World Turns. This is where he achieved his greatest success. In eight years, he wrote the typical soap opera storylines, but again tackled controversial topics. He created the first gay male character, Hank Elliot. He showed teenage drinking and people going to 12 step meetings. One girl suffered from bulimia. AIDS again was tackled, with people talking about it, going in for tests, and in one scene, a man kissing his lover on the forehead while he was lying in bed dying. This might not sound like a big deal now but then it was shocking, yet tender at the same time. He wrote about interracial romance and how people who said they weren’t racist reacted. He wrote about illiteracy, and a young Lauryn Hill learned how to read thanks to Nancy Hughes.
In 1993, I went abroad to London for a semester. While there, my only line to America was what I saw on the BBC and news from my mother. One day in March, she sent me a clipping.
I was in the student lounge when I received the letter. I unfolded it and I read: “Soap opera writer Douglas Marland died at age 58.” I remember I felt dizzy, thinking no, no, no. I had to sit down, reading the obituary. He had just been given an honorary award at the Soap Opera Digest awards. The next day he went in for surgery. There were complications and he died.
I put the article down and I sat there for a while. I heard people talking around me, but I wasn’t aware of anything. I felt like I lost a friend.
That was fifteen years ago. I wonder what Douglas Marland would’ve thought of soaps today. Let’s just say that none of the head writers are like him, and sometimes they confuse controversial topics with sensational topics. While his characters were three dimensional and real, there are Barbie dolls that have more depth than some of the characters today. I could go on, but it’s beating a dead horse. It’s not even fair to the horse.
Douglas Marland was one of the first people who taught me that to always show heart in your writing. If you don’t have heart, then what’s the point in writing? He taught me if you write about topics, don’t lecture. Show readers how it impacts people. Never be scared of taking risks. Some people might not like what you want to hear, so sometimes you have to walk away from something you love. But you kept your dignity, you stood your ground.
So Mr. Marland, if they have internet up there, happy birthday, man. I hope you’ve met my grandmother and I hope you know that at least for an hour each day, you helped her escape her world. Eat a lot of cake, do a little dance, and know that the world might be turning without you, but down here, we miss you terribly and we miss the light you shone.
In honor of Mr. Marland's birthday, I have included the videos I watched with my grandmother, and a tribute As The World Turns did after his death.
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