where the writers are
back in the saddle...

yes, I know, it's been a while...

Several weeks ago, I was interviewed by Thomas Vinciguarra for his thoughtful piece marking the 50th anniversary of As the World Turn's iconic (an overused term, to be sure, but more than fitting in this context) place in President Kennedy's assassination that appears in this Sunday's New York Times. Tom was kind enough to share the script for ATWT's 22 November 1963 episode, along with those for the four episodes that followed. Since I was in 7th-grade in 1963, I only caught bits and pieces of ATWT on holidays and vacations, or on the rare sick day at home. So, I can't say that reading though those scripts brought back a flood of memories. But, there were some interesting revelations.

Some were LOL funny: apparently salmonella wasn't a concern 50 years ago since Oakdale matriarch Nancy Hughes was "stuffing a turkey on Thanksgiving eve." (I mentioned this to a friend who asked if the script had been written by a man. I told him that while ATWT creator Irna Phillips had most likely written it, if she hadn't, she would have seen the finished product. Then I remembered that Irna didn't cook:) My favorite was one character's observation in the episode that aired the day after Thanksgiving, that she "never did see the store as empty as it was this morning."

Grandpa Hughes, played by Santos Ortega, had a large presence in the 11/22 episode, and provided a small, but very funny piece of business. Grandpa is helping Nancy dust the books; before going to get coffee, he puts a pile back on the shelf. While he's offstage, Nancy puts her own pile back on the shelf, then rights the pile Grandpa had put back upside down. Funny as it was, it could have been a subtle nod to the character's roots as a retired farmer who likely hadn't gone past grade school. There's nothing in the stage direction. ATWT's director, Ted Corday, could have suggested it during rehearsals. Or the actors may have come up with it on their own. Another possibility: since the show was done live, Ortega may have simply decided to see if Nancy's portrayer, Helen Wagner, was paying attention that fateful day.

Also in the 11/22 script, a reference to Grandpa's 70th birthday party, which had taken place previously. There's an interesting story behind why that birthday was acknowledged when it was. Irna Phillips created Another World as a sister show to ATWT, but there's was no room in CBS's daytime schedule, so AW wound up on NBC, where it premiered in May 1964. (In an odd coincidence, as the drama of JFK's shooting was unfolding during ATWT, across town, a meeting with executives from Procter & Gamble Productions, NBC and the advertising agency, Young & Rubican, was interrupted by the news of the assassination.)

Edited to add: I recently spoke with Ed Trach, at the time ATWT's supervising producer (he later replaced Bob Short as PGP's executive in charge of production), who told me that NBC approached PGP about Irna doing a show for the network (ratings for ATWT were higher than all but three of NBC's primetime shows). So, AW was always intended for NBC, which dovetailed nicely with PGP's position at the time. According to Trach, PGP had no interest placing another PGP serial on CBS because their presence on the network was heavy.

Never the less. Irna had serious concerns about how AW would fare at NBC, which was late to include soaps in its daytime schedule (when Pat Weaver was running NBC in the early 1950s, he had lofty, even highbrow, goals for the network that didn't include soap opera). As a way to reach potential AW viewers, Irna came up with the idea of celebrating Grandpa Hughes's 70th birthday. Viewers responded with upwards of 150,000 cards and telegrams; those with a return address received a thank you letter that included an announcement about the upcoming premiere of AW.

The 11/22 episode of ATWT also played an important role in Mad Men. In that show's second season Sterling Cooper established a television division when the agency took on ATWT. In the third season, MM's writers exploited that connection and used the iconic video to break the news of the assassination. But there's another connection between ATWT and MM worth exploring. During the early seasons of Mad Men, a frequent question on fan boards was, "Why doesn't Betty just divorce the son of a bitch (her handsome, philandering, deeply-troubled husband, Don Draper)? Those asking were too young to know just how difficult (and relatively rare) divorce was in the 1960s. (Interestingly, despite data that suggest the divorce rate dropped in the early 1950s, Irna believed that divorce was on the rise, the result of her creation of strong female characters in other serials, and created Bob's father, Chris, as a "dominate male.")

While Bob Hughes was certainly no Don Draper (it was Lisa who left Bob for a rich shoe salesman who soon dumped her), those ATWT scripts from late November 1963 provide some insight into the reality a divorced mother of a young son faced: no money; in school to acquire some marketable skills; parents who withhold financial support because they're hoping for a reconciliation; imposing on a friend for a loan to get a one bedroom apartment where Lisa will sleep on the sofa (that she has to buy on time) so Tom can have his own room.

A final observation: An ongoing concern during this period on ATWT was the importance that Bob remain a presence in Tom's life, despite the divorce. In the 11/29 script, Bob's father, Chris, wonders why Lisa is allowing Bob to spend so much time with Tom. Bob tells his that Lisa is "convinced that Tom needs male identity, and whom better to get it from than his father?' Irna Phillips was a single mother with two adopted children; providing male role models for her adopted son, also named Tom, is a recurring issue in her unfinished memoir, All My Worlds.