I outed myself a few years ago as a follower of the goings-on in Pine Valley, Pennsylvania, the fictional enclave that is the setting for “All My Children.” Yeah, I know. The ABC soap began airing in January 1970, when I was ten years old, and ended its run yesterday after almost 42 years. I watched off and on over the years but got hooked again recently following news of the show’s cancellation. I have no idea how the economics of such shows work—it’s clear that soap operas are remnants from a distant television past when the three networks ruled the airwaves and advertisers could expect huge non-fast-forwarding audiences for their endless commercials. Times have changed in the world, in television, and in Pine Valley, but whatever the numbers are, I still think ABC is crazy to throw away a four-decade-plus franchise that has such an insanely devoted fanbase. The show is being replaced by a cheap-to-produce talk show called “The Chew” that no one’s going to watch.
The final months of “All My Children” were built around a preposterous storyline in which we discovered that evil but brilliant Dr. David Hayward (Vincent Irizarry) had the power to bring dead people (i.e., fan favorites who could be coaxed back onto the show) back to life. These resurrections were absurd but the fans didn’t give a damn as long as they got to see their favorite stars back to say good-bye and their favorite couples reunited at last. Oy.
As I wrote several years ago, I blame my sister for my Pine Valley addiction. Just after college, when I was looking for a job, we found ourselves back at my dad’s house in Chicago. We’d eat lunch together, my sister glued to “All My Children” and me shrieking about how unbelievably stupid I thought the show was. I told her she was crazy to waste her time with such trash. The next thing I knew, I was foregoing calls to potential employers so I could find out if Erica Kane would be cleared of murder charges and could stop posing as a nun; whether beautiful Nina Cortlandt, who had no idea that her housekeeper was really her grandmother and that her best friend Monique was her long-lost mother, would find out that she wasn’t going blind but was being lied to by her scheming father Palmer so that she would end her relationship with Dr. Cliff Warner; if bad girl Liza Colby would learn that her boyfriend Tad the Cad Martin was having a tempestuous affair with her nymphomaniac mother, Marian; or whether blue-blooded matriarch Phoebe Tyler Wallingford would discover that her respectable husband Langley, supposedly a college professor, was actually a con-man and purse-snatcher named Lenny Wlasuk from the carny circuit.
And there was more, so much more. Women falling in love with their rapists, people becoming full-fledged doctors weeks after graduating from high school, sweet middle-aged ladies turning out to be the ruthless leaders of international drug cartels, kidnappings, babyswaps, epidemics of amnesia and multiple personality disorder, miraculous recoveries of wheelchair-bound invalids, the entire community drinking tainted punch and falling victim to Libidizone, a drug that removes all sexual inhibitions, and the endless parade of characters coming back from the dead on the very day that their spouse is walking down the aisle to marry their rival. Ah, Pine Valley, how I will miss you.
The reigning queen of “All My Children” was Erica Kane, played by Susan Lucci, the only original cast member who stayed with the show from 1970 to its final episode on Friday. When Lucci began, Erica was in high school. By the time I tuned in, she was the most famous supermodel in the world, despite the fact that she was 38 at the time and about 5-foot 2-inches tall! One of my favorite Erica lines occurred when she was being seduced by newcomer Mark Dalton. After weeks of flirtation, Erica suddenly announced, “I can’t make love to you. You’re my father’s bastard son!” Indeed, Erica had just found out that Mark was the product of an affair that her father, director Eric Kane, had in Hollywood. Who knew?
When she wasn’t busy hunting down terrorists in Bosnia, protecting herself from violent prison mate Kathy Bates, or facing off with grizzly bears (I kid you not), Erica spent much of her time planning her lavish weddings. She married 10 times, making her official name Erica Kane Martin Brent Cudahy Chandler Montgomery Montgomery Chandler Marick Marick Montgomery. She had three children, but only remembered giving birth to one of them. Her daughter Kendall was the product of a rape when Erica was 14 years old that she forgot about until Kendall returned as a teenager. Her son Josh came back into her life as an adult. In 1973, a few months after Roe v. Wade, “All My Children” made television history when Erica became the very first television character to have a legal abortion. Imagine how surprised she was decades later when she found out that the doctor who had performed her abortion had actually taken the embryo and implanted it in his infertile wife and then raised the child as his own. In one of the creepiest and scientifically ridiculous plots in the history of the show, Erica’s son, Josh, became TV’s first living abortion. Eww. Perhaps sensing they had gone too far, the writers promptly had Josh murdered, with his heart donated to sister Kendall who was desperately in need of a transplant. Gulp.
Despite all the outrageous storylines, “All My Children” was also known for tackling serious social issues. In addition to Erica’s retroactively reversed abortion, the show was the first soap to deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome in Vietnam vets, the burgeoning women’s movement, interracial romances, eating disorders, spousal abuse, and homosexuality. Donna Pescow arrived in Pine Valley in 1983 playing openly gay doctor Lynn Carson. Years later, in 2000, Erica’s own daughter Bianca came out of the closet as a lesbian. Erica flipped out, fell off the wagon (despite the character’s previous stint at the Betty Ford Clinic), escaped to Las Vegas under an assumed name, and became Sin City’s most celebrated showgirl (in her late 50s!). Erica eventually came to her senses and accepted Bianca’s homosexuality.
A few years ago, in what was billed as a cost-cutting move, the production of “All My Children” was moved from New York to Los Angeles. I began seeing the residents of Pine Valley around town. I spotted Erica’s daughter Bianca (Eden Riegel) at the movies and Jackson Montgomery (Walt Willey) at my favorite coffee shop. I had a conversation with Greenlee Lavery (Rebecca Budig) at a bookstore, and just the other day saw both Jesse Hubbard (Darnell Williams) and Amanda Martin (Chrishell Stause) hiking in Runyon Canyon (they weren’t together). “All My Children” has been a training ground for countless actors, some of whom went on to great success elsewhere. Most famous on that list, besides actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, talk show host Kelly Ripa, and movie star/Fergie’s husband Josh Duhamel, is Oscar-winning actress Melissa Leo who began her career on “All My Children” as Cliff Warner’s disturbed sister.
My most memorable encounter with a resident of Pine Valley occurred many years ago. In 2005, “All My Children” lost one of its foremost citizens, Phoebe Tyler Wallingford, when actress Ruth Warrick died at the age of 90. Like Susan Lucci, Warrick had been on the show since the beginning. She was once a member of Orson Welles’ renowned rep company. Her first film was the 1941 classic “Citizen Kane” in which she played Orson Welles’ first wife, Emily Norton Kane, the niece of the President. The montage of their marital problems as shown through the ever-lengthening distance between Orson Welles and Ruth Warrick at the breakfast table, is one of the most iconic sequences in the history of the movies.
Back in the early 1980s, Ruth Warrick published a book, “The Confessions of Phoebe Tyler” and also recorded an LP as her feisty character. Somehow she got booked into a rock club in Chicago that was owned by my sister’s boyfriend at the time. I don’t remember much about the evening except the moment when Warrick, looking for a male volunteer, singled me out in the audience and brought me up on the stage. To the crowd’s delight, she sang a love song to me as Phoebe Tyler. I’m sure I turned as red as Fusion lipstick as Warrick caressed me while singing the lyrics: “I love you, yes I do, I love you. If you break my heart I'll die. So be sure that it's true, when you say ‘I love you,’ It’s a sin to tell a lie!” When it was over, she planted a lingering kiss firmly on my lips. Okay, I’ll say it. Ruth Warrick was in her late 60s and I was in my early 20s, but it was hot!
There is talk about an online version of “All My Children” starting up again in January, but so far Susan Lucci and many of the other actors have said they’re not interested. Pine Valley without Erica? I don’t think so. Good-bye to the Kanes, the Martins, the Chandlers, the Hubbards, and all the rest of the relics of this disappearing art form. We’ll miss you and your crazy lives.