On the Anniversary of Guiding Light’s Final Episode, We Revisit 10 of the Much-Missed Soap’s Most Memorable Moments
CBS/Courtesy of the Everett Collection (5)
Flash back to the end of the long run of a soap opera giant.
September 18th marks the anniversary of when the legendary soap opera Guiding Light aired its final episode. Among the only soaps to survive and thrive with the transition from radio to television, Guiding Light proved to be one of the longest-running soap operas in history. In its 72 year span, it lasted 15 years on radio and 57 on television. Not only did it survive this jump in medium, but it also managed to keep afloat on the waves of the major changes in daytime itself, bravely experimenting in ways that other shows often wouldn’t. The shifting series of writers and producers who created the show over its many decades always proved that it was as relevant and innovative as any newcomer. In practice, this meant competing for domestic drama, business brutality as well as outlandish tales of time travel and the princely storybook romance of San Cristobal.
Launched in 1937 by soap opera pioneer Irna Phillips with Emmons Carlson, the series took its name from the lamp of Rev. Dr. John Ruthledge, a clergyman in a Chicago suburb who sermonized for justice. This original image would subsequently be transformed into the lighthouse that became the show’s logo and one of its primary mythical reference points. While still on the radio, the series built up a complex set of relationships between Ruthledge and his cynical rhetorical enemy Ellis Smith. Their opinions of humanity were frequently challenged by the increasingly scandalous behavior in the parish. By the 1950s, the reverend was dead, and their moral debates were transformed into the show’s controversial tales of death, crime, hypocrisy, and sickness. And with the 1950s, the show made its leap into TV with 15 minute episodes. With each coming decade, the series would introduce another generation of characters for a new generation of viewers to grow up with.
The soap opera innovated with its use of exotic location shooting – including in Saint Lucia, Puerto Rico, Florida, and parts of the Caribbean – and with the more experimental and raw digital camerawork of its final year. It also worked to showcase actors in unusual ways, controversially providing episodes dedicated to specific characters and episodes about a special event like the blackout, the meeting of Phillip Spaulding’s (Grant Aleksander) many ex-wives, or an episode dealing with male characters. Perhaps its most remarkable standalone episode involved its then-current cast re-creating the early days of the soap’s history on the radio to honor its seventieth anniversary. Early on, it had also been especially inventive in getting its fans to vote on the criminal case of Meta Bauer (Jone Allison), who killed her husband Ted in 1950. Although she was obviously guilty, the fans liked her enough to acquit her.
Since its move to TV, the series kept up at least a few of its core families, most notably the Bauers who generally staffed the local hospital. If they provided the flawed moral center for the show, the other families that circulated in the town created significantly more friction. This included the often-mercenary and wealthy Spaulding family as well as the complex villain Roger Thorpe (Michael Zaslow). Over the years, the canvas introduced other families into the mix, including the Cooper family, the Reardons, Chamberlains, and Lewises.
With decades of rich and complex stories to choose from, it was hard to settle on just a few fleeting instances, but take a look at our gallery of 10 memorable moments from Springfield history and share your memories of the soap below. While you’re here, you can also check out then-and-now photos of your former faves.