On the Anniversary of Its Premiere Nearly 40 Years Ago, Revisit the Beloved NBC Soap That Might Still Be On the Air Today, Were It Not for… Well, You’ll See
On July 30, 1984, NBC put Santa Barbara on both the air and the map.
When Santa Barbara premiered on this day nearly 40 years ago, it was… Well, let’s not mince words. It was a bit of a mess. It had good bones — feuding families of haves and have-nots, a stellar cast including no less than the late, great Dame Judith Anderson, and in charge of its stories, creators Jerome and Bridget Dobson, a husband-and-wife team so sharp, knives gazed upon them with envy.
But after the powers that be unleashed a serial killer to dispatch some of the characters that just weren’t working — and whose portrayers would’ve made the Hope mannequin on The Bold and the Beautiful look like an Emmy contender — things picked up in a big way.
For one thing, the show finally found the perfect actor to play Capwell patriarch C.C. in Jed Allan (previously Days of Our Lives’ Don Craig). For another, daytime’s Bette Davis, Robin Mattson (best known as Heather Webber on General Hospital), made the role of pot-stirrer extraordinaire Gina DeMott her own. Finally, the sudser struck supercouple pay dirt not once but twice, with the pairings of Lane Davies and Nancy Lee Grahn (Alexis, General Hospital) as lawyers in love Mason Capwell and Julia Wainwright, and Marcy Walker and A Martinez as poor little rich girl Eden Capwell and Cruz Castillo, the cop who collared her heart.
If only Santa Barbara had generated ratings big enough to allow it to stay the course. It didn’t. So backstage upheaval often threatened to eclipse the drama on screen. And by 1991, the soap had lost not only burgeoning movie star Robin Wright (as Eden’s sister, Kelly), Emmy magnet Justin Deas (who played D.A. Keith Timmons as the most irresistible of SOBs) and Walker but the Dobsons, who found themselves unceremoniously booted from their own show, and their successor as executive producer, Jill Farren Phelps.
Once Paul Rauch and Pam Long were brought in as EP and headwriter, Santa Barbara was as good as dead. The lauded daytime drama still attracted blue-chip talent like Jack Wagner (the General Hospital alum who’d played Frisco Jones) and Kim Zimmer (between stints as Guiding Light vixen Reva Shayne). But it felt as much like the show its small but passionate fan base knew and loved as celery feels like potato chips.
In other words, not a whole damn lot.
But enough autopsying. On this day — all these years after we first visited Santa Barbara — let’s not focus on why it so needlessly failed. Let’s instead remember when it was great, via the below photo gallery, which revisits highlights from its justly heralded heyday.