THEY’RE NOT DOCTORS, BUT THEY PLAY SOME ON TELEVISION
How a curious
observer came to the General Hospital
fan club convention
and learned a
little about life, a lot about soap operas,
and far too much
1999 GH fan weekend
Some cities fail to live up to expectations.
Dallas is not as friendly as it should be; New York is not as rude.
But Los Angeles never disappoints. I’m
at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Hotel at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and
Coldwater Canyon Avenue in Studio City. Looking
south on Coldwater Canyon—toward Beverly Hills—it seems as if every other
car is a BMW or a Jag or a Benz. Gorgeous
women are out walking their implants and their dogs.
The bagger at the grocery store actually tells me to “have a nice
day”. There’s not a
McDonald’s in sight, but I’ve already counted two sushi bars.
So what has brought me to this most L.A. corner of Los Angeles?
I am here for the annual convention of the fans of the ABC soap opera, General
Hospital. A few hundred women
(and maybe ten men) have gathered from across the continent to spend the weekend
meeting their favorite performers and collecting pictures and autographs.
I’m not especially interested in the soap opera itself.And I’m sure not going to pay the $30-100 it costs to
register for any of the actual events. As
far as soap operas go, I’ve heard of Susan Lucci, and now that she finally has
her Emmy, I don’t even care much about her anymore.
Instead, I’m here for the atmosphere, to watch the fans up close and to
listen to their conversations. I
know why the actors are here; the fans’ motivations are far more interesting.
I’ll maybe sneak into an event or two, but that’s secondary.
I really don’t care about some 19 year old actor’s take on the
Quartermaine family’s troubles since there’s nothing a 19 year old can tell
me about relationships (real or scripted) and, in any event, I wouldn’t know a
Quartermaine from a quarter horse. As
I said, the fans interest me more than the performers.
I arrive at Burbank Airport just before noon.
In an area drowning in wealth, I’m surprised to find that the local
airport is old and dilapidated, a bus station with runways.
When we get off the plane, they even make us walk down one of those
staircase ramps that used to trip up President Ford.
An hour later I’m poolside at the Sportsmen’s Lodge talking to a
group of fans. Out of nowhere, the
talk turns to Sonny and Brenda and Jax, and everyone joins in as if this is how
these folks normally break the ice while the rest of us are chatting about the
weather: “Hi, nice to meet you. Where
are you from? Don’t you hate
Jax?” A woman from New England
asks me if I think Brenda should be with Sonny or Jax.
I guess right and say Sonny, and she nods approvingly. “I really like Sonny,” she says with a conviction in her
voice that makes it feel as if the Pope has just said, “I really like God.”
I notice that she’s wearing a t-shirt bearing a picture of Maurice
Benard, the actor who portrays Sonny on GH
(nobody but the hotel staff refers to the show as General
A very attractive woman walks by and immediately commands everyone's
attention. Her hair is nearly
perfect and her chest seems larger than anything nature would be likely to place
on such a petite frame. She is
obviously one of the actresses. I
am still gawking when another beautiful woman saunters up to the table and
engages in a conversation with one of the fans.
She makes small talk, signs a couple of pictures, and then walks off.
I am told that this is the woman who played the bartender in a few scenes
on GH and also (and this seems to be
more important to the women around the table) once served as Kristin’s double
on Days of Our Lives, in shots where
Kristin was talking to her evil twin. I
In the conversation that ensues, I quickly learn that actors’ names and
characters’ names are virtually interchangeable to this group.
Sometimes he’s Sonny, sometimes he’s Maurice.
There’s a real sense of attachment that these women seem to feel toward
the performers, and the actors and actresses are spoken of like old and dear
friends. My silent musing about the
line between devotion and stalking is interrupted by the announcement that it is
time to assemble in the ballroom to meet the cast of Port Charles, a fairly new soap opera that was spun off from GH
and takes place in the same fictional burg in upstate New York.
I stay behind to enjoy the sunshine and the beer, and within minutes
nearly all the fans are gone and the average age at poolside seems to have
increased by a good twenty years. Watching
these very fit seniors wading and swimming around, I’m reminded of the scene
from that movie (Cocoon, I think)
where all the old folks take these pills and become youthful and frisky.
Here I am in L.A. for one afternoon and I’m already thinking in terms
of movie references. This place
gets to you quickly.
After napping for a couple of hours, I head down to the hotel bar to
watch baseball. I strike up a
conversation with some guy in his fifties and as we talk about Randy Johnson’s
fastball, I wonder if we sound any different from the women I was listening to
by the pool earlier in the day. Do
I like the Padres as much as that woman from New England likes Maurice Benard?
Then I remember the look in her eyes as she spoke about the
Sonny/Brenda/Jax love triangle. No I don’t, I decide.
It’s not like I’d fly to Boston just to get Tony Gwynn’s autograph.
Just then these two impossibly attractive young men enter the bar and
walk up to the guy I was talking to. How
attractive are they? You know the
best looking person in your entire high school?
Not even close. Of course,
we’ve all seen people who look like this on television, but it doesn’t
compare to the real thing. Sort of
like the difference between seeing a giraffe on Wild
Kingdom and seeing one at the zoo. They’re
just a whole lot more impressive in real life.
Anyway, two things are clear. First,
these young men are soap opera actors. And
second, this guy at the bar is somehow related to one of them.
So of course I ask. It turns
out that I am knocking back beers with none other than the real-life father of
TV’s Dr. Joe Scanlon. Wait until
I tell the girls by the pool.
Eventually, I head over to the ballroom and sneak in just in time for the
autograph session. Fans line up at
different tables for photos and signatures and a few seconds of conversation.
Most of the stars handle this with grace and humor.
Many of them even seem to enjoy it.
But not everyone. Somebody called Kin Shriner is walking around like he just
stepped in something, signing pictures without smiling and mumbling occasional
greetings. He’s apparently one of
the big stars of Port Charles, having
been moved over (demoted?) from GH in
order to help launch the newer program. So
maybe in a career sense he really had just stepped in something.
It’s a weird symbiosis, the relationship between the actors and their
fans. Part of the equation, of
course, is obvious. Millions of
women live vicariously through these performers and their characters.
Meeting their favorite stars, if only briefly, brings a little excitement
and romance into their lives, allows them to be Brenda for a day.
For the actors, on the other hand, it has to feel just a little creepy
from time to time, having all these strangers treat you like their best friend
(or worse). But the simple fact is
that the actors need their fans just as much as vice versa. Their continued employment depends on developing and
nurturing a loyal fan base. The
more popular you are, the more camera time you get.
If fans are passionate about wanting to see Sonny and Brenda together,
that is very good news for Mr. Benard. If
they lose interest, it could be back to waiting tables and driving a Honda.
Hollywood is crawling with obscenely good-looking young men and women
dying to get their shot. Some of
them are tending bar for real, and some of them are doing it in bit parts on
soap operas. They are walking
reminders that nobody is irreplaceable. So as much as they may hate these affairs, almost all the
actors attend and stay until the last picture is signed.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that behind one table is a young
girl, maybe eight years old. She
plays one of the kids on the show. She
is so cute that if you brought you own third-grader along, you’d want to put a
bag over her head just to prevent comparison.
She has bright blond hair, pinchable pink cheeks and the sweetest little
smile. If they had put this girl in
little-kid beauty contests, JonBenet would have had to settle for Miss
Congeniality. Even Shriner perks up
when he sees her.
And as Little Miss Muffett smiles and signs and poses, you wonder what it
must be like for an eight year-old child to have all these adults eating out of
the palm of her hand. How can that
not warp you, at least a little? Why
would they even bring her to this thing? But
then you remember that L.A. is a cruel place, and even as little Carly Schroeder
is signing pictures, a hundred stage mothers are in dingy apartments in Van Nuys
practicing lines with a hundred beautiful blonde girls, just waiting for a job
to come open. So Carly spends her
Friday night at the Sportsmen’s Lodge, handling her duties like an experienced
little trouper, acting more like an adult than many of the grown-ups pleading
for her autograph.
The first big event of the day is a few miles away in Universal City.
So I grab a taxi and ask the driver to take me to the Universal Hilton.
He looks at me like I had just requested a ride across the street.
New York cabbies are accustomed to short hauls, from Penn Station to
Rockefeller Center, that sort of thing. But
Los Angeles is so spread out that any fare could be like hitting the jackpot for
a lucky driver. So this guy is a little pissed off, and demonstrates it by
ignoring two-thirds of all the highway laws of the state of California.
Just to get even, I almost ask him for his card so I can call him when
I’m ready to go back to Studio City, but then I think better of it.
Inside the Hilton, a crowd is massing for the Alan and Monica
Quartermaine “Anni-Misery” Party. I
ask and find out that Alan and Monica are a long-time GH
couple who provide comic relief by their constant bickering.
Since the theme here involves an anniversary party, many of the fans have
dressed up for the occasion and some of the pearls hanging around necks look
real. I’d like to drop in for a
moment or two, but the Hilton’s security is so tight that you’d think that
Mick Jagger and Madonna were holding a surprise birthday party for Michael
So instead I decide to spend some time at the Universal City Walk.
On the way, I pass the overpriced Universal Studios theme park, where a
good portion of the population of Japan has decided to spend its Saturday
afternoon. In the old days
(L.A.-speak for the 1970s), people would come to Universal Studios for a tour of
an authentic movie lot. Today,
however, the big draw is a bunch of movie-themed thrill rides, and the venerable
old studio has become little more than another Disneyland or Magic Mountain,
except that it has—almost as an afterthought now—the actual house from the
I seem to recall that the original idea of City Walk was to give the
residents of Los Angeles a central meeting place, with restaurants, boutiques,
nightclubs, and theaters. But aside
from the employees, nobody here today looks like they’ve even been in L.A.
long enough to get carjacked. The
place has been given over entirely to tourism, and no more represents the
“real” Los Angeles than Waikiki Beach represents the “real” Hawaii. Still, as I sit down for my sushi lunch (couldn’t resist) I
decide that maybe City Walk, with all its illusion and pretense, is
the real L.A. and the folks down the hill struggling with the smog and the
traffic and the crime are the impostors. With
that disturbing thought in mind, I head back to the Hilton.
By the time I get there, the
“Anni-Misery” party is over and people are going through another round of
signature gathering and picture taking. This
time, a few of the stars have left early, and at least one fan feels cheated.
She tells me that among those quickly departing was the man who plays the
Quartermaines’ butler. It turns
out that the butler now has a second career as a movie director and may feel
that he’s too good to hang around with the common folk.
I ask what his most recent movie was, and learn that it was The Mod Squad. I figure
that if he makes another film like that one, he may not be a big Hollywood
director for long. By this time
next year, he could be the happiest manservant in all of Port Charles, New York,
grateful for the chance to sign autographs in the Hilton ballroom.
I get back to the Sportsmen’s Lodge in time for an event featuring
Jackie Zeman, a woman I’ve seen on some aspirin commercials.
It’s an outdoor event, so I stand on the other side of the fence and
watch Ms. Zeman work the crowd. A
veteran soap star, she has a real knack for making every fan feel special.
I wonder if maybe the actresses have to work just a little harder at it
because they can’t depend on winning over these mostly female fans with their
good looks. Any woman who adopted
the “I’m-here-and-that-should-be-enough-for-you” attitude of Kin Shriner
would probably soon find herself working the crowd at Denny’s and cursing the
cruel fate that moved her so quickly from in front of the camera to behind the
But as I watch Zeman say “cheese” for what must be the fiftieth time,
another thought creeps into my head. This
woman is tiny. Not just short, but
rail thin. On TV she looks kind of
voluptuous, but here on the patio she’s just really small.
And the more I think about it, I begin to realize that nearly all of
them, both men and women, are noticeably thin.
And short, too. The camera,
it seems, easily accommodates (and compensates for) insufficient height, but it
is downright unforgiving to even an ounce of excess girth.
It occurs to me that even if I had the looks to act in the soaps,
onscreen I would still look a lot more like Jackie Gleason than Jackie Zeman.
Unfortunately, I have little time to ponder God’s thoughtlessness in
giving me an ordinary human face and body.
I have an appointment down in San Diego that involves copious amounts of
drinking, and I need to head south at once.
More GH events are scheduled
for the evening, but they will go on without me.
Too bad. I understand that
there’s a musical performance scheduled by an actor named Wally who plays a
character called Ned (only in Hollywood could you arrive in town with a name
like Wally and be handed an even nerdier moniker by the script writers).
It’s bad enough that I wake up late and hung over, but at lunch I am
greeted with some terrible news.
Brenda is dead.
It seems like only days ago that we were sitting around the swimming pool
debating the merits of her two suitors, Sonny and Jax.
And now she is gone. Brenda,
we hardly knew ye.
Surprisingly, nobody is mourning and I soon realize why.
Brenda, it seems, has been dead for a couple of months now.
Murdered. Someone (Sonny?
Jax? That woman from New England?) had yanked the steering wheel while she was
driving and she had met her maker on the other side of the windshield.
Apparently, not even death can put an end to the Sonny/Brenda/Jax debate.
The funny thing is, though, that I can’t seem to find anyone who sides
with Jax in this hard fought contest to win the love of Port Charles’ most
eligible roadkill. Perhaps part of
the reason is that the actor who plays Jax, Ingo Rademacher, is not attending
the conference. Rumor has it that
he is hosting his own confab in Cancun later in the year.
That strikes many of the ladies here in L.A. as an insult to General
Hospital’s loyal fans, who have spent quite a bit of money to come to
California, and can’t really afford another trip to a foreign land.
The only thing that strikes me is that Ingo is an even stranger name than
Jax. One of the women here, to
dishonor the man and his Australian background, cleverly refers to him as
Two of the women from Friday’s poolside conversation invite me to join
them for dinner, and I gratefully accept. As
I endure an overpriced turkey salad with a side order of bad service, the women
bring up a subject that I was anxious to discuss but didn’t know how to
broach: stalkers. My dinner
companions have a very good sense of the proper boundaries.
They both agree that they would not bother any celebrity even if they
found one eating at the next table (“unless, of course, it was Mel Gibson,”
one of them adds).
But they do mention that some women have been banned from this annual
event because they had no sense of boundaries at all.
And they tell the story of a fan who tried to follow one of the actors
home in her car. Apparently, she
lost him somewhere on the Santa Monica Freeway.
For some reason, my mind turns to the sad case of Selena, the Chicana pop
star, who was gunned down just as she was making it big.
By the president of her fan club.
The women at the table, however, pose no threat to anyone.
They like the show, they enjoy getting caught up in the romantic
storylines, but when it’s over, they get on with their lives.
As I listen to them, it becomes clear that all of us have our minor,
harmless obsessions. When 50,000
men (and a few women) descend on Texas Stadium on a given Sunday and scream
themselves hoarse over the fate of the Dallas Cowboys, a collection of very
large and rich men that they don’t (and, in the case of many of the Cowboys,
wouldn’t want to) know, nobody tells them to “get a life”.
All over America, there are conventions devoted to different hobbies and
interests, from science fiction to the Beatles to collecting swizzle sticks (no,
really: they meet every two years in Las Vegas).
And what about the men and women who attend the quadrennial Democratic
and Republican national conventions? Have
you seen them with their silly hats and buttons, and their intense debates over
minor wording changes in a party platform that nobody in the outside world will
ever read? They are political
geeks. Tax cuts vs. Medicare
spending, Sonny vs. Jax. Is there
really a difference?
Maybe all of us are geeks.
I have little time to contemplate this newfound bit of wisdom because the
conversation about stalking has been joined by a third woman.
She’s telling a story about how she once located a famous singer’s
home address so she could bring the woman a gift.
Except that her point is that she respected the singer’s privacy (she
left the gift behind without ringing the doorbell) and that puts her in a
different class than the stalkers we were talking about.
She waits for us to reassure her that she’s right, but only token
reassurance is forthcoming. Clearly,
not everyone here has mastered the boundaries.
After three days of stargazing, everyone is bone tired and the
conversation at breakfast lags. I
do learn, however, that there has been another death in the family. This time it’s a character called—of all things—Lucky.
Only he’s not really dead, he’s just been kidnapped by some evil
someone-or-other who’s doing something-or-other to him.
By this time, I’ve reached GH
overload, so I tune out most of the rest of the conversation.
But then we have an L.A. moment.
A couple of men walk into the coffee shop and there’s an instant buzz
in the room. Hey, aren’t those
guys somebody? Presently, one of them is positively identified as William
Campbell, a character actor who once played a Klingon on Star Trek. Well, it’s
not Richard Gere, but he is a celebrity of sorts, so a couple of people head to
his table for autographs. (The
women who vowed yesterday not to bother any celebrities while they were eating
are, incidentally, true to their word.) The
man with Campbell, who is sporting a baseball cap and is thus not easily
recognized, turns out to be Walter Koenig, Star
Trek’s Ensign Chekov. Now
we’ve at least reached the suburbs of real stardom, and everybody’s day has
It’s time to go and the attendees exchange hugs and e-mail addresses.
I’ve decided to take the train out of town, so I head to Union Station
in downtown L.A. The distance
between Studio City and downtown can only partly be measured by the
thirty-dollar taxi fare (this time the cab driver is a happy camper, indeed).
Downtown L.A. is grimy and hot, filled with people who work for a living
and drive cars that were made neither in Germany nor in the last five years.
Down here there are no beautiful people and certainly no movie stars.
Nobody demands that you have a nice day.
As I sit back and listen to the sounds of English, Ebonics, Spanish, and
Tagalog bouncing off the walls of this elegant and cavernous old railroad depot,
all I can think of is this: thank goodness I’m out of Hollywood and back in my
own country again.
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