My Life in Soaps

Ilona Saari

Ilona Saari

I never watched soaps growing up, nor did my mom, not even while ironing. But, that changed when I was living and working in Manhattan. On a trip home, I came down with the flu, leaving me flat on my back in a sea of used tissues. Mom brought me chicken soup and Cheez-Its and, to keep me company, turned on “Another World” (AW), a soap she’d discovered when she’d been sick a year earlier. After a week of sneezing, wheezing and “cheezing,” I fell in love with “mean girl” Rachel, “dashing” Steve, and “good girl” Alice.

Back in N.Y. I tried to break it off with AW but, as a struggling writer, I was often at home sans work. So to soothe my wounded ego, I had “one-day stands” with Rachel, Steve and Alice.

I divorced AW when I married a rock agent and my life became a real-life soap of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But one Superbowl Sunday he went out for a pack of cigarettes never to return. Really, cigarettes?! I was a cliché! Couldn’t he at least have disappeared getting a dozen eggs?! On the rebound, I rekindled my romance with AW.

While writing spec scripts, I met and fell in love with my future husband who snagged a writing gig on the soap, “Capitol.” He received a Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) citation, and at the awards ceremony I met an exec from “Search For Tomorrow” (Search). She asked me if I wanted to give daytime writing a shot. Why not?

Soon, I was “cheating” on AW with Search. When I felt comfortable with the Machiavellian machinations, I wrote a sample, paid “audition” script (thank you, WGA). This was pre-computers, so I wrote it on a Selectric. Anyone who’s ever written on deadline with a typewriter knows about the cutting and pasting of paper pages with scotch tape, then xeroxing it so it wouldn’t look like a patchwork quilt. It was a dizzying week. I loved it!

Script delivered, I waited for the rejection (writers aren’t the most secure people on the planet). Finally, my agent called. “They” wanted me! I was thrilled, but before all the T’s were crossed, Search was cancelled. “Thrilled” turned to heartbreak, but I still had AW.

Not long after, my husband and I packed up our Sutton Place “adjacent” apartment and moved to Los Angeles where I met Doris Silverton, a television writer who was working on General Hospital (GH). Doris became my mentor and wanted to know if I was ready for another soap dalliance. Yes! After reading one of my spec screenplays, GH’s Executive Producer (EP) offered me a sample. I was thrilled. Again!

Now working on a PC computer, writing for GH proved to be less frantic without all that scotch taping. Doris loved and championed my script. “They” wanted me! Joy in Mudville! Well, Laurel Canyon, anyway. But, before I saw a dotted line, the Executive Producer was fired and Gloria Monty of “Luke & Laura” fame returned with her own writers, including Doris. Heartbreak redux.

Doris and I stayed close. I’d been a New York deputy press secretary for President Carter, and with Doris’ help I found my political niche in L.A. writing speeches for the Clinton-Gore campaign while I wrote sitcoms and documentaries. Then, Doris surprised me. She’d given my GH script to Gloria who would be calling my agent. Thrilled, redux! But, before I could scribble my John Hancock, Gloria was 86’d.

This time I was pissed. I shook my fist at the heavens like Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind” and vowed, “I will never be hungry for a soap job again!!!” Even when asked to scab on GH during the ‘88 writer’s strike, I refused. I am a proud WGA member. I would never scab, not even if I had to dig in the dirt for a turnip or a turn of phrase.

DISSOLVE TO: A television writer’s conference where I met Wendy Riche, GH’s latest EP. She asked if I’d consider writing for daytime and I told her that Search’s cancellation and the firings of two GH EP’s had quashed that dream! I was a daytime jinx! She persisted. I smiled and asked if her job was secure. She assured me it was, but would I mind writing a new sample script? No problem. Third GH time’s the charm, right?

Meanwhile, friends had heard rumblings of a creative rift at GH, but I felt confident. Wendy was an excellent EP. Soon after delivering my script, my agent called: “They” liked it! It seemed I was in like Flynn. In a New York minute, she called back… Wendy had left GH. Flynn and I were out.

FAST FORWARD: I was in feature development hell when another daytime suitor came calling, this one from Another World. My first love! Alice and Steve were long gone, but Rachel was still rocking it… it was so yes, yes, yes, I’ll “take a meeting.” Rumors abounded that AW was on the chopping block. If so, I wanted to help save it.

I submitted an “often optioned, never green-lighted” script as a sample. “They” liked it! It was just a matter of time … but, oops, you guessed it, AW was cancelled. My first love was gone! I gathered some “widow’s” weeds (black cashmere sweater, black, drapey linen trousers, Johnny Walker Black) and went into mourning.

I decided to write a novel. Why not?! But those ol’devil soaps weren’t done with me. ABC was looking for new writers and asked if I’d be interested in All My Children (AMC) or One Life To Live (OLTL). By now you must be wondering if my world is an arm of the intelligence community i.e.: CIA, NSA, FBI, but I digress…

…I’d been out of the TV pool for a while, did I really want to dive back in? Of course! It was daytime, the place that kept chewing me up and spitting me out. Though I’d never watched either show, I chose AMC. It had Erica Kane! One writing spot opened up and I waited for the call, but… (There. Is. Always. A. But!)… AMC wanted a seasoned soap writer. “They” hired my friend, Karen Harris, one of the best. Hell, I would have hired her over me! But, this time there was no show cancellation. No EP fired. No heartbreak. My life in soaps was finally over, unless…

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