Days of Our Lives -- Review of Two New Books

Pair of titles celebrating the 45th anniversary of NBC's soap offer a warm, affectionate and detailed look at the show's history and what it took to make it work.

The renewal really is cause for celebration by soap opera lovers at a time when other long-running shows like Guiding Light and As the World Turns have been axed in the face of changing tastes, increased competition and shifting demographics for daytime TV. [Click here to see images from the photo book.]

Executive producer Ken Corday's gentlemanly memoir, The Days of Our Lives: The True Story of One Family's Dream and the Untold History of Days of Our Lives, provides an insightful look at how this program has survived. It's been done by repeatedly re-inventing the soap, finding attractive new cast members and adapting as the budget has shrunk along with the size of the audience and advertiser interest. 

The first part of the book reveals a Corday family history dating to Rabbi Cohen in Kovna, Lithuania in the 19th century. During the war with Napoleon, the French army stored barrels in the family home but never returned to pick them up. They turned out to be full of gold coins. The family emigrated with their fortune to South Africa, where oldest son David was born.

David was the "black sheep" of the family, so he eventually moved to Canada and opened a general store. His son Ted was born in 1908 and as a youth operated his own puppet theater in the summers. After law school and a stint as an assistant D.A., Ted moved to New York to conquer Broadway. Ted changed his name from Cohen to Corday and worked his way up from stagehand to Broadway director, then entered the emerging medium of radio.

He married Betty, an Irish protestant from Boston, in 1942, just before heading off to serve in the signal corps during World War II. Betty, meanwhile, worked for ad agencies and later produced radio dramas herself. When Ted returned from the war, she had two children and became a housewife.

Ted moved the family to Beverly Hills in 1964. His friend Jackie Cooper, the former child actor who then ran a Columbia Pictures TV division, encouraged Ted to create a soap opera. So Ted joined with Columbia and Irna Phillips, who had created Guiding Light, to launch Days of Our Lives. The title came from the penultimate line of the 23rd Psalm.

At the time, TV soap operas were popular, but all were set in urban environments. Days was to be the first set in a small town in a rural area and the first to be telecast entirely in color.

NBC at the last minute decided Ted should produce not one but two half-hour daily soaps for economy of scale. So Morningstar was launched just ahead of Days, which premiered Nov. 8, 1965. Ted created a company to do the first NBC soap operas produced on the West Coast, on the same lot as The Tonight Show in Burbank.

Morningstar had problems and was canceled after a year. By then, Days had premiered and was successful.

Meanwhile, Ted was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease just as the two shows were getting under way. He began to work from home and his wife, Betty, joined the show to help. After Ted's death in July 1966, NBC gave Betty a chance as executive producer, and she thrived.

From the start, Days had the right formula. The rural setting and simple stories were appealing, as was the cast led by veteran actor Macdonald Carey. The show came on at noon to the sound of eight bells, which also signaled lunch time.

After Betty took charge, Phillips turned over her duties as head writer to William J. Bell, whose stories raised the ratings. Every Friday, the show ended with a cliff-hanger to bring the audience back on Monday. By its fourth year, Days was a genuine hit.

The show wanted to push the envelope, but the network remained timid. After the introduction of a story line in 1970 involving an interracial romance, there were protests, especially from the South. NBC forced the show to drop that story.

Ken, meanwhile, had grown up playing in bands and following a hippie lifestyle. He also contributed music cues for Days, which got him attention as well as bringing in a lot more money than he made playing the drums.

In 1975, on its 10th anniversary, NBC expanded Days to 60 minutes. By 1979, Ken had joined the show as assistant producer. His mother was still running the show, but she had developed health problems of her own. When NBC asked for a conference in early 1980 about the future of the show, it was Ken who went with others to New York for the meeting.

As Betty was forced to withdraw, Columbia and NBC picked Ken over more senior execs to take over, feeling he would bring a younger point of view at a time the ratings were sagging. Ken brought in a new generation of writers and actors, and the show found renewed life.

In 2004, Jim Reilly was brought in as head writer. His first storyline killed off many long-running characters.

More changes followed in 2006 when NBC reduced the budget by 30%. In 2009, it slashed another 40%, forcing cuts in salaries, production and cast. That year, Days won 13 Daytime Emmys, the most in its history.

The second half of Ken's book reminisces about many of the stars of the show, especially the "Hourglass Ladies," who got their moniker not only from the show's symbolic hourglass but also for their shapely figures. The first he recalled was Frances Reid and among the best known Deidre Hall.

There is a sweetness to Ken's writing. He lovingly muses about both his real and professional family. If you want bitchiness, this book doesn't deliver. However, if what you want is to know the soap opera behind a seminal soap that has survived through the years, this delivers a highly readable, fan-friendly tale.

A companion volume, Days of Our Lives, 45 Years: A Celebration in Photos, is larger in format and pretty much all pictures. If anything, it would have been nice if Greg Meng, who is the show's executive in charge of production, and Eddie Campbell, whose background is in art direction, would have identified even more people and events, with dates and data on the scene, for each photo.

Taken together, however, these books offer a warm, affectionate and detailed look at the show's 45 years and what it took to make it work.

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