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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

May 1, 2010

Welcome to the first day of May...or May Day, as some would like to call it. As it so happens, May 1st happens to fall smack dab in the middle of BEST FRIENDS WEEK. Today's look back through time happens to be quite recent, but I couldn't think of a better subject to focus on in regards to the spirit of the day.

(No, seriously, May 1st may have had a lot of significant events associated with it, but only one that I could find seemed to work with the theme of the day.)

We'll get to that a little bit later, but right now, why don't we do a little retrospective of some of the significant happenings of the beginning of May, shall we?

305 – Diocletian and Maximian retire from the office of Roman Emperor

1707 – The Act of Union joins the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland together to form the Kingdom of Great Britain

1751 – The first cricket match is played in America

1759 – Josiah Wedgwood founds Wedgwood Pottery Company

1786 – Opening night of opera “The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna, Austria

1840 – The “Penny Black”, the first adhesive postage stamp created, is issued in Great Britain

1844 – Asia's first modern police force is established in Hong Kong

1852 – Philippine peso is introduced as currency

1884 – Moses Fleetwood Walker becomes first black person to play in a professional game of baseball in the United States

1900 – Scofield mining disaster; 200 men lose their lives in the fifth worst mining disaster in United States history

1915 – RMS Lusitania departs New York City to set sail across the Atlantic. Six days later, the ship would sink after being torpedoed off the coast of Ireland, killing almost twelve hundred people

1930 – Pluto, a dwarf planet, was officially named, only for it to lose its planetary status eight decades later

1931 – The Empire State Building is officially dedicated

1940 – The 1940 Summer Olympics are cancelled due to World War II

1956 – Polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk becomes available to public

1971 – Amtrak takes over operation of U.S. Passenger rail service

1982 – 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee begins

1989 – Disney-MGM Studios opens at Walt Disney World

1991 – Two baseball records set on this date; Rickey Henderson steals 939th base, and Nolan Ryan pitches his seventh career no-hitter

1994 – Three-time Formula One racer Ayrton Senna is killed in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix

2003 – U.S. President George W. Bush declares “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”

2011 – U.S. President Barack Obama announces the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden (bin Laden was actually killed on May 2, but due to the time difference, North America heard the news the night of May 1)

So, that's quite a lot of news happening on this day in history, but none of it felt appropriate for Best Friends Week.

Looking at the list of celebrity birthdays today, I didn't have much better luck. But, a very happy birthday to the following famous people today; Judy Collins, Rita Coolidge, John Woo, Paul Teutel Sr, Dann Florek, Ray Parker Jr, Charlie Schlatter, Tim McGraw, Darius McCrary, and Farah Fath.

So, the only other possibility that I could think of was to see if someone passed away on May 1st. Someone who left behind a long-standing legacy in the world of pop culture and entertainment. Someone who best fit the theme of BEST FRIENDS WEEK.

And, after doing some research (which included talking to my mother about it, as today's feature happens to be based on the soap opera she watched religiously for the show's entire run), I think I have come up with a topic.

Today we're going back just a couple of years to May 1, 2010.

On May 1, 2010, the daytime community said farewell to a legend.

Many of you reading this blog might not know the name Helen Wagner, but she had a career that most actresses only dream of. And perhaps the role that she was most famous for was that of Nancy Hughes, matriarch of the Hughes family on the long-running daytime drama “As The World Turns”.

Sadly, neither Helen Wagner, nor the show that made her a star are with us today. The show that Wagner starred in was cancelled just five months after her passing, in September 2010. But, Helen Wagner's contributions to the program were nothing short of extraordinary, and when I was studying up on it, her time with the show was quite an interesting piece of history that was begging to be explored more.

Helen Wagner was born on September 3, 1918 in the community of Lubbock, Texas. Although I couldn't find a whole lot on her early life before she got the role of a lifetime, I did find out a few things. She married her husband, Robert Willey, in 1954, and the marriage lasted four decades before his death in 2004. And prior to joining “As The World Turns”, Wagner had acted on several soap operas. She played Trudy Bauer on the soap opera “Guiding Light” in 1952 (the same year the show transitioned from radio to television). She also had a role in the shorter-lived serial “Valiant Lady”, as well as guest appearances in such programs as “The World Of Mr. Sweeney”, “Mister Peepers”, and “Inner Sanctum”.

But it wasn't until 1956 that Wagner would land the role that made her a household name for fifty-four years. On April 2, 1956, two new daytime serials debuted on CBS. One was “The Edge Of Night”.

The other one was “As The World Turns”.

Helen Wagner was cast as Nancy Hughes. She was 37 years old when she was cast in the program. She also held a rather interesting claim to fame when the show debuted. It was Nancy Hughes who spoke the first line ever on “As The World Turns”.

TRIVIA: That line was “Good morning, dear. What would you like for breakfast?”

Who knew that simple line would be the beginning of a record-breaking career?

The thing with Nancy Hughes was that her character was never really involved in the more scandalous storylines that “As The World Turns” was known for. In fact, Wagner herself admitted that Nancy was more or less a “tentpole character”, who listened and counselled other characters about how to handle their own conflicts, rather than get involved in them herself. But, that was fine with Wagner.

Nancy spent most of her time in the fictional Oakdale, Illinois as a housewife, married to her husband Christopher, and raising their children together. In her later years, she worked as a volunteer at the hospital where her son, Dr. Bob Hughes, worked at the chief of staff.

Certainly, Nancy's impact on the citizens of Oakdale was immense, and a lot of it was due to the actress portraying her. But, would you believe that she was almost fired six months into her stint on “As The World Turns”?

It seems hard to believe, especially since the reason appears to be so petty now, but show creator Irna Phillips was not pleased with the performance of Wagner, and sacked her on the spot.

The reason? Phillips didn't like the way that Wagner was pouring the coffee.

Now, I suppose this might have been a great reason to fire someone if they worked at a Starbucks or Tim Hortons...but on a soap opera set? It seems ridiculous, right? But Phillips insisted that Wagner be released, because of it. Her argument was that Wagner wasn't bringing enough believability to the role, and she said that it was an important task for a character who provided a sympathetic ear and a shoulder on which to cry on.

Are you buying this? I certainly don't. And thankfully for Wagner, fans didn't buy the explanation either, and she was subsequently rehired shortly after.

A few years later, Helen Wagner found herself on the backburner again when she and Don McLaughlin (who played Nancy's first husband, Christopher Hughes until his death in 1986) were let go from the show in the early 1980s by a producer who wanted to focus on the younger cast. Once again, Wagner voiced her displeasure, stating that she had only been given one line in a three-month period.

It wasn't because of health reasons either. Many sources state that Nancy Wagner was in peak physical condition for most of the time she appeared on “As The World Turns”. It all basically came down to storylines...or lack there of.

Despite this though, Nancy did end up having a few big storylines of her own, and she was brought back to the show in spurts over the next few decades. Losing her first husband was a devastating blow for her, but she knocked her scenes out of the park. Then when her second husband, Dan McClosky, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease in late 1993, Wagner showcased just what talent she had as an actress in scenes that I've pointed out below this paragraph.

Even as late as 2006, Nancy Hughes found herself caught in the middle of a mystery after a novel entitled “Oakdale Confidential” surfaced in stores, which spilled secrets about some long-standing characters of the show.

TRIVIA: That book was actually printed and sold in bookstores all across the United States right around the time the storyline was airing.

Now, I bet you're asking yourselves. What does this have to do with the subject of friendship? It's quite simple, really.

Although I can't really relate to this, I imagine that some of you might be able to. How many times have you dropped by someone's house for a cup of coffee and a chat about various subjects?

Well, for the citizens of Oakdale, Nancy Hughes was that friend.

Nancy Hughes would always be available for anyone. She gave out some great advice over the years, whether it be about taking a new job, helping someone who was having marital problems, or in the case of this Thanksgiving themed clip, helping someone get over losing a loved one.

Even on Helen Wagner's final appearance on “As The World Turns” (which aired exactly one month after her passing), she was doling out advice to the characters of Allison, Casey, and Katie. You can watch her final scenes below.

I think that's why so many people loved Nancy Hughes. She was always there to lend a helping hand no matter who they were, or how big the problem was. And that was to the credit of the actress playing her.

Many critics at the peak of Wagner's fame in playing the role of Nancy Hughes praised her portrayal. In 1984, Melinda Henneberger, of the New York Times described Nancy Hughes (and Helen Wagner) as an “icon for a generation of women”, and that she was “Donna Reed with real problems in the days before soap characters traveling through time, engaged in espionage, or almost routinely were reunited with evil twins.”

Jason Bonderoff, managing editor of Soap Opera Digest, agreed, stating that Wagner was “daytime's answer to Angela Lansbury”. And after Wagner's death, New York Times reporter Dennis Hevesi stated that “Ms. Wagner's Nancy lasted (as long as she did) precisely because she remained solid; she wouldn't join the country club because she considered it elitist, and insisted on cleaning her house because she felt uncomfortable being bossy.”

Now, to some of you reading this, these might seem like negative qualities, but I don't see it as such. Nancy was happy just being herself. She was happy to do what she wanted to do because it brought her joy. It was also a testament to Nancy's character as well.

After all, Helen Wagner said it best when describing Nancy in an interview. “The show today may be very au courant, but Nancy isn't, which is a good thing – her values are still about honesty, integrity, and courtesy.”

The very qualities that make up a long-lasting, fulfilling friendship, might I add.

It's been almost two years since “As The World Turns” ended, and exactly two years since we lost Helen Wagner to cancer at the age of 91. But, Wagner's legacy lives on. Her role on “As The World Turns” earned her a record in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the longest serving character played by one actress on television, appearing in some 19,700 scenes between April 1956 and June 2010. And, in 2004, Helen Wagner was rewarded for all her hard work with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmy Awards.

Just before the show ended, “As The World Turns” dedicated two episodes of the program to Helen Wagner, as the character of Nancy Hughes passed away on the show. You should look up both of these episodes on YouTube and watch them because I think the show did a great job in honouring both Nancy and Helen Wagner.

One bittersweet moment as we close this look back on May 1, 2010. The show's cancellation was announced in April 2010, and writers and producers had always intended for Nancy to have the final line in the series (since she had spoken the first), but she passed away before that was to happen. So, when the series finally ended on September 17, 2010, it was Bob Hughes who uttered the final words of the series. Those words?

Good night.”

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