Taking the Helm of an Institution

Jan 22, 2007  •  Post A Comment

From radio to television, “Guiding Light” stands alone as an enduring broadcasting success. Its executive producer, Ellen Wheeler, is no stranger to success herself; she’s a two-time Emmy winner for her acting on “Another World” and “All My Children,” and a multiple nominee for her work as a director on “As the World Turns.” With “Guiding Light” poised to make history in 2007, Ms. Wheeler spoke with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman about the rich history of the show, plans for the anniversary celebration, and where the light will be shining in the years ahead.

TelevisionWeek: How is being an executive producer different from acting?

Ellen Wheeler: For starters, I can eat all the potato chips I want. A lot of it is the same because whatever part you play in a soap opera, whether it’s acting or doing props or being part of the writing team, your job is still to tell these stories. The difference for me now is that instead of being concerned with just myself, I can be concerned with all of it. I make sure that I facilitate everyone else’s ability to do their job because there are so many talented people who make the show happen. I love making sure that they all get the tools they need to best do their jobs.

TVWeek: Is it important to you that you are the caretaker for a show that has been on the air for 70 years?

Ms. Wheeler: It’s historical to keep these shows going. They have now become a part of the fabric of American life. They’ve been chronicling American life, in our case, since before the 1940s. It’s almost a miraculous thing to be a part of. Having been at “Another World” when, after its incredibly long run, it went off the air [in 1999], it is very important to me-and all of us-to continue what has been in the past, but really to build on what has made the show last, what has made it always be in the forefront and leading the way.

TVWeek: What does “Guiding Light” do to continue to thrive?

Ms. Wheeler: We have always tried to be current and reflect what is happening now in the lives of people in America. I think that being part of that brotherhood that Irna Phillips, the creator of “Guiding Light,” set forth originally, that’s what was really vital to her about the show, saying that we are all connected. And taking that into each generation as it changes, that idea of brotherhood and how it changes from one group of people to the next, from one generation to the next, is what has kept the show alive. Our ideas of family may have changed, our views on what’s right and wrong in society may have changed, but we always want to be a part of saying, “There’s a brotherhood that connects us no matter what changes.”

TVWeek: What are your plans for celebrating the anniversary?

Ms. Wheeler: We decided to not just talk about being connected to each other, but to actually go and do it. When we were going to turn 70, David Kreizman [the head writer] and I spent a long time talking about not only the anniversary, but what is it about the show that made it a show that could last when so many other soaps have fallen to the side. What was so special about this one that made it stand out generation after generation? We went back and looked into the inception and its creation. Irna created so many soap operas and was instrumental in pioneering this entire industry, but there was something very special about “Guiding Light” and this idea of hers that we are all connected, that the acts that we do every day reflect upon us and the society we live in, and that connection is what keeps us going. It was important to her and it’s been picked up through all the years. So as we wanted to celebrate our anniversary, we wanted to do more that just producing a show that espouses that philosophy. I felt like we needed a way to experience it ourselves. We’re here in the studio and we don’t get to be out with people.

TVWeek: You’re going to get out this month, starting with a volunteer effort in the Gulf Coast.

Ms. Wheeler: “Guiding Light” is rebuilding three houses for Hurricane Katrina victims, but that won’t be all. We’re not just celebrating the 70th anniversary in January. We’re continuing throughout the whole year. We’re going to go to 11 other cities, and in those cities we’re inviting “Guiding Light” fans to join us. And if they can’t join us there, we’re urging them to find a way to reach out in their own community, to find a way to serve. Whatever it takes, even something like calling your mom, just staying connected to the people in your circle. We want to be a part of that and we want to facilitate other people being a part of that.

TVWeek: As executive producer, you’ve made a lot of changes, like the stand-alone episodes you do every week.

Ms. Wheeler: That started about a year ago. We did an episode where we got to spend quite a bit of time with one character, and it was wonderful to focus on just him. Soap operas are usually telling stories from lots of points of view. So doing this one character piece was so refreshing. I called David at about 12:30 at night and said, `I want to do that once a week.’ We agreed that we didn’t want to stop their stories, but we would only do one character’s point of view. We’d concentrate on just that person or relationship.

TVWeek: It became a regular feature?

Ms. Wheeler: We call them “Inside the Light,” and we do it every Wednesday. It gives us a chance to think about producing the show differently because we don’t have to tie in the elements of the different stories, just that one thing. We’ve really enjoyed bringing this new way of storytelling into soap opera. Moving into 2007, we want to talk about what the show means and what its roots are, so in our “Inside the Light” mid-breaks, our actors will be sharing something about their lives in relation to what their “light” is. What is the light or joy in their lives? There are no limitations on what they say. We just want to say there are many, many things that bring us happiness and cause joy. Then we’re going to throw it back to the audience and ask them, “What’s your light?” At our new Web site, www.FindYourLight.net, fans will be able to watch the actors’ videos, and they can also upload their own video describing what their light is. We want them to share with us and with other fans. We thought it was appropriate to take a moment and remember all the things that are good, too.

TVWeek: One of your main story lines recently was Reva’s breast cancer. Did you always plan on her going into remission?

Ms. Wheeler: The plan was to always tell the story from a place of hope. While Reva was in a terrible, difficult and traumatic situation, what she found in that time was the ability to sacrifice the things that were the dearest to her in order to make sure other people in her life could be happy. Once she made that sacrifice, and when the cancer was gone, it would have changed her. We see growth in Reva. She’s not the same Reva that we’ve seen before. This incredibly difficult and miraculous experience would make her look at her life and realize how important every moment is.

TVWeek: Tell me about the collaboration you fostered last year with Marvel Comics.

Ms. Wheeler: My costume designer, Richard Shawn Dudley, has a connection to Marvel. He designed a wedding dress for Storm [from “The X-Men” comics] when she was marrying Black Panther. Nobody here knew about it until one day he said to me, “Would you like to see the wedding dress?” I was so excited, I wanted everyone to know what Shawn had done. I also realized then that “Guiding Light” had a connection to Marvel Comics. I figured we were related, so we called them.

Marvel couldn’t have been more receptive. We decided to have a meeting, and when we sat down there was this immediate synergy. We recognized that we do the same kind of storytelling, that we both have been telling our stories from the ’30s on and our roots are very similar. We’re dealing with historic
characters and families and events that we’re trying to build on, and we have to be true to the past. We’re both trying to forge ahead to new generations, and yet carry with us everything that has been so precious to us. When Marvel said we could turn one of our characters into a superhero, nothing seemed more fun to us. We all thought it would be a lot of fun and we did it.

TVWeek: Are you bringing departed characters back to the show to celebrate the anniversary?

Ms. Wheeler: At this point there are no plans for that, but there are no plans not to, either. In a unique way, we’re bringing back entire casts from the past. For the Jan. 25 episode, our current actors will enact the story of the making of “Guiding Light,” and it starts back in the 1930s with Beth Ehlers playing Irna Phillips. Our actors will play the actors from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s who starred on “Guiding Light” and show how it grew and why it’s the phenomenon it is today. Kim Zimmer is playing Bert Bauer, Crystal Chappell is playing Meta Bauer, Robert Newman is playing Rev. Ruthledge. It’s a very exciting thing. We’re spanning three decades, changing hair, makeup, wardrobe, sets. … It’s an incredible undertaking and it’s all of us coming together to share. We’re very proud of the heritage we’re a part of today and we couldn’t think of a better way to pay honor to those people.

TVWeek: Is there a moment in “Guiding Light’s” history that stands out in your memory?

Ms. Wheeler: Irna connected to her audience, like telling a story about uterine cancer when you couldn’t even say the word uterus on television. That’s inspiring to me-her incredible insight to say this show is connected to the things that are in real life. She was able to do that and really reached out. She said we’re not just going to show stories about happy couples. We’re going to tell real stories about real people. Her choosing to tell that story at a time-1962-when it was difficult to do so was, I think, a real turning point for the show.

TVWeek: Do you worry that ratings for daytime soaps are down and there are people predicting the end of the genre?

Ms. Wheeler: No TV show gets the ratings they used to. When you go back to the days when there were three networks, everything was different. And before there were computers, things were very different. What’s wonderful to us is that we still look at the show like Irna Phillips did when she said, “Let’s take this radio show to television.” The world is completely open to us. This is a time of perfect opportunity for soap operas. We know that we are primed to lead as “Guiding Light” has always done, and we are doing that. I’m very excited to be a part of that.