In 1978, Gloria Monty performed a miracle that had a major impact on daytime programming. She resurrected a show marked for dead, retooled it to number one within a year, and kept it there for a decade. Monty was a respected television director and producer working in soap operas for over twenty years when ABC first asked her to take the reins of General Hospital in 1977. The fifteen-year-old daytime drama was flatlining. Monty wasn’t expected to resuscitate the former hit show, but to let it die with dignity. She had thirteen weeks to do what she could before the program would be taken off the air. After touring the sets, reviewing the story lines, and catching up on the most recent episodes, Monty told her actors, “The only thing I can think of doing is to put you all in a plane and crash it.” The changes she made were nearly that extreme, and, in the process of reconceiving the show, she transformed the genre, creating an entirely new soap audience. By heightening production values and experimenting with nontraditional stories, Monty made General Hospital up-to-date and more popular than it had been in its history. She produced the highest-rated soap opera event in TV history, Luke and Laura’s 1981 wedding, received two Emmy Awards for Outstanding Daytime Drama Series, and was inducted into the Soap Opera Hall of Fame in 1998. “Her creative ideas had and continue to have an enormous impact for the entire daytime television industry,” said actor Jacklyn Zeman.
Gloria Montemuro was born in New Jersey in 1921. Although her initial dream was to be a doctor, Monty was interested in performance, studying ballet at an early age. She left home at age eighteen, drawn to the stage. Monty attended the University of Iowa, then New York University, and eventually Columbia University, where she earned her master’s degree in drama. In 1952, she married writer and editor Robert O’Byrne, with whom she had founded a New York theater group, the Abbey Workshop. With O’Byrne, Monty directed summer stock productions and led acting and speech workshops, where her pupils included Marlon Brando, Bea Arthur and Tony Curtis. She had developed a talent for directing, and it wasn’t long before she ventured into television. In 1954 she got her big break, directing the pilot episode of the daytime drama The Secret Storm for CBS. She continued to direct the program for ten years, although Monty found herself constantly undermined for being a woman. “I tried not to be assertive at the beginning,” she admitted in a 1986 interview. “A man in my position could have gotten much further. I just hung in and kept on learning. Any slight mistake was really exaggerated: ‘Well, that's a woman for you.’” When she hired another woman as an assistant director, she was told that it presented a problem because people would have trouble differentiating the female voices on the earphones. Of course, it occurred to her, “No one had ever complained about the difficulty of telling two men's voices apart.” Despite such obstacles, Monty succeeded in television and kept directing through the sixties. By 1972 she had started producing entertainment specials for ABC, and a year later she directed her first television movie, The Screaming Skull.
Monty continued throughout the seventies to direct TV movies and some episodic drama, both daytime and nighttime. Then she was offered General Hospital. It was a great opportunity for Monty, who had never helmed a series before. Sensing that she could make a pivotal difference to the show, Monty accepted the job and began to research the series: “I spent a week watching three weeks of the current shows. They were 1949 style. We must not forget that the same audience watching daytime also watches at night, and this show hadn't changed in fifteen years. We were talking down to the audience.” Monty disposed of the straight live-to-tape process of production that the show had employed from its beginning and began to shoot scenes out of order, to be edited later, similar to nighttime dramas. She built more modern sets and stepped up the pace of each episode. A faster-moving show meant many more scenes per episode. She got both the actors and the camera operators to move around, to give scenes more dynamism. ABC executives warned her that if her plans failed, the responsibility would be on her shoulders.
As she had in her acting workshops twenty-five years earlier, Monty helped to prep actors one on one, doing improvisation exercises to help them get into character. She let the actors ad-lib if it helped them feel natural in their performances, as long as they stuck to the story. She experimented with improv in other forms as well, even having a real therapist lead an improvised group therapy session for multiple episodes. As a producer, she took the time to cultivate creativity, especially with the actors, but was also known for her rigid work ethic and for being tough with her cast and crew. “She demands excellence, but she rewards it,” said coordinating producer Jerry Balme. Because she ran a tight ship, General Hospital adhered to Monty’s creative vision. After Monty took charge of the show, the residents of Port Charles got involved in international intrigue well beyond the walls of the hospital, sending them off to exotic locales. Elaborate sets were built to suit some of these stories, but other times the production itself got to travel. While most soap operas stayed cooped up in a studio, General Hospital went on location all over Southern California, even as far as upstate New York, Vancouver, and Mexico.
Monty innovated the narrative as much as she revolutionized production. Her improvements in the look and feel of the show galvanized viewers, but it was the story that got them talking. She is credited with expanding the plotlines of the genre, mingling customary romance with action, adventure, science-fiction, and mystery. Monty’s first move was to bring the younger characters to the forefront of the story to attract fresh viewers. With the show’s writers, she put the spotlight on teenage character Laura Webber, her love interest, Scotty Baldwin, and her rival, student nurse Bobbie Spencer. Soon, Bobbie’s brother Luke came to Port Charles, and developed a relationship with Laura—one that would catapult General Hospital to a cultural phenomenon. Theirs was a romance embraced by most fans, but was particularly controversial for others. By 1980, Laura had fallen in love with Luke, left Scotty, and ran off with her new beau on a series of daring, romantic adventures. It would be an innocuous story if not for one important fact—less than a year earlier Luke had assaulted Laura.
Throughout 1980 and 1981, as the love story blossomed, Monty was accused of perpetuating dangerous misconceptions about rape, implicitly exalting violence against women. But Monty viewed the “rape” as a “choreographed seduction.” Whether or not Monty planned this relationship from the start, she had undoubtedly created a complex situation involving identifiable characters. The ratings began to climb dramatically, and by 1981 Luke and Laura’s nuptials made history as the highest-rated soap opera event ever. Monty personally crafted the burgeoning stardom of actors Anthony Geary and Genie Francis. She focused the show around this one couple, something traditionally ensemble soaps had always avoided. Later in the decade, she repeated the formula successfully with couples like Felicia and Frisco, as well as Robert and Holly. General Hospital was not just luring back the traditional audience of soaps, housewives, but generating a new following among teenagers, college students, and even working professionals, all of whom developed a cultish devotion to the show. General Hospital snagged cover stories in both People and Newsweek, which referred to Luke and Laura the “Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara of Soapland.” Included in the show’s massive fan base were such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor and Sammy Davis, Jr., both of whom guest starred on the series.
In addition to adding adventure to the genre and quickening the pace, Monty had an eye for talent. When the role of Luke Spencer was originally devised, the character was only meant to appear for a three-month arc. However, Monty saw something in actor Anthony Geary, whom she had met working on an earlier serial Bright Promise. Geary played Luke with a great deal of panache as well as a believable sense of humanity. When his time was almost up, she told him that she wanted to try to do more with Luke. “I told her, ‘I don't really like soaps,’” Geary recalled in 2003. “She said to me, ‘Honey, neither do I. We're going to change all that.’” Soap stars like Tristan Rogers and Finola Hughes, and even actors John Stamos and Demi Moore, who began on General Hospital, owe their success to Monty.
During the eighties, Monty continued to produce television movies for ABC, as well as the 1983 short-run prime-time serial The Hamptons. She was the inspiration for the Rita Marshall character in the 1982 film Tootsie. In 1987, she left General Hospital to pursue other projects fulltime. She returned to the show in 1990, but remained for less than two years. During that period her husband Robert passed away, and after leaving the show a second time, she decided to retire. Monty had not just revived General Hospital, but the genre itself, and rival shows that had followed her lead in production and storytelling and had begun to catch up to General Hospital’s success. In the midnineties Monty moved home to New Jersey with her sister Norma, a one-time head writer for General Hospital. The two became involved in media education in the Children’s Cultural Center in Red Bank, as well as Monmouth University, both of which honored the sisters for their work. Despite her supposed retirement, Monty managed to produce multiple TV movies, including a series of Mary Higgins Clark adaptations. In March of 2006, Monty died of cancer in her California home, and the soap opera community offered an outpouring of love in her memory.
“Gloria Monty transformed soap opera viewing from a housewives’ pastime to the cool thing to do,” said actress Jane Elliot. By now, every soap opera follows the production guidelines she established. Monty fondly remembered her work in daytime television: “The joy of it is that the work you do, you see on the screen every day. It's very fulfilling because you not only work every day, which very few people in our business get a chance to do, but you have a chance to constantly try new things.” Monty will continue to be remembered for her immense contribution to the industry. “She was the first to create a star system soap opera,” commented actor Tristan Rogers. “The amount of firsts attached to this woman goes on and on.” Those who work on General Hospital today are still influenced by her example, especially current executive producer, Jill Farren Phelps. “As a music director on GH during Gloria's early reign, I had the great good fortune to watch her genius at work," said Phelps. "She was tough and fearless and brilliant, and I learned so much from her. General Hospital was reshaped by her vision, and daytime as we knew it would never be the same again.”