Deep inside the CBS Broadcast Center in Midtown Manhattan, I stood in a corridor observing a melee.
The soap opera where I worked was going off the air, and the wardrobe department had filled an empty suite of offices with piles of designer purses and handbags. With a limit of four per person, everything was first come, first served — and free.
I saw secretaries, producers, executives, actors and security guards crawling, clawing and snatching up bags. Every other person was on a cellphone, and someone shouted, “You gotta get down here!” A Daytime Emmy Award-winner dove for a purple bag with a silver clasp in the shape of a jaguar. I fled before I got trampled.
It was the late summer of 2009, the final weeks of “Guiding Light,” which had started as a radio program in 1937 and moved to television in 1952. “Only love can save the world,” ran the refrain of the show’s theme song. Not true! Only ratings could save us, and we didn’t have them.
People who work in daytime drama excel at suspending disbelief. It came naturally to us as we toiled in an environment where it was normal to see angels, clones and time-traveling housewives strolling the halls with a script in one hand and a coffee in the other. But now that “Guiding Light” was coming to an end, we had to face reality.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Soap operas were supposed to be forever. They were what New York actors did between theater roles, commercials and “Law & Order” guest spots. And if you left a daytime drama, you could always come back, sometimes as your evil twin.
Soaps were in their big-hair heyday in the 1980s, when I started playing an orderly on “Guiding Light.” My character was a loyal employee of Cedars Hospital, a place where paternity results were routinely switched, nobody was ever asked about their insurance and every patient had a private room.
I had what was probably the smallest recurring role on the show, and I loved it. My acting responsibilities included trailing Dr. Bauer on his rounds and agreeing with every single thing Nurse Lillian said. Many of my lines consisted of one word, like “Stat!” During surgery, I sometimes yelled it extra loud, just to remind people I was there. By the end of my 26 years on the show, there wasn’t an actor alive who could beat my “Stat!”
My greatest challenge had to do with the side-by-side doors to the Cedars Hospital emergency room. These were the most counterintuitive doors I had ever encountered. To go into the E.R., a “Guiding Light” player had to grab the metal bars and pull them back; to get the doors to open on the way out, an actor had to pull the metal bars ever so slightly — and then push them forward.
So it was common for the show’s emergency room scenes to be ruined when someone got stuck as they tried to make their way in or out. The presence of a weeping ingénue or a flying gurney would only complicate matters. As the show’s orderly, I was the one who had to deal with this vexing issue most often.
In the waning days of “Guiding Light,” the plots got zanier and the budgets got smaller. One character, who had previously starred in a story line about her struggle with menopause, miraculously gave birth. Another developed superpowers that allowed her to shoot electricity from her fingertips.
In the studio, someone remarked that our last few episodes would be bittersweet. “What’s sweet about it?” a technician growled. “It’s all bitter.”
To unload decades worth of props, costumes and furniture, the producers set up a tag sale in the rehearsal hall, with no item priced above $20. It was jarring to hear strangers crowing about a light fixture they had snagged for 50 cents or the Armani suit they would have bought if it hadn’t had a bullet hole in the back.
One afternoon, a woman barged into the dressing room I shared with a fellow actor. She was carrying an armful of gowns and a fur coat.
“Mind if I change in here?” she asked.
“Yes!” I said. “This is our dressing room.”
She gave us a dirty look and left. I just sighed. It was like when a family member dies and relatives you’ve never seen show up to cart stuff away.
On our last day in the CBS studio, I made my way down to the set. As if it were any other episode, the wardrobe girl snapped a picture of me in my scrubs for continuity purposes. This suddenly seemed absurd. She must have had the same thought. Right after taking the photo, she shrugged her shoulders and laughed.
People seemed distracted. Everyone was talking about the sale down the hall and the giveaway still taking place upstairs.
“Focus, people!” the director pleaded. “We have a show to do!”
An older actress approached as I sat on a gurney.
“Do you think now would be a good time to say a few words?” she said.
“Well, I feel that ‘Guiding Light’ has chronicled the emotional history of the United States and —”
I interrupted her to suggest that maybe she could wait until the end of the day, when the episode was done. She looked a bit deflated as I stepped away to stand beside Dr. Bauer. He draped an arm around my shoulders in what struck me as a brotherly gesture.
In the final Cedars Hospital scene, I followed Dr. Bauer as he led the show’s matriarch to the bedside of her dying brother. During their deathbed heart-to-heart chat, the doctor and I withdrew discreetly. While making our exit, Dr. Bauer grappled awkwardly with the troublesome E.R. doors, causing a loud bang, as I sneaked a look at the camera. This would normally be considered a huge no-no, but today I didn’t care. Nobody did.
“Cut!” the director shouted. “Moving on!”
A prop guy snatched the stethoscope off my neck. Like a thundering herd, the crew headed to the next set. Before returning to his dressing room, Dr. Bauer reminded me to be sure to come to the party later.
I was now alone in Cedars Hospital. I had logged so many hours in this fictional place, through three different studios, four casting directors, nearly my entire adult life. Now it was time to say goodbye. And that is one thing that people on soap operas are absolutely, positively not good at — endings.
I took a slow pass through the set, just for nostalgia’s sake. I must have been in a daze, because I exited via the E.R. doors without thinking. For the first time ever, they gave way smoothly at my touch.
I resisted the urge to look back. Striding down the hallway, I tossed my CBS I.D. card into a wastebasket. Above me, the On Air sign was dark.
Raul A. Reyes is a contributor to NBC Latino and CNN Opinion