Jessica Shaw
April 01, 1994 AT 05:00 AM EST

When ABC first opened the doors to General Hospital on April 1, 1963, soap lovers couldn’t know that the new sudser would one day revolutionize daytime drama.

That first episode, which took 16 hours to shoot, centered on the tribulations of Dr. Steve Hardy (John Beradino) and Nurse Jessie Brewer (Emily McLaughlin) on the seventh floor of the hospital in Port Charles, N.Y. ”It was grueling,” says Beradino, who has been with GH ever since. ”None of us dreamt it was going to be a success.”

And for 16 seasons it wasn’t: Under creators Frank and Doris Hursley, GH trailed top-rated As the World Turns, which had launched in 1956.

”They had this concept of the show that it was like a big wagon wheel-the spokes would be the characters and the hub would be the hospital,” Beradino says.

All that changed in 1978 with the arrival of executive producer Gloria Monty. She released the show from the confines of the hospital by spinning yarns involving the residents of Port Charles. Monty also created younger characters and made GH the first soap to draw a significant youth audience. She spooned big helpings of action and intrigue into the mix and used shorter scenes, cliff-hangers, and exotic locales. Suddenly it seemed like the whole country-including Elizabeth Taylor, who played a villainess on the show in 1981-was tuned in, and ratings skyrocketed. When young Luke (Anthony Geary) ! and Laura (Genie Francis) got married Nov. 16 and 17, 1981, the biggest daytime audience in TV history-30 million viewers-watched and wept. Those episodes are the standard against which soap success is measured, and GH is an acknowledged soapdom innovator.

In recent years the show has lapsed back to the No. 3 slot, but it is renowned for its breakout stars, among them Demi Moore, Janine Turner, John Stamos, and Rick Springfield. The current buzz is that Jack Wagner, who left for a singing career, will be back in May, just as Francis and Geary returned earlier this season. General Hospital too may be coming back. It had a face- lift last year, with snappier theme music and a new opening montage. And recently, the queen of prime time, Roseanne Arnold, graced the set to tape some GH episodes with her husband, Tom, that will air this week.

TIME CAPSULE April 1, 1963 John Steinbeck was on the road to greater fame with his No. 1 Travels With Charley. Alfred Hitchcock was scaring people silly with The Birds, and The Beverly Hillbillies struck it rich atop the TV charts.

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