It's 3 p.m. Do you know where your ambulance is? Sure you do it's racing toward the emergency room of General Hospital in Port Charles, N.Y., its siren screaming the promise of romance, adventure, and the occasional medical catastrophe through the hokiest opening credits and most hyperventilating theme music in daytime TV. Since the first appearance of GH in antique black-and-white on April 1, 1963, that ambulance has made the same trip 7,192 times, give or take a national disaster, which is about the only thing that can keep the ABC serial off the air. At General Hospital's peak in 1981, Luke and Laura, its heavy-breathing stars, were household names, and the show's ratings were actually better than those of many prime-time series.
Ten years later, the soap is no longer an essential pit stop on pop culture's fast track, but take another look. GH still simmers with gripping reconciliations and partings, romantic plot twists, mysterious villains, and steady doses of treachery. The only problem: Much of the high drama now takes place off camera. The backstage turmoil at General Hospital, in fact, has become the talk of the industry, juicier than any mere daytime drama.
The tumult began in December, when ABC rehired Gloria Monty, the innovative executive producer who spurred GH from the brink of cancellation to first place during her initial tenure (1978-87). After Monty quit four years ago to develop new series, GH's ratings fell. The Young and the Restless overtook General Hospital as daytime's top series in 1989, and other soaps won attention for their flashy plot lines. Hospital, in second place, rehashed old stories and lost its young audience. The show simply ''flattened out,'' says ABC daytime vice president Mary Alice Dwyer-Dobbin. ''It was tired, no longer the jewel of the late afternoon.''
Monty's value to ABC as a proven show fixer was matched only by her skill as a big-game hunter; within weeks, she bagged Tony Geary, who had left his starring role as GH's Luke Spencer in 1983, with a yearlong contract to play a new role, blue-collar hero Bill Eckert.
If Monty specialized in happy endings, General Hospital would have soared to No. 1, and everyone would be smiling. But this is a soap, not a fairy tale. Four months after Monty's arrival, General Hospital has slipped to third and sometimes fourth among daytime dramas, reports of backstage strife are rampant, and everyone is smiling through gritted teeth. ''Viewers may be really frustrated, but I guarantee you they're talking about it,'' Dwyer-Dobbin says hopefully. But talk alone won't keep General Hospital running as a multimillion-dollar profit machine for ABC. Once again, the show must reinvent itself to survive.
In her Hollywood office five stories above the catacombs that house General Hospital's dressing rooms and studios, Gloria Monty is surrounded by memorabilia of the glory years a 1983 gold record for one of the show's love themes, Patti Austin and James Ingram's ''Baby, Come to Me''; a shelf of industry awards; snapshots of guest star Elizabeth Taylor, a golden-ringleted Geary (yes, folks, the Luke look was a perm), and famous GH alumni Richard Dean Anderson, Emma Samms, Demi Moore, and Mark Hamill; and a 1981 Newsweek cover trumpeting the soap as ''TV's Hottest Show.'' The bounty is evidence of GH's heyday, when every episode drew 40 percent of the daytime audience, and the wedding of felon Luke Spencer (Geary) to murderess Laura Webber (Genie Francis) was watched by 52 percent of daytime viewers, the largest audience in soap opera history.
Ten years later, Luke and Laura are both gone (Francis is now a regular on ABC's All My Children), along with about half of the show's audience. But Monty says she isn't unnerved by the slippage in the show's ratings. At the moment, she is more concerned with an alarmingly tall stack of paper she has labeled ''Unaccepted Scripts.'' ''It's too long,'' she may say of a scene she dislikes. ''It won't hold.'' Or: ''It's a downer.'' Or: ''You've lost the suspense.'' Or: ''Without your realizing it, this character is becoming terribly unpleasant.''
''Good heavens,'' she says, eyeing the pile. ''I have to read all that.''
At 69, Gloria Monty is tiny and often described as frail-looking, except by anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of one of her orders. They have been plentiful recently. More humor in the scripts! (She got it.) More contemporary language! (They're working on it.) More sophistication! (Well, everything's relative.) ''When I returned,'' she says, ''I realized that I had no story to work with. Everything was over.'' So she decided to clear the decks.
Since then Monty has razed sets, terminated story lines, revamped the writing staff (bringing seven new faces in to work with her sister, head writer Norma Monty), and swung the ax at enough actors and actresses to fill General Hospital's emergency ward for months to come. A dozen cast members, almost all of whom Monty says had reached the end of their contracts, their usefulness, or their interest in remaining, picked up their scripts and found themselves taking bullets, developing mysterious illnesses, or leaving town. It was a housecleaning of unprecedented thoroughness, and it bred resentment and rumors: Monty removes her property from the studio...Monty walks off the set in a rage...Actors ready to mutiny. And in the small-verging-on-incestuous world of soaps, they spread fast. ''She's in terrible trouble, isn't she?'' murmured one soap queen on a rival show. ''I haven't watched, but I hear awful, awful things.''
''There is a smear campaign against me,'' Monty declares. ''It's an attempt to sabotage me, and I have more than a good idea where it comes from: people who are no longer with us who were never part of the family. And it's deplorable it's hurting people who were their colleagues. It's vicious!'' she snaps. ''Petty! Petty, petty, petty.''
The most extravagant rumor is that GH's lurching story lines have grown so chaotic (Monty got rid of a brownstone set she hated by having the writers pencil in a New York earthquake) that ABC might put the soap on hiatus. Monty greets that one with a harsh laugh: ''My God! Hiatus! You'd think we'd sunk to the bottom of the sea. ABC is backing me unconditionally.'' But she admits some plot developments were handled too abruptly recently, one character was shot but showed no wound in a bedroom scene minutes later and that ''it's taking longer than I thought'' to renovate General Hospital.
One reason is the swift audience rejection of the Eckert clan, a working-class family Monty introduced to contrast with the show's money-soaked Quartermaines, daytime's equivalents of Dynasty's Carringtons. ''I'd always wanted to do Rich Man, Poor Man,'' says Monty. ''And I will. Eventually.'' For now, the Eckerts' prominence has been hastily scaled back, although Geary, as Bill Eckert, will remain central to the show. ''I know Gloria came in with high hopes for [the Eckerts],'' says Dwyer-Dobbin, ''but she's the first to admit it didn't work.''
''What was unusual was that the Eckerts got so much action,'' observes Soap Opera Digest editor Lynn Leahey. ''Viewers were very excited to have Tony Geary back, but the Eckerts came on too strong. Viewers hated the fact that some of their old favorites were getting pushed aside.'' Monty says things weren't helped by a series of anonymous, identically worded phone calls to ABC once as many as 24 in a day complaining that the Eckerts were hogging the spotlight. ''The curious thing,'' she says, ''is that the Eckerts weren't even on [the day those 24 calls came].'' More of the smear campaign? ''It's not a new tactic,'' she says. ''It's dreadful. But I have a very tough skin.''