We’re coming to the third part of my interview with Bridget Dobson. If you have missed the previous parts, you can read them by clicking here. After their experience as Headwriters on Guiding Light, in 1979 the Dobsons would later go on to become the head writers of As the World Turns where they created the infamous character of James Stenbeck and also paired the characters of Tom and Margo. Mrs. Dobson is going to tell us how this happened and why. And then, finally, we come to Santa Barbara or, in Ms. Dobson's words, to “the mountain to climb”...
After GL, in 1979 you and your husband moved to another Procter & Gamble’s production, ATWT. Can you tell me how that came about, please?
The years working for Procter and Gamble Productions were very happy ones. P&G taught us a great deal about writing and the structure of soap opera. When our bosses, Bob Short and Ed Trach, and we didn't agree about a character or a storyline, we had long and healthy (informative and productive) arguments, There was a climate of mutual respect and affection. We were always told we could do it our way (not theirs), and risk being fired if the ratings didn’t hold up. So, in accordance with our philosophy that the writers’ will must prevail, we took that risk, and we were never fired. It was all very up front and forthright. Unlike Hollywood, there was never the feeling that if we turned around we would be stabbed in the back.
When we took over the helm at GL, Jerry was learning the business. P&G was reluctant to accept him into the inner sanctum at first, because he had no experience, but it was only a matter of a few months before they realized that Jerry and I were a team, that we worked well together and were more creative as a twosome than separately. Jerry’s brain worked in wondrous ways: he had tons of ideas, some of them very good, all of them original. GL did well. We liked the hour-a-day format. Though it was twice the work, the show delved more deeply into character and storyline. When we took over as headwriters, GL was ranked #7 of all the soaps. When we transferred to ATWT, five years later, GL was #1.
While Jerry took over initiating plot ideas, on which I collaborated, I was writing almost all the dialogue myself. (I think Jean Rouverol joined us for one script a week of dialogue only, but not at the very beginning.) I loved doing it so much I wondered why they paid us. This wasn't work. This was fun, exciting, exhilarating. Sometimes the shows weren't good, but we were learning, and our batting average wasn’t bad. We experimented with getting rid of non-essentials. No more: come in, may I take your coat? Would you like a cup of coffee? We cut to the drama as the scene started. No wasted space. We laced the drama with humor. We learned that subtext spoke louder than text. P&G said they learned about those things from us. But that couldn’t be; we were learning from them. It was unbelievably rewarding and stimulating - but I was getting tired.
Very selectively, and gradually, we built a writing team. We were always ultimately responsible for the content of the show, and we edited every word written by anybody else. The associate writers provided a great relief of pressure for me. But that is too simplistic. Besides trying to get into our heads, they brought their own freshness and originality to the canvas.. We grew to trust and treasure them. A good associate writer, director, actor or producer took the original dramatic concept and made it better. When it worked, the creative juices were flowing everywhere.
Needless to say, P&G was happy to have GL the number one rated soap. But there was a problem: it was never anticipated that GL would or could be number one. ATWT was supposed to be #1 because of the way it was positioned in the line up, because of its time slot. It was to be the tent-pole, the lynch-pin. Years of research (and decades of storytelling) supported this. Guiding Light was, at best, supposed to be #2, in part due to trickle-down ratings theory. By bringing GL to #1 we had unwittingly sowed chaos in the corporate world. And GL was #1 for months. Executives were tearing their hair, but being careful not to let the Dobsons know of their concerns (except retrospectively). We were popping champagne corks and they were drinking hemlock .
Simultaneously, it was time for long term story projections (the bibles) to be written for both shows. Jerry and I wrote the GL story projection, and our bosses loved it. The headwriter on ATWT wrote their story projection, and our bosses felt it was inadequate. ATWT's headwriter and the Dobsons were asked to swap shows. (!) They asked us to bring ATWT up to #1, where it had been for so long.
There were money issues. And ego issues. And loyalty issues. Another complication was that the headwriter of ATWT was exhausted, didn't like the deal etc.
The upshot was that, after resolving all issues, the Dobsons took the helm of ATWT, the other headwriter took over GL - but he insisted on taking a month's vacation before he worked again. So, Jerry and I wrote both shows for one month. Two hours of dramatic air time a day, approximately sixty characters, an average of 200 pages a day, seven days a week. My head hasn’t stopped spinning yet.
And finally we are coming to SB. How did you move from Oakdale to Santa Barbara?
Oakdale to Santa Barbara? That's easy. We had moved to Santa Barbara for personal reasons. We thought it one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and we were in a position to describe it accurately. But I think your question goes beyond that, so I will answer why it happened that we created SB.
After three years headwriting ATWT, after having brought the show back up to #1, the Dobsons were exhausted. Our last contract with P&G (beginning at the end of our stint with GL) was for three years. We had fulfilled it, and accomplished what we'd hoped to accomplish. P&G was happy and wanted us to continue. We loved what we were doing in many ways. Basically, we were proud of the shows. However, for all the joys of creating, there were some clear negatives. The worst problem was that we had almost no other life. Our heads were locked, 24 hours a day, into a fictional show. We never looked at a newspaper. We never went to the movies. We didn't have time to read much of anything. We had no room in our lives for friends and very little for family. The simplest things - playing a game of tennis or searching shops for just the right new dress - were out of reach to me. I hadn't gone to a grocery store in 15 years (and now I don't want to go!). When our daughter Mary applied to colleges, she had, literally, to make appointments with me to get me to take the time to read her applications. This was not how life was meant to be. We told P&G it was not a matter of money. It was a matter of reclaiming our lives.
Within 48 hours, we got many offers for other writing positions, not just with soaps but with night time dramas. We turned them all down. I can’t speak for Jerry, but secretly I was a little thrilled and surprised that we were so “hot.”
One of the offers that came within a few days of our new “retirement” was stunning: NBC-TV called to ask if we were to own a show, if we were to be in complete charge of every creative aspect of a show, from sets and costumes and hairstyles and music to every minute detail of the production, acting and writing, would we be willing to work again? Nobody in history had ever been asked this question. Not before and not since. We were being offered total creative control of an hour a day television drama five days a week. We were floored. And enticed. And terrified. It had never been attempted and never achieved, not starting from zero - nothing - a blank page - to an hour a day, every day, five days per week, no seasons, no holidays, no respite...with total control in the hands of two individuals, not in the hands of a corporation or a network.
So it was that Jerry and I came out of retirement and climbed what seemed to be an extremely steep creative mountain, clinging to sheer granite, our pen was our pick, no path, no trail, no rope or safety net. We'd done our writing push-ups in the years leading up to this moment, but there was no way to properly prepare. What if we died? Nobody even thought of that.
So in less than ten years of career, someone not only paid you to write, but someone even paid you to create your own show, giving you full control on it. This must have been also a great satisfaction with regard to your parents’ attitude…
My parents never accepted that I was a success on my own. (My mother apparently was furious to learn that our bosses at P&G were talking to Jerry and me about shows, not to them. This is according to my sister, who was visiting them at the time of an hysterical outburst.) They never watched any of my shows. When they were asked why not, they said, “Because we want to be proud of Bridget. That's why we don't watch.” Eventually it didn't matter to me. I went to a shrink (a psychiatrist) who helped me understand what I couldn't on my own. I am, generally, proud of our work and I feel sorry for my parents that they never knew what I could create (which was, in part, because of the gift of their tutelage). It's their loss.
But accepting this opportunity maybe meant giving up a “normal life.”. And you said you were tired. How did you expect to cope with this new even more demanding commitment?
Accepting the challenge from NBC to create a new show meant that we would postpone having a normal life. We were certainly aware of that. In balance, we thought it was worth it. I was tired. So was Jerry. But we were filled with energy and enthusiasm and fear, and that seemed to keep us going. (Why do you climb a mountain? Because it's there. )
Did you have some “escape hatch”?
I am trying to think of our “escape hatches.” We exercised religiously, jogging in the early morning darkness, wherever we were. Jerry believed - and I now grudgingly agree - that being in top physical shape was necessary to get the most out of our minds and spirits. Further, it acted as a release of stress and tension. I have continued to exercise every day, but don't ask me to say I like it. Other escape hatches? Humor. Fury. Unrelenting imagination. Sleep. Ours was not a tranquil life.