by Henry Slesar
Any soap opera fan will tell you that murder, theft, kidnapping, fraud, and crimes of every variety are part of the fabric of every daytime serial.
But only one serial in history ever devoted itself to Mystery, Crime, and Suspense as its central theme. It was called “The Edge of Night,” and from 1956 to 1984 it offered viewers a respite from Unfaithful Spouses, Unwanted Babies, Broken Hearts and all the other sentimental ingredients of the everyday daytime drama. It never reached rating heights (although it was once Number Two on CBS), but it attracted intense viewer loyalty, the largest male audience in daytime (an astonishing 50 percent) and devoted fans like P.G. Wodehouse, Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankhead, and Cole Porter.
“The Edge of Night” began as an attempt to transfer the Perry Mason character from its cancelled nighttime venue to daytime. When the attempt failed, a “new” Perry Mason was created in the person of Mike Karr, “Edge’s” first lawyer-hero, soon to be joined by Adam Drake, his younger and flashier partner. There were police chiefs, detectives, a host of criminals to deal with, and, of course, a phalanx of beautiful women and hapless victims. Love, Romance, and Family weren’t ignored on “Edge,” as long as they didn’t interfere with the murder and mayhem. (Often, they were incorporated into the suspenseful story lines.)
“The Edge of Night” was an instant hit, but its willingness to kill off even familiar characters caused consternation at CBS, tying up their switchboards with complaining viewers. In one instance, there were 8,000 letters and telegrams sent in protest. Undeterred, Edge went right on creating fictional corpses. It was once estimated that one-third of all the “murdered” actors in daytime were polished off on “The Edge of Night.”
One result of “Edge’s” emphasis on mystery was that stories were shorter, with far more conclusive endings than all other daytime serials. The turnover of characters was extraordinary, and led to the employment of some of the best actors in the theatre, many of whom are notable actors today, like, Dixie Carter, Frances Fisher, Lori Loughlin and Kate Capshaw.
Working on “Edge” was enjoyable for most performers, but it had its peculiar frustrations. Because of the “whodunnit” nature of most stories, the cast was not allowed to see the story projections which would reveal the outcome. Many actors objected to being left in the dark, but Procter and Gamble, the show’s producers, had learned the lesson the hard way. On an interview show, an actor was asked how long his tenure would be on “The Edge of Night.” He replied: “Not too long. I’m the murderer.”
The creator of “The Edge of Night” was Irving Vendig, who was also headwriter of the original Perry Mason radio show. There were a succession of headwriters, but the one with the greatest longevity was Henry Slesar, who wrote Edge for fifteen years, a record in daytime.
Slesar developed a theory about writing mystery for daytime. Since “whodunnit” stories might run for many weeks or even months, it was far more difficult to keep the audience guessing, to maintain the element of surprise at the conclusion. Slesar’s idea was to create what he called the “blue herring.” He believed that daytime audiences were only too familiar with the traditional “red herrings” which are supposed to lead them in a wrong direction. Therefore, an additional twist in the story line was needed– the blue herring.
Despite the success of “The Edge of Night,” it eventually fell victim to a miscalculation of its audience. After some sixteen years in the same time period at CBS, Procter & Gamble decided to move the show to an earlier time period, thereby creating a block of P&G-owned shows. Not only did the 2:00 p.m. time slot prove a disruption of viewer habits, it cost “Edge” its sizeable youth audience who had watched the drama after school hours. Predictably, “Edge’s” ratings dropped precipitously, and late in 1975, CBS cancelled the program.
All was not lost, however. ABC picked up Edge to air at four p.m., a time period perilously close to the fringe for daytime drama. After nine years of struggle to stay afloat, a diminishing station lineup inevitably led to lower ratings and cancellation.
Of all past daytime serials, “The Edge of Night” is the soap opera which seems to have made the greatest impact on its viewers, who still remember its vivid characters and offbeat stories. Currently, there are several web sites devoted to the show. Its vivid impression on so many is one more proof of the staying power and fascinating lure of the Mystery.
Henry Slesar was an Edgar- and Emmy-award-winning writer, who wrote for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and was headwriter for 15 years on the long-running soap opera, “The Edge of Night.”