ABC's 'General Hospital' celebrates 50 years in operation with the return of the Nurses' Ball

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Extremely few television programs even get close to marking a 50th anniversary.

As other daytime serials were taken off the air, it was possible "General Hospital" might fall just short of that mark ... but it didn't, now making the celebration all the sweeter.

The residents of the fictional Port Charles will fete the milestone in the Monday, April 1, episode of the enduring ABC soap opera. Actually, the festivities have been going on for a while, since beloved cast members and characters have made returns leading up to the newly revived Nurses' Ball that will mark the anniversary week.

Among them: Genie Francis (alias Laura Spencer), Kin Shriner (Scotty Baldwin), Jack Wagner (Frisco Jones), Jacklyn Zeman (Bobbie Spencer), Vanessa Marcil (Brenda Barrett), current-season "Dancing With the Stars" contender Ingo Rademacher (Jasper "Jax" Jacks), singer-actor Rick Springfield (Dr. Noah Drake) -- and Rachel Ames (Audrey Hardy), the performer who's had the longest run on "General Hospital" to date (1964-2007).

"When you undertake such a massive celebration that not only happens on camera but off camera as well, there are so many moving parts, we're just trying to stay on top of all of them," Frank Valentini, executive producer of "GH" since early 2012, after "One Life to Life" (on which he worked for 26 years, the last nine also as executive producer) ended its ABC run, tells Zap2it. "It's slightly overwhelming, but it's exhilarating at the same time."

The 50th anniversary plans, Valentini reflects, are meant "not only to celebrate what's happening now, the resurgence of 'General Hospital' and a spike in its ratings in the past year, but what it means in terms of the history of the show. And how I and the head writer ( Ron Carlivati, who also came from "One Life to Live') could best honor and thank the audience for being such loyal, dedicated viewers and having such passionate feelings about the show. And what it means for the folks who are on the 'General Hospital' canvas right now, and how to showcase them in a way that also celebrates the show."

Another "GH" actor who certainly has put in his time is Anthony Geary, with a record seven Daytime Emmy Awards as outstanding lead actor to show for it. In tandem with the series' writers, over two sizable stints (1978-84, 1993-present), he has made the iconic Luke Spencer a man of many colors ... not all of them admirable, as Geary is the first to acknowledge, since Luke controversially assaulted Laura before he turned heroic.

"I think the big appeal of daytime [drama] is that the audience gets to live these characters' lives with them in real time," Geary reasons. "That's certainly the way I feel when I still see characters who were there 35 years ago, when I first came onto the show. Maybe they've been gone awhile, but they're all coming back for one story reason or another, and it's really an extraordinary and wonderful experience. It feels like a family reunion every day."

For Geary, that's especially true with the return of Francis, their Luke and Laura being one of the all-time daytime supercouples and the stuff of mainstream magazine covers with their 1981 wedding -- still the most-watched episode in the history of daytime soaps, and a hallmark of former executive producer Gloria Monty's reinvention of the program.

"Genie and I share a great history on the show," Geary reflects. "She has come and gone several times, but this is nice. Usually when they talk about Luke and Laura, it's in terms of the wedding; frankly, Genie and I get a little weary of that constantly following us around. Not only is it nice to reconnect as Luke and Laura, but we're doing what we did originally, high-stakes adventure."

kelly-monaco-general-hospital-325-abc.jpgKelly Monaco, who has spent 10 years on "General Hospital" as Sam McCall, has had plenty of adventure on the serial as well. She says she's found the 50th anniversary period "overwhelming, to say the least. I've gotten to talk to people I haven't seen in many, many years, and it's been fantastic. I think it's great for the show and great for the viewers."

It's also been great for Sam, who has remained central to "GH" happenings. Lately, she's been part of a storyline also involving look-alikes John McBain and Caleb Morley (both played by Michael Easton, who had the roles earlier on "One Life to Live" and the "GH" spinoff "Port Charles," respectively).

"I think Sam is always at the forefront of what's going on," says Monaco, "but I don't mind taking a back seat, and I think that time is coming. I feel blessed to be part of a show that's been running for 50 years. We have some actors on the show who have been there longer than I've been alive, and I think it's the only genre where you can be in one place as an actor throughout your entire career.

"People asked me after both of my experiences with 'Dancing With the Stars' (which Monaco won the first season of, then returned for last fall's 'All-Stars' round), 'Why are you still here? Why aren't you doing prime time? Why aren't you doing movies?' And I was like, 'You have no idea.' I know how great my job is, and I would never do anything to jeopardize that. I get to do wonderful, creative things. There is no reason I would go.'

That undoubtedly keeps the boss happy, and Valentini also is greatly pleased by the number of "General Hospital" veterans who have returned to help mark its 50-year point. One favorite character has just been recast, though: Two-time Daytime Emmy winner Julie Marie Berman left the role of Lulu, and Emme Rylan ( "The Young and the Restless," "Guiding Light") is succeeding her.

"They're all so excited and really thankful to be included," Valentini says of the "GH" alumni who came back. "They have such deep respect and appreciation for the show, because this is what launched all of their careers. And it's not just stunt casting; many of them are going to be back for a while, so it's not as if we're tossing them out there just to tease the audience. They're going to be involved in stories for the next several months and beyond."
Photo/Video credit: ABC
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