Posted August, 2010
Ken Corday with Alison Sweeney (L) and Kristian Alfonso Photo Courtesy of ©jpistudios.com
My first few years of life were spent in the states of Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and Texas. Whether my playtime was on the rolling hills of Tennessee and Alabama or the sandy beaches of Florida, there was one thing I could almost always count on: My mom stopping whatever she was doing so that she could watch her “stories”.
Now, in my childish southern lexicon, “stories” had several meanings. One meaning of the word, of course, was something that would be told or read to me at bed time. Another meaning of “story” was a sugarcoated word for telling a lie. For instance, if I ate a cookie when I was told not to, and, when asked if I ate one, I said I didn’t, my mom would ask (knowing the answer), “Randy, are you telling me a story?” You get the picture.
Finally, “story” is often used by the broadest cross-section of America to refer to daytime soap operas. Soap operas was what Mom was talking about. I believe that every mom and housewife in the country would pop up their ironing boards, fire up the iron, and watch their favorite “stories” while pressing pants and shirts with the grand finale being the sound of Faultless Spray-On Starch sizzling as it was being pressed into our clothes.
By the way, the commercial that I just hyperlinked to was so convincing to me that, while my mom left the room during a commercial break from one of her “stories”, I tried spraying stars out of her can of Faultless Spray-On Starch. Nothing. It must have been how I was holding the can.
Back to the “stories”.
One of the giants of daytime soaps, both in those by-gone days of the sixties as well as today, was (and is) Days of our Lives. Even now, as I evoke the name of that monster hit program, the majestic, authoritative voice of Days’ late cast member, Macdonald Carey, gently echoes in my brain, “Like sands through the hourglass . . . so are the days of our lives.”
Days of our Lives debuted 45 years ago this November. I didn’t stutter: Yes, I said, “45 years ago”. Let that sink in for just a moment or two. The show was created by Ted and Betty Corday , Irna Phillips and Allan Chase. Sadly, Ted Corday passed away before the show completed its first year on the air. Betty Corday helped lead the show to incredible ratings popularity. In the late seventies, Ted and Betty’s youngest son, Ken began his work on the show by writing music for it. He learned about production along the way, eventually earning the Associate Producer slot and then ultimately took over the reins of the show when his mom felt that she was no longer strong enough to produce the show.Ken Corday has recently published a book about the history and family (both cast and “blood”) that have been or are currently involved in the iconic TV drama, entitled The Days of our Lives: The True Story Of One Family’s Dream And The Untold History Of Days Of Our Lives. While I admit that I’ve never had the opportunity to be a regular viewer of daytime soaps, I was very intrigued by the engrossing history of the show (as well as of him and his family) that Mr. Corday shares in his book.
One of the stories that I was naturally intrigued by involves Ken’s band, Lucky Mud. that he played drums in. I asked Ken what it was like opening for Jimi Hendrix in Hawaii in 1970 and for more details about it.
“Well, I hate to use the phrase ‘out of body experience’ because the band had moved to Hawaii approximately three months before, playing with some ‘name’ groups over there like Quicksilver Messenger Service and Buddy Miles’ band – which was then called ‘The Buddy Miles Band’ before it was called A Band of Gypsys. That’s how we got to meet Jimi Hendrix. We played with Buddy on July 4th and word got around. Then Hendrix came and played in Hawaii – I believe that it was on August 2nd or 3rd, 1970 and the concert promoter booked us as the opening act – the only other act on the bill.
“So, you can imagine playing what was then called the Honolulu International Center – HIC – it’s some other name now. It’s the biggest concert venue in Honolulu . We got to spend some time with him when he arrived during sound check and after sound check. Then we played. It was an amazing hour because we hadn’t played in front of that many people. You can imagine that many people coming to a Jimi Hendrix concert – the level of their intoxication or drug influence. It was pretty much as high as it was going to be – or, at least, getting there – so we had a captive audience, so to speak.
“He looked like any guy coming in off of a golf course when we saw him before the show – a golf shirt, white Levi’s, VERY short, black hair. We went back into the dressing room before he went on and he put on the big afro and all the rainbow colors . . . “
It was at that point that I had to interrupt Ken. Hendrix wore a wig?
“At that time it was a wig. Yeah, he went on and he played for over two hours. As I said in the book, it was the most remarkable performance I had ever seen – before or after – from any musician – classical included. The energy he exuded was incredible and to do it with just a trio and to play for that long . . . we were literally stage right and stage left watching. I remember looking at our guitarist and he couldn’t close his mouth. Jimi Hendrix could do so many things with a guitar. He had amazing physical ability. He had very large hands. He was able to use his thumb to play the bass line, chord with his three fingers and trill with his pinky.
“But he was a very soft-spoken fella. After the concert was over, we talked to him and our guitarist gave him this peacock feather, of all things. He was into the Hare Krishna thing. Jimi said, ‘Hey, thanks, man!’ and he laid it on top of his Stratocaster and closed the case. The next day he was on his way to England to play the Isle of Wight concert the last week of August and he was dead almost three weeks after that.”
We continued discussing our classic rock roots, chatting about icons like Janis Joplin, the Stones and many others. Corday opined, “I think it was the seminal moment in changing rock and roll from, say, 1964, not including the advent of the British invasion but what happened to rhythm and blues rock and roll in this country – moving into a different place – first in L.A., really, and then in San Francisco.
“You know, I don’t think anyone will ever get close to Janis Joplin for female blues singer. I remember watching her jump in what was then the pool in front of the stage at the Hollywood Bowl, mic in hand. Those years – I would say 1966 thru ’70 – spawned so many amazing groups that then continued to influence music. Well, there was a strange period called ‘disco’ but after that went away, that influence was still there AND is still there today.”
Wrapping up the subject of music, I asked why he got drifted away from rock music.
“Well, funny that you should ask. Coming out of that period – I talk about it in the book – from ’70 to ’73, the band came back to California and knocked around. Rock and roll had kind of the fatal shot fired at Altamont and just faded out in the next three years. I found myself in ’73 without the real musical knowledge to do what I wanted to do except play the drums. So, I was fortunate enough to enter the University of California in Santa Cruz in ’73 and graduated from there in ’75. I went to graduate school at San Jose State and graduated in 1977 with a Masters in Music and was going to teach composition because that is what I always wanted to do.
“You know, percussion performance is somewhat limiting but I always had the desire to write so I learned how to write for the entire symphony orchestra in those four years. That was it! That was what I was going to do and happy doing – write symphonies and concertos and a song or two here and there. As luck would have it, I came to Los Angeles in the summer – I believe it was the summer of ’77 and met the music director of Days – I should say ‘dated’ the music director of the show.
“She said, ‘Well, why don’t you write a few music queues for the show?’ The rest is history.”
Corday joined the Days staff somewhat reluctantly. However, he did so out of love and support for his mother. I asked Ken if he ever looked back after making that decision and wished he had stayed in the music business.
“I never looked back because, of course, this is an amazingly larger pond down here than in the academic world. But, the grace of it all – my mental health break, so to speak – is that I still write all the music for the show unless we license a song from a popular artist. So, being able to go into a recording studio two or three times a week in the afternoon and either pen or score a song for the show keeps my hand in that (music). Things have changed over the last 30 years of writing music for daytime television.
“So, in direct answer to your question: no, I never really looked back and went, ‘Darn! I should’ve stayed in school!’” Concluding his answer with a chuckle, Corday adds, “Actually, in hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t because at 27, with all of those beautiful, young coeds and being a professor, I probably would have found myself married and divorced a few times.”
I commented that my mom would say when I was a little kid, “It’s time for me to watch my stories.” Ken enthusiastically pipes in by saying, “Oh, I know! And I think it’s such an apt thing to say because I hear it all through the nation – rural and urban – ‘I want to watch my story.’ And that’s what it’s about. People don’t want to see one actor or one set. They want to watch ‘the story’ and if the story is not there, the viewers aren’t there. If the story is there – and I hate to say this, but – no matter how terrible the acting may be, they (the viewers) are still with us. The acting is important. I shouldn’t diminish that but stories are what drive daytime drama.”
With its remarkable ability to stay on the air with an incredibly loyal fan base, I asked Ken what he felt is the single biggest attribute or reason why the show has been so successful and has had the staying power that it has.
“It’s simple. Again, my mother’s lesson to me was it’s about the ‘story’. You’re only really as good as last week’s ratings. You can’t rest on your laurels. But, directly, it’s about family values. I’m sure that all of the other shows would say this but this show, more than any others, still has the founding family at its center – the Hortons and two other families, now, over the last 35 or 40 years: the Bradys and the evil DiMeras. But, more than anything, it’s about family values, the redemptive power of love and, to be honest with you, we deal with the Deity on this show – much more than any others. We take flack for it from certain of the less religious groups but I believe that it’s an important part of the show. It’s referenced right back to the opening couplet, ‘Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” - I believe that is the second or third to last line of the 23rd Psalm.
“So, whether subtle or not, whether people cop to it or not, it’s there. We try to keep our pulse more on the mainstream --- what is really the quiet, common person in this country as opposed to the outspoken Conservative or Liberal.”
Is Corday saying that faith and the family values stance has been the one constant throughout the life of the show?
“That is the one constant. It also holds true behind the scenes. What I call our ‘Days family’ – the crew, the cast, the staff .– they know – how do I put this - that I ‘have their back’. This is the only one hour soap opera that’s family run – it’s a family business. The others are owned by ABC or Sony. Bill Bell did start The Bold and the Beautiful and kept that one in the family but, again, it’s a half-hour show. I don’t know if the same thing is going on with their set. But, yes, that’s what has kept us together: a belief that in loving the genre and loving the work we have to do every day and loving each other, there’s something greater than the sum of all of the parts.”
In order for the show to survive for 45 years, Corday most definitely had to make sure the show adapted to the plethora of changes that have bombarded the genre over the years. I asked him what was the biggest of those changes.
“That’s a VERY interesting question and is somewhat tough. I would just have to ‘knee-jerk’. I’d have to say the financial changes – hopefully, you won’t see it on screen. We used to be able to do the show five years ago any way we wanted to – all hours of the night. Lavish exteriors. Lavish locations. Because of the constraints of the economy, we’re dealing with a budget, now, that is less than half of what it used to be. I don’t think it shows on screen as much as it does with whom we cast.
“So, the thing that has changed most is the economy and the networks’ desire for paying top dollar for a soap opera. In the nineties, the joke was that Days of our Lives and the Jay Leno Show – and, before that, the Johnny Carson Show – paid the rent at NBC and allowed them to do all of the pilots that never went on the air. That really isn’t the case as much today. However, last year, we were the only show on the network that showed growth. They don’t want to admit that but they’re happy to admit that in front of their advertisers when they sell time for the next year.
“So, yeah, that is the biggest change and it certainly affects my job daily. How do we make the same product every day for half as much? I think ‘downsizing’, unfortunately, is the word. We still want the show to seem larger than life. It can’t be the news. It can’t be public service.
“I see other soap operas get stuck in that rut. ‘Let’s do something that’s topical or public service oriented; do something current.’ I think that you lose the fantasy. It’s about romance. Period. Our show is about romance. You can call it anything else but it’s about watching two people fall in love for the first time or the first time again after 25 years. That’s what makes it go.”
The business geek in me couldn’t help but ask Ken if he saw signs of the economic pressures turning around so that you can go back to the way it was producing shows or was the proverbial genie out of the bottle.
“It’s hard to say. I have very optimistic feelings – and, certainly, more optimistic associates that believe – that soaps MIGHT make a comeback. My feeling is that the genie really is out of the bottle. Once the network gets something, they are very, very much chagrined to give it back. We deal with what we deal with today. My job is to keep the show on the air year-to-year or, in some cases, 18 months to two years at a time and let all of the employees know that they don’t have to look over their shoulder every year.”
Corday starts his book with a tragic “bang”, literally, and shares his heart as to how that event impacted his late brother. Near the end of the book, he shares a great story as to how he obtained closure with his brother’s passing. I asked Ken what he says to people who have family or friends who are suffering as his brother did and what advice does he have for them.
“Well, the first advice that I give them is to not keep it in the closet. Mental illness is something in the country that is swept under the carpet - kept in the closet. ‘Oh, there’s nothing wrong with him or her. They’re just having a bad week.’ Or, ‘It’s just the affects of this, that or the other thing.’ We’ve come miles in the last ten years in medical treatment for mental illness. Yet, it’s still that six or eight inches between our ears that’s still the new frontier – the unknown.
“So, the advice that I would give to someone who has a family member who’s suffering from this is, a) EXTREME patience. B) Faith. Whether it’s through a psychologist, a therapist, a minister or priest, try to believe or reach out for this person – for themselves - through faith. And, C), most importantly, don’t hide it because, with hiding it, the same wound scabs over and over. It needs to be cleaned out.
“This was the case with my brother. My parents really, really never had to look square in the face how ill – how tragically ill – he was. I dealt with that in the three years after my mother died to the point that it was dangerous to have him around my family. My wife was afraid of him for her sake and the children’s sake. This is the case with someone who is paranoid-schizophrenic or severely manic-depressive. You know, one day or another, it can be night or day – a totally different person.
“Bottom line: Don’t give up hope. Hemmingway said it best. ‘I’m not hopeless as long as I have hope. The day I don’t have hope, you’ll know it damn quick.’ And he did. He certainly did. Without hope we have nothing. That’s what people have to hold on to. There IS light at the end of the tunnel with ALL mental illness. Some people would say that I’m extremely naïve or ridiculously optimistic to say that but it’s not as terminal as some might think, you know? The day that my brother was diagnosed, it was as terminal as having cancer only there was no period of time. It could be a year or it could be twenty years, as it was with my brother. But that’s not the case these days.”
Moved both by Ken’s comments and the stories about his brother that he shares in the book, I commented that I think the book will be a helpful read to those who have family members who suffer from mental illness. His humility and sincerity was clear in his response.
“Thank you very much. To me, that was the most curious thing in the way this book resonated was that I had a number of psychologists, talks shows, radio shows call me – not to talk about Days of Our Lives but to talk about this very issue. If I can be of any help to anyone by writing about it, then it’s extremely gratifying.”
Shifting my emotional gears to a lighter speed, I bring up the hysterical story Corday tells in the book about Andrew Masset being accosted in the produce department of a grocery store by a lady with a zucchini. I asked him if he felt that much of the viewing audience has a hard time separating life from art.
“I think that because we have a shrinking world, more of an informational world these days, it’s not as much as we would see in the seventies or eighties. People are less naïve no matter how far into rural U.S.A. they are. Yet, I still see it. I still see, at fan events, crazy fans just run up to the actors, refer to them by their character name and say they want to have their baby, et cetera, et cetera. And they’re completely in earnest about it!
“The eye opener was in New Orleans, I believe in 1983 or 1982, with our two characters, Bo and Hope, who were very young then. We landed at the airport there and there were ten thousand people waiting. Fire Marshalls were beside themselves and all the crowd wanted to do was see this couple. And it was the same. “Oh, Bo, I want to have your baby!” or, “Hope, will you marry me?”
Ken shares a couple of incredible paranormal events that happened in the studio; one involving Deidre Hall and the prop man, Bob Bateman, and the other having to do with an apparition that he and the cast felt was Macdonald Carey. When you read about those events, you’ll swear that they could have been right out of the show’s script. I asked Corday how he interpreted those events and, “We have a celebratory pictorial coffee table book coming out the first of November for the 45th anniversary It’s beautiful because the pictures are not what you would call ‘posed pictures’. They’re a behind the scenes look at mostly cast and crew. So, people are allowed inside the walls of the studio.
“We have three romance novels that are extended stories of very popular characters who are no longer on the show. ‘What happened to . . . Jack and Jennifer, Deidre Hall’, etc, etc, etc. written by our former head writer. And, then, I have a work of fiction – my first work of fiction, good lord! – that will be out next May.”
After our conversation, reflecting as I always do after an interview, I was struck but the sheer calm and serenity that Ken Corday projected over the phone. I can imagine how much more warmth would permeate the room if I were meeting him in person. Despite incredible pressures from all directions because of the crushing responsibilities he carries for the show and its cast and crew, he is calm. Despite the pain of losing his father while young, losing his loving mother or the trauma and challenges of coping with and then tragically losing his brother, Corday exemplifies a peacefulness rarely seen in the world today.
That’s my kind of story.