By sandi carpello
Staff Writer



CHRIS KELLY Norma (l) and Gloria Monty, Rumson, won four Emmy awards for their work on the long-running soap opera General Hospital.CHRIS KELLY Norma (l) and Gloria Monty, Rumson, won four Emmy awards for their work on the long-running soap opera General Hospital.

Monty sisters recall General Hospital’s Luke & Laura days

Rumson residents now focusing on helping local children pursue the arts

By sandi carpello

Staff Writer

From behind the scenes, Gloria Monty may have been General Hospital’s greatest heroine. It was 1978. The first test-tube baby was born in Britain. Egypt and Israel had just signed the Camp David Peace Treaty, and the ratings of ABC-TV’s longest running daytime drama had fallen lower than the Dead Sea.

"They were going to cancel the show," recalled Monty, the show’s former executive producer. "They had 13 weeks to boost it up, and ABC called me in. … General Hospital didn’t want to go down in a sham."

Hiring her sister Norma to head the show’s writing team, Gloria came up with a plot line twist that sent even the most disinterested soap watchers into a frenzy. She paired the show’s ingenue, Genie Francis, with anti-hero and chronic ne’er-do-well Anthony Geary.

A rape, a run from the mob, a few bad perms and a wedding later, pop culture icons Luke and Laura earned General Hospital the highest daytime ratings of all time.

Currently, the ABC’s network’s most watched soap opera is alive and well, and the Monty sisters, who retired in 1994 to a waterfront home in Rumson, are living the good life.

Sitting in their self-designed, mahogany-painted living room, almost identically clad in linen pants suits, Jackie O sunglasses, and bright red lipstick, the two sisters gaze lovingly at their four golden Emmy awards that sit on the mantel above their television set.

With perfect diction, the two recall their days in Hollywood and speak about the simple pleasures of retired life: playing golf at the Deal Country Club, sunning at the beach, and donating their time and expertise to the communications program at Monmouth University and to the Children’s Cultural Center in Red Bank — a subsidiary of the Community YMCA of Red Bank, which provides arts education to children and teen-agers.

The Children’s Cultural Center, which is in the process of renovating a new location at the site of the former Red Bank Police Department headquarters on Monmouth Street, will honor the Monty sisters for their support on Sept. 6.

"They approached us," said Gloria, explaining the sisters’ involvement with the organization.

"We helped design the curriculum. We helped raise money. We’re also planning to subsidize a television studio at the school," added Norma.

Like the children who will participate in arts programs at the Children’s Cultural Center, Gloria and Norma developed an interest in the theater at a very young age — studying ballet and elocution from the time they were 2 years old.

With dozens of theatrical credits behind them, the Monty sisters hope to steer those children and help them design a road map to artistic success.

"We want to help those kids to focus on their careers. So many people come in to this business thinking it will just happen. They have no idea how tough it is … it is a very tough business," Gloria said.

And she should know.

Leaving her Allenhurst home at 18 years of age to study drama and speech at the University of Iowa, New York University and later Columbia University, Gloria landed a job as a teacher of speech and drama at The New School in New York, where she trained cinema giants like Marlon Brando, Demi Moore and Tony Curtis — before they became famous.

After meeting her late husband, Robert O’Byrne, an editor for Sports and Field magazine, her show biz career began to flourish.

The couple established the Abbe Theater School in New York, which eventually led Gloria to dozens of directing and producing stints. Her credits include the early-1950s television series The First One Hundred Years, the 1973 television movie The Screaming Skull and 20-year daytime serial The Secret Storm.

Even 50 years ago, television directing was "a high-paying job," Gloria said.

But as the first woman executive at the ABC network, Gloria said she earned her keep.

"You had 150 people under you. You had to prove yourself a lot more than the men did," said Gloria, who lacked knowledge of the television camera and spent hours observing the cameramen until she had the craft mastered.

"She was an authoritative figure," Norma said. "We worked very hard on General Hospital, seven days a week, sometimes 14 hours a day, and Saturday. We enjoyed it, but it was tough."

Unlike her sister, Norma never set out to work in show business.

"I got into it because of my sister," said Norma, a former English teacher at both Edison and Middletown high schools. "When [Gloria] got the job at General Hospital, she hired me to be one of her writers."

In Hollywood, the two women, then in their early 40s, created one of the most controversial plot lines of the decade. General Hospital viewers were shocked, if not outraged, when Luke Spencer, lovesick and distraught at the Port Charles campus disco, rapes the show’s sweetheart Laura, who had literally grown up on the show.

Gloria, who told critics in the July 1987 issue of Us Weekly that the sexual encounter was not a rape "but a seduction," said the love story had a "Hitchcock quality, mystery and a lot of comedy,"

"It was a love story," Norma added. "It was very unusual."

In 1981, more than 30 million viewers tuned in to the wedding of Luke and Laura — the highest ratings in daytime television history.

Presently, there are thousands of Web sites dedicated to the star-crossed couple.

According to Norma, who holds a degree in English and comparative literature from Columbia University, the soap opera’s writing process was much more longwinded and actor-friendly in the ’70s than it is today.

Back then, developing the concept and storyline was more crucial than constructing the actual dialogue.

"If they didn’t feel comfortable saying something, I let them say it in a way they did feel comfortable — as long as they stuck to the show’s story line," Gloria said.

Geary, now 55, who still plays Luke Spencer on General Hospital, was "one of the best I’ve ever worked with," she said.

John Stamos, of Full House fame, who played Blackie Parrish on General Hospital from 1982-84, was "just great."

And Jack Wagner, who originated the role of Frisco Jones on the show, was also one the Monty sisters’ favorites

"He was just in Jekyll and Hyde on Broadway, and when he saw us in the audience, he asked us to stand up," she said.

The sisters said they look forward to working with the children at the cultural center and instilling in them their lifelong recipe for artistic success: focus, freedom with discipline, joy for their art, and making the right choices.

"I chose not to have children," Gloria said. "If I had had children, I would never get to accomplish what I accomplished."

"Life is a series of choices and [experiences,]" Norma added. "Education was fascinating, I enjoyed being a writer and I worked very hard."

"You should also get joy out of what you’re doing. When you start to get antsy, it’s time to get off board," Gloria said.