January 07, 1985 12:00 PM

It was the longest twilight in television history. For 28 years the ABC soaper The Edge of Night, born on CBS when the nation liked Ike, had clung to its daily half hour on network TV. Then last week it faded to black. When it premiered, in 1956, Edge was daytime’s first mystery melodrama, a cops-and-robbers Dallas without the lust and the lip gloss. The whodunit plotting took serials out of the kitchen and into the courtroom, helped make Tide the best-selling detergent in America and vaulted the show to the top of the Nielsens. Humorist P.G. Wodehouse never scheduled an appointment that conflicted with the broadcast, Eleanor Roosevelt sent an effusive fan letter and Tallulah Bank-head once became so impatient with a man-troubled heroine that she called the show’s producer and shouted, “Why doesn’t she shoot the bastard?”

Not till last Friday, after 7,420 episodes, more than any other serial except NBC’s Search for Tomorrow and CBS’ The Guiding Light, did night, long postponed, finally fall. “The show was like the Titanic, which everyone thought was unsinkable,” says actor Charles (Preacher) Flohe, “but the Titanic did sink and a lot of people didn’t survive.” In fact the show had been listing to port for some time. Ratings had been declining since 1973 and network affiliates had been dropping away. “You could see the smoke signals and hear the drumbeat,” says Erwin Nicholson, Edge’s executive producer since 1966, “but one gets so involved in the daily operation. I assumed the show would go on forever.”

So, presumably, did Frances Nonenmacher of Lumberton, Miss., president of the Edge International Fan Club, which boasts 1,768 members in 48 states and Canada. The mother of six children, she hadn’t missed an episode since March 24, 1962, when her idol, Ann (Nancy Karr) Flood, joined the cast. Wherever Nonenmacher went she tuned in on her battery-powered RCA portable, and in 1973 even held a wedding reception in her home for two of the show’s leading characters. She served blue-and-yellow finger sandwiches, in recognition of the show’s colors, and propped the actors’ photos at each end of the table. Her devotion has not wavered since. “The actors are so wonderful and so dedicated and it’s such a clean show,” she says. “You never see anybody going to bed with another person’s wife or husband. I believe with all my heart that if they would put us on at another time, we would survive.”

“It gives me strength to know that our fans feel almost worse than we do,” says Irving (Calvin Stoner) Lee. “They feel intimate with us, and now they won’t see us together anymore. The end of Edge is like the end of a love affair.” Parting was painful for most of the cast and crew of 105. The atmosphere on the set had been low-pressure and casual; star egos were nowhere in evidence, and after-hours friendships were many. “It’s common industry knowledge that this was a terrific place to work,” says David (Gunther) Froman, a onetime villain who was killed on the show, then mercifully resurrected as his own twin brother.

At ABC, which took over the show in 1975 after a shift in time slots had hurt its CBS ratings, Edge had been a shabby, low-budget relation to more popular serials like All My Children and General Hospital. “We all knew that the production wasn’t as hot as some and that we were going down the tubes,” says Sandy (Beth Correll) Faison, “but I had a special feeling for this show because I played a virgin and they didn’t recast the part when I chose to have a baby in real life. First they shot above my waist, then above my boobs and then above my shoulders because I was soooo fat.” Stage manager Ann Vettel, who had been with the show for 24 years, shares Faison’s feeling of loss. “It was like living with a dear relative who is terminally ill,” she explains. “You know they will die, but when they do you’re hysterical.”

At birth Edge was the brainchild of Perry Mason radio writer Irving Vendig. Its principal character was Asst. DA Mike Karr (later a full-fledged district attorney), who survived, through three incarnations, for the run of the show. Karr was originally played by the late John Larkin, the radio voice of Perry Mason, and his first wife, Sara, by actress Teal Ames. “The show was so popular that fans would work free just to sit on the jury in a courtroom scene,” says Vendig, now 83. “People knew the characters and believed in them.” In 1961, when Ames asked to leave the show, Vendig had Sara struck and killed by a car. The CBS switchboard was inundated with calls from anguished viewers, so the actress returned briefly from the dead to explain that she had wanted to go.

In those days the show was broadcast live. “Every day was like a Broadway opening,” says Nicholson. “When the second hand said we were on the air, there was no turning back. America was seeing the program”—occasionally to the performers’ regret. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Larkin, who died in 1965, once confused a live performance with a dress rehearsal, growled an unscripted comment about “all you [expletive] fools in television land” then broke into a tap dance. When a frantic stage manager alerted him to the glowing on-air light, Larkin supposedly did the honorable thing and fainted, leaving the rest of the cast to ad lib around him.

Actress Maeve McGuire, whose seven-year tenure as Nicole Travis Drake Cavanaugh was fraught with perils—arsenic in her bourbon, spiders in her chocolates—remembers a minor embarrassment of her own. On the day Nicole married criminal lawyer Adam Drake, played for 11 years by Donald May, a prop man smeared coffee grounds on her cracker as a caviar lookalike. You could have fooled Maeve. “I just put the whole thing in my mouth,” she says. “Then I had to chew it with the biggest smile I could manage.” McGuire left the show after what she remembers as a two-year pregnancy because, she says, “I didn’t want to make a career out of one role.” She recently appeared in Noises Off! in Alaska. May himself was written out of the show in 1977, at some cost in viewership, after a troublesome dispute about whom he wanted as his leading lady. Discussion was rendered moot when the writers finished him off with three bullets in the heart, while providing no fortuitous twin.

The show changed direction when Henry Slesar, a veteran of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, became the head writer in 1968. “When I started, the moving spirit of the show was Perry Mason,” he says. “I wanted it to be like Hitchcock, more stylish crimes, more humor and more colorful villains.” In keeping with his notion of style, Slesar introduced the patrician Whitney family, including its starchy matriarch, Geraldine Whitney Saxon, played until the show’s demise by Lois Kibbee. The actress eventually began moonlighting as an associate writer and boasted one of Edge’s highest TVQ ratings. That didn’t spare her the wrath of a viewer who spotted her shopping one day and shouted, “Why don’t you mind your own business, you old busybody!” and fetched her a corrective clout with a handbag.

In May 1983 Slesar was replaced as head writer by Lee Sheldon, who had prime-time experience with Quincy but was a newcomer to daytime TV. “They vanted a flashier style, more physical scenes, more colloquial dialogue,” says Sheldon. “I expected it to be hard and it was. I didn’t get into the rhythm right away, but it was the most fun I ever had.” Not so for some of the cast who felt Sheldon was sacrificing character for plot. “I spent five years building a character I adored,” says Emmy nominee Sharon (Raven Whitney) Gabet. “The year before Henry left, the show was having troubles and we were kind of upset, but everyone is entitled to a slump. Then Lee gave us a mystery plot line and my character went out the window. It killed me. I talked to everybody, had meetings, cried. It didn’t do any good.” When the show’s cancellation was announced in October, Gabet’s first feeling was one of relief. “This year, while everything was falling apart, I did the most creative thing anyone could do,” she says. “I had a baby. Now I can go out and hunt for work.”

“There were things that could have been done to save the show that weren’t,” says another member of the company. “It happens a lot on soaps when the writing is terrible or the wardrobe, makeup or sets don’t work. They fire the actors and get a new cast. In this case money wasn’t spent where it should have been. The writer had a teenage mentality and some incompetent people weren’t fired.”

Last spring, when Edge dropped to last place in the daytime-serial ratings, the end was in sight. “Demographics are everything now,” says soap historian Robert LaGuardia. “In the race for a new audience, Edge lost the old one. It’s a sad story, but inevitable. The show is a product of a different era, and its age caught up with it.”

For most of the cast, the future is full of uncertainty. An exception is Larkin (Sky Whitney) Malloy, who has already signed on with The Guiding Light. Other performers will be going back to the theater. “A lot of young actors turn up their noses at people who do soap operas,” says Joel (Miles Cavanaugh) Crothers, “but they will never have the opportunity to do a good scene in front of millions people once every three weeks, which is a gift. Of course, you have to do the dreck in between.”

For a souvenir, Ann Flood has asked to keep the show’s credit crawl. Thousands of Edge videotapes will be stored in soap’s Valhalla, the Procter & Gamble archives. The wardrobe will be returned, unmourned, to the New York boutiques whence it came, leftover scenery will be burned and the cavernous Manhattan studio where The Edge of Night was taped each weekday will be emptied of everything except memories.

But the flame elsewhere will not be soon extinguished. “Our members are ready to keep Edge alive,” says Frances Nonenmacher with a note of defiance. “We will continue to wear our Edge T-shirts and we’re going out with our heads held high. This will be the daytime drama that people won’t forget.”

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