NEW YORK – It's difficult to tell what's real and what's not in Pine Valley, the sleepy fictional town that on Jan. 5 will have been the backdrop for ABC's "All My Children" (search) for 35 years.
On a seemingly typical day, there's a banner announcing "Happy 35th Anniversary" hanging in Pine Valley Hospital. Much of the cast is gathered. Agnes Nixon, the show's creator, addresses the group from a podium, flanked by Susan Lucci (search), the show's grand dame Erica Kane; and Ray MacDonnell (search), the show's pillar Joe Martin.
Then, a director yells: Cut!
They're not celebrating the show's anniversary. It's a scene in which they're toasting the anniversary of Martin's 35 years of working for the hospital. This marks Nixon's first speaking part on the show she created in 1970. Time, it seems, has blurred the lines between soap and reality.
"People ask me if I thought it would last 35 years," Nixon, who turns 77 on Dec. 27, later told The Associated Press during a real 35th anniversary celebration off the set. "I say, 'I hoped it would last six months.'"
With the milestone, "AMC" joins the ranks of over-35 soaps: "Guiding Light," "General Hospital," "As the World Turns," "Days of our Lives" and "One Life to Life," which Nixon also created.
"It's interesting," said Eden Riegel, who plays Kane's daughter, the ultimately unlucky Bianca Montgomery. "There's so much work, you actually spend more time as your character than you do as yourself."
That means Lucci and MacDonnell, who've been on "AMC" since its 1970 debut, have spent 35 years of their lives playing the same character. This surrealism extends to Pine Valley, an almost real town, itself.
In person, the landscape of the "AMC" sets, housed in the ABC studios on Manhattan's West Side, feel eerie. Llanview, the setting on ABC's "One Life to Live," isn't very far away — in real life or on the show. In Pine Valley, tree branches hang from metal stands, not from trunks. Curtains are stapled to the wall, not hung from rods. And the offices of Tempo, Pine Valley's very own magazine, are only inches away from the opulent Chandler mansion.
The simplicity of this imagined town, just another settlement in the world of soaps, is completely opposite from its residents' torrid histories.
"I've been shot at like four times. Hit once. My wife got shot and donated her heart to another person and she came back as a ghost. I flew to Chechnya to save somebody in the war. I became a billionaire. Lost it all. Then became a billionaire again," Cameron Mathison, who plays playboy Ryan Lavery, said nonchalantly when asked to recall his character's past. "It's not as exciting as Susan. Nobody's as exciting as Susan."
Lucci, who turns 57 on Dec. 23, and her alter ego's antics have become synonymous with "AMC." Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Lucci received colossal publicity for the 19 Daytime Emmy nominations it took before she won in 1999. (And she's lost two more times since.)
"Just when they've taken Erica Kane every place, they come up with something and surprise me," Lucci told the AP during the taping of the show's 9,000th episode.
Those places include New York, where Kane became a model; Sea City, where Kane became a waitress; a prison, where Kane staged an escape; and a forest, where Kane fought a bear — and won. She's been (legally) married nine times, had two children and created one great big cosmetics company that recently pushed a product through Pine Valley's fourth walls.
That's right — the show's fictional perfume Enchantment is available in real life.
When "AMC" began, Kane was 17. Long before California teenagers were tussling and smooching on "Beverly Hills, 90210" or "The O.C.," Nixon was telling stories about teens with problems. One of the first "AMC" story lines dealt with a pair of star-crossed adolescents divided by the Vietnam War. At the time, it was groundbreaking.
"From the beginning, I thought the teenage rebellion was an important issue," Nixon said.
In the 35 years since its inception, "AMC" has tackled issues such as child abuse, AIDS, alcoholism, drug abuse, eating disorders and the coming out of Bianca, who's been at the center of a baby switching story line that's captivated many — and bored some — fans for over a year.
"I think it went on too long," fan-turned-"AMC" actress Carol Burnett, who filmed a scene for the 35th anniversary "AMC" episode, told the AP. "I thought the truth would come out four or five months ago, but lies kept being told. That's Pine Valley. Everything's a secret. It's Secretville."
The secret, which occasionally seeped over to sister soap "One Life to Live," is being unveiled amid the "AMC" anniversary celebration. Burnett, who's "over-the-top" and "fashionably challenged" recurring character Verla Grubbs was introduced in 1983, even has a part in the story line.
"I felt like I knew her because she feels like she knows me," Riegel told the AP the day after filming the scene with Burnett.
The baby switcheroo goes something like this: best friends Bianca and Babe Chandler, both pregnant, give birth at the same time in a secluded cabin during a storm. Babe delivered Bianca's daughter and Babe's ex-husband (who also happens to be a rescue helicopter pilot) delivered Babe's son. The ex faked the death of Bianca's baby, telling her the portable incubator fell out of the helicopter, and then gave the kid to his sister in Llanview.
"I think that Agnes has said the key to making a good soap opera is make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait," said Riegel, "and when it comes to this story line, I think we've exercised all three of those rules."
Over the past year, several characters have discovered the truth about the babies, except the ones that really matter. But soon, they will. And soon, surely, the babies will transform into teenagers, as they so often do in soap world.
"Usually, it happens really quickly around here," said "AMC" executive producer Julie Hanan Carruthers. "But we're so in love with these babies, I have a feeling they could be hanging around for a while."
Most "AMC" actors talk about plots — many with basic themes replayed repeatedly in the soap world — with great indifference. Alexa Havins, whose Babe has been crying about the baby swap since February, is nervous about her character's future. It's also her career.
"If I'm given good material, I do good work. Everything's been done on daytime," said Havins about Babe's eventuality. "I definitely want to see a love story. I'd love an abuse story line, but I think that's already coming up for someone else."
Because new scripts are constantly being churned out, Havins and her colleagues only have a limited idea where the future of Pine Valley is headed. Anything is possible in Secretville. But Nixon, the true "my" behind "All My Children," is clear on what will happen over the next 35 years in Pine Valley.
"Whatever happens in the daily newspapers," Nixon said. "It's always been a contemporary show. That's the way it's been and that's the way it'll continue to be."