'General Hospital' Turns 50: The Real Scoop on TV's Longest-Running Daytime Drama

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Happy birthday, "General Hospital"! The ABC drama turns 50 years old on April 1, giving it the distinction of being the longest-running daytime soap opera still on the air.

Everybody remembers Luke and Laura's wedding (it was one of the top TV events of 1981, garnering 30 million viewers); it's also common knowledge that Demi Moore and John Stamos both started their careers on the show. And let's face it, when you hear that Christopher Cross song "Think of Laura," you probably, well, think of Laura. But with a history so long and illustrious, there's plenty that even the most diehard fans may not know about the Port Charles-based production.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of "General Hospital," here's the dish on what really went on behind the scenes.

A town with no name

Since the show's debut in 1963, Port Charles has seen its share of hurricanes, earthquakes, blizzards (in the middle of the summer!), fires, explosions, and boats sinking -- but the fictional New York town didn't even have a name until 1976, when new head writers Eileen and Robert Mason Pollock came on board and finally called it something! You can see a 1982 map of Port Charles here.

[Related: Brenda and Jax Return to 'General Hospital']

While PC boasts a bevy of bars and boutiques (and, um, a casino), the place where everybody knows everybody's name is Kelly's Diner. Back in the day, Ruby Anderson served up the best bowl of chili in town, and for the soap's 25th anniversary in 1988, she touted the community's coffee. Check out the commercial:

But after all those years, the waterfront eatery was in dire need of a makeover, so what better time to do it than right before the 50th anniversary out Kelly's new look? Here it is:

Fun fact: In 2001, ABC's Soap Opera Bistro was featured at Disney's California Adventure. It boasted "General Hospital"-themed dining rooms, including replicas of Luke's Night Club and Kelly's Diner.

Luke and Laura's royal wedding gift

Ah yes, the TV wedding of last century! Luke and Laura's November 1981 nuptials came just four months after the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, so "GH" fans were still in fairy tale-wedding mode. (Hence the fanfare and the 30 million viewers!) But according to USA Today, the TV dream wedding was a nightmare behind the scenes.

[Related: 'One Life to Live' Stars Head Back to 'General Hospital']

Actress Genie Francis recounted the day of filming as a stressful scorcher, complete with a bee-swarmed wedding cake. She was also under strict instructions not to wrinkle Laura's wedding gown, which was later stolen right before it was slated to live in infamy at the Smithsonian Institution. Her TV husband Anthony Geary also revealed that a then-newlywed Princess Diana sent bottles of champagne to both him and Francis as a "wedding gift," but Francis never got hers -- perhaps because she was under the drinking age at the time. "I think it was Bollinger," Geary said. "I was so thrilled, I turned it into a lamp."

High-profile guest stars

Want to know what a Hollywood legend earns? When it's the early 1980s and it's on a soap, about two grand. According to People, Elizabeth Taylor's 1981 "General Hospital" role as Helena Cassadine netted her $2,000 and a few diva perks. The Academy Award-winning actress reportedly took over producer Gloria Monty's large office and brought in some of her posse to be paid extras, ticking off actors' union members in the process. She also met a future fling on the show: Anthony Geary isn't one to kiss and tell, but after Liz did, he later admitted that he was her boy toy for a couple of years. Taylor donated her Port Charles paycheck to two Virginia hospitals. Here's Helena in her heyday:

One of "General Hospital's" most iconic guest stars was Sammy Davis Jr., who was reportedly a big fan of ABC soaps. John Stamos -- who played street kid Blackie Parrish on the show -- said it was the Rat Packer's early 1980s cameo that opened the doors to the live-musical performances on the soap.

"I always wanted to play drums on the show, and they wouldn't let me," Stamos said in a recent interview. "And then Sammy came on, and there was a drum set, and he adlibbed and said, 'Hey Blackie, can you play drums?' It was completely adlibbed … and from then on, I started playing music on the show." (So it sounds like we can thank Mr. Show Business for the musical sensation Blackie and the Riff Raff!) Check out Sammy Davis Jr.'s "GH" cameo:

And who can forget exercise class at the Campus Disco? Long before he was doling out Deal a Meals, Richard Simmons routinely sweated to the oldies with nurses Bobbie, Amy, and the gang. While it wasn't too much of a stretch (no pun intended) for the fitness guru, in an interview with Men's Health, Simmons said producer Gloria Monty advised him to tone it down a bit for TV. "Everything I do is always big," he said. "I wake up, and it's like I'm on a Broadway stage. She had to bring it down a little bit for the size of the TV. She would be like (very melodramatic), 'This is not a stage, this is a television show.' … I walked on that show, and I must've been like an alien to them."  Here's Simmons and the nurses working it:

Nurses' ballroom blitz

Speaking of nurses, The Nurses' Ball is a "GH" tradition dating back to 1994, when Lucy Coe (played by Lynn Herring) first hosted the gala to raise money for AIDS charities. But according to the AIDS resource website The Body, the idea for the annual storyline actually stemmed from a 1993 plea from soap actor Neil Tadken, who urged the 10 daytime dramas of the era to promote awareness and include an AIDS or HIV mention on June 21 of that year. (On "General Hospital," Nurse Bobbie Spencer counseled a woman with AIDS.) Daytime TV's "Day of Compassion" continued with the launch of the annual Nurses' Ball.

In honor of the show's 50th, the fictional HIV/AIDS awareness fundraiser will partner with a real charity, The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). According to TV Guide, this year's soiree will include the return of Rick Springfield as Dr. Noah Drake (and yes, he'll belt out "Jessie's Girl"), as well as fan faves Frisco Jones (Jack Wagner), Bobbie Spencer (Jackie Zeman), and Richard Simmons.

[Related: Rick Springfield, Son Liam Springthorpe Talk 'General Hospital']

But what about John Stamos, who says he was approached by "GH" head honchos to return to the role of Blackie and appear at the ball to play drums while Springfield sings? In an interview on "The Jeff Probst Show," Stamos said he passed on the rockin' reunion. But he did have a suggestion for the soap: "Why don't we pull Blackie out of jail [where he's been for 30 years], and he has to get reacclimated to life? He's never been with a girl!"

Still, don't totally count Stamos out -- especially since he was recently spotted hanging out at the "GH" studios. (Although he claims he was just "visiting" old pals Kin Shriner and Genie Francis!)

"General Hospital's" 50th anniversary episodes featuring the Nurses' Ball will air on 4/4, 4/5, and 4/8 at 2 PM ET on ABC.

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