In 1994, General Hospital launched the Nurses Ball as a way to bring awareness to AIDS/HIV in a pre-cocktail world when the disease was still very much in the headlines. For years, Port Charles characters annually displayed their musical talents against a backdrop of drama and cliffhangers.
Alas, the show-within-the-show faded away over the years as regimes changed and budgets shrank. Executive producer Frank Valentini and then-head writer Ron Carlivati (now top scribe at Days Of Our Lives) revived the ball in 2013 and it’s been on every year since. The gala wouldn’t be the same without Lynn Herring (Lucy Coe), who brings both effervescent showmanship and genuine compassion to her role as the ball’s Mistress of Ceremonies.
TV Insider spoke to Herring about this year’s Nurses Ball (which starts airing tomorrow, Friday, May 17), how soaps have changed, and more! Read on to get the scoop!
How did you feel when the Nurses Ball came back in 2013?
Lynn Herring: It was so exciting. The originals were so special. I hated that it had disappeared. Frank and Ron bringing it back was handing the viewers a gift. People were out of their minds with anticipation. You can never go back and recreate exactly what you had, but you can honor it and make it up to date. I love the new ones we’ve done and I’ve loved participating in them!
How have you seen the Nurses Ball change, production-wise in these economically-challenged times?
When we were shooting this year’s ball, we were laughing so hard with some of the people who’d been with the ones in the 1990s. We recalled camping out overnight in dressing rooms because we’d finish at 2 a.m. and have to be back by 5! We had tables that covered the entire stage. I thought I’d miss that and we do. But I’m in awe of the quality of acts and the way they come together so quickly. Frank and the writers and the production team make it all come together so quickly. It’s not comparable because it’s a new era. All we’re doing is trying to give the audience the best entertainment we can at a price we can afford and I think we’ve succeeded. I love it!
It’s different, but the same.
Yes, the intent is the same -- the good will, bringing the town together, publicizing World AIDS Day and the need for AIDS research. The heartfelt moments are still there.
One of the fun parts of watching was to see how Lucy was going to inadvertently end up being seen by everyone as she was in various states of undress!
[Laughs] Yes. We decided last year it was a little bit inappropriate to do that. It didn’t fit with the staging. This year, there’s one little beat that’s a throwback to that. I think the audience will love it!
Did you have multiple gown changes going back to the first Nurses Ball?
One time, Luke [Anthony Geary] had Lucy do a striptease on a bar and I threw my shoe off and he started bidding on it. That gave Lucy the idea for the Nurses Ball. The following year, Bob Miller [the show’s then-costumer] ran with the idea of Lucy having more gowns and to show the glamour. A few years later, it got really crazy with 10 or more gowns. Bob is so creative. I’d just get so excited seeing him flip the pages [of all his sketches]. They were so spectacular. Shawn Reeves, who’s our costumer designer now, can’t do the same with today’s budgets, but he comes up with the most amazing dresses!
Did you ever get to keep any of them? Did you have a favorite?
No, I never kept any of them. [Some] were on display down at Disney at the [now defunct] Soap Opera Bistro. Some were in different charity auctions. Shawn makes our budget work because he rents or leases and also creates them. I enjoy the moment I’m in them. I could never pick a favorite dress – it’d be like picking a favorite child.
It’s very admirable that the message of the Nurses Ball doesn’t get lost amidst the musical numbers and the storylines. Lucy’s speeches do not omit that AIDS/HIV is still a very real issue.
It’s so important to be able to express that this is still a huge issue across the world in less privileged areas and that research dollars are important. People see Magic Johnson surviving and thriving [and] he had the ability and the wherewithal and the finances to get the exact treatment that everyone deserves. I hope we keep pouring money in until nobody needs it. The writers have done brilliant speeches for Lucy saying that we’re not done yet and to not give up the fight. I love that they’ve done that.
A lot of the past Nurses Ball episodes from the last six years are available on ABC.com.
Yes! I get so many questions about past years. It’s great that people can go back and see them. The performances hold up!
Can you talk about how Lucy was introduced and how stories unfolded back then? She went from a shy librarian to vixen to the woman we love today.
The space and breadth they used to allow the characters to have gave the audience a chance to either hate them whole-heartedly, but also see a reason for the story, or they’d fall madly in love with the characters as they did with Tony Geary’s Luke. It’s not “dated,” but it’s also not possible [to do that] now because of the speed of the Internet…You don’t get to delve into the deepest part of characters [the way we used to do].
I was having a wonderful conversation with Josh [Swickard, Chase] and Katelyn [MacMullen, Willow] about this when we were taping the ball. They asked what do you attribute the longevity of actors including Kin [Shriner, Scotty], Genie ]Francis, Laura], and myself. I said, “You have to have a secret, and even when the material is light or you feel like the audience isn’t enjoying it, you have to invest your soul into it so that you have a little bit of an edge or a twinkle that’s not the average choice.” In years past, we did have the luxury of that stretch of the story. They’re curious as to how to do that with [today’s pace]. So, it was so much fun to talk about adding a quirk or something that may not have been written, but you play it so that the audience can see into the character. You have to do that now or you’re just going to disappear in a fizzle.
I think the onus today is more on [the actors] to engage the audience and capture them. It’s much harder today. I had the luxury of 10-page scenes [years ago], You have to find the beats between the lines to make the audience want to see those characters more.
You were back to GH in 2004 for Lila’s [the late Anne Lee] funeral. And then not again until 2013. But, to some viewers, it was like no time had passed.
I had so much fun. And I had no idea how much I missed Lucy! As wacky as Lucy gets and as fun as it is to play her, you can only cry so much. Sometimes you just want to laugh. When they allow me to step in and do stuff it felt so good. It was so easy because I love playing her.
Jon’s [Lindstrom, who plays Kevin/Ryan] has been doing an amazing job in his dual role and every time they involve you, John J. York [who plays Mac], and Kristina [Wagner, who plays Felicia], it adds gravitas to the whole story.
We really love it. Genie and I had a scene recently. She said, “We need a story together. Remember how we were going to do the spa? What happened to that?” Things go by the wayside for many reasons. We thought maybe it’d be interesting if Lucy and Laura both lost Kevin. That would give them all another big emotional beat. I think sometimes we don’t give the 50 and over crowd that potential. But it’s there, it’s ever on the cusp.
A show can never go wrong playing the vets.
I think [viewers] still like [us] because more families watch together. It starts conversations and that’s lovely.
How’s Wayne [Northrup, Herring’s husband, who played Roman on DAYS and Michael on the original Dynasty]? Has the new Dynasty on The CW reached out to him for to do a guest spot yet?
That would be fun! I’m sure he’d jump at it! Pamela Sue Martin [Fallon] reaches out every now and then to say hi. Wayne being on [the original] Dynasty was a great time in our lives. We’d just gotten married. We met Linda [Evans, Krystle] and George [Peppard], who played the role of Blake in the pilot before John Forsythe was cast. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven!
General Hospital, Weekdays, ABC