Claire Labine and Paul Mayer
Can a Soap Opera Find Happiness in Brooklyn?
The New York Times, April 11, 1978
by Judy Klemesrud
It is 12:30 PM, and many people on Berkeley Place in Brooklyn are tuning in the soap opera "Ryan's Hope." It's a favorite in this brownstone-lined neighborhood in Park Slope because many of its residents have appeared on the television serial as extras. A 3-year-old boy-next-door named Jadrien Steele has a continuing role. And some of the soap's characters are based on local characters.
There is a reason: "Ryan's Hope," which won four Emmy awards last year, is turned out in a brownstone at Berkeley Place. Its creators are 43-year-old Claire Labine, who lives in the brownstone with her husband and three children, and her partner, Paul Avila Mayer, 49, who drives over every morning from Manhattan.
The writing couple spends much of the day - with a half-hour lunch break at 12:30 to watch "Ryan's Hope" - sitting on brown leather couches in the brownstone's study and thrashing out the future trials and tribulations of the Ryans, a fictional Irish family that owns a bar across from a city hospital on the Upper West Side.
Do the partners ever fight while creating? "Yes, loudly," Mrs. Labine replied. "But it's never personal. It's always about story differences or what the characters should do. Sometimes I burst into tears of rage, and Paul leaves for the day."
"Yes, we do seem to ventilate something," Mr. Mayer added with a smile.
The two partners, who are also the serial's executive producers, said they got their plot ideas from various sources, including friends, relatives, neighbors, and newspapers. ("We'll steal from anybody," Mrs. Labine said lightly.) One regular source is her mother, 79-year-old Madeleine Wood, who lives with the Labines in their 13-room brownstone, which was once an Irish boardinghouse.
"All I can say is that Paul and Claire have diabolical imaginations," Mrs. Wood said the other day. She was wearing pink plastic curlers in her silver hair as she and the family watched an episode of "Ryan's Hope" in which Delia Ryan, the serial's "bad girl," was feigning blindness in an attempt to keep her straying husband's interest.
As soon as the episode ended, the telephone rang. It was Mr. Mayer's 14-year-old daughter, Ruth, calling from Manhattan. "Is Tom Desmond really dead?" she asked, referring to a character on the serial who may or may not be dead. "He's the only cute character you've got!"
"I can't tell you, tune in tomorrow," her father told her, grinning devilishly.
Mrs. Labine and Mr. Mayer have been writing together since 1971, when they met as dialogue writers on the old soap opera "Where the Heart Is." She was a tall, dark-haired young actress out of the University of Kentucky when she found that parts for six-foot-tall ingenues were a bit hard to come by. He was a Harvard-educated son of a film-writing father and had never wanted to do anything but write.
They later wrote for "Love of Life" and "City Hospital," and then one day officials of ABC asked them to create a soap of their own. They decided to set it in New York, rather than in the usual tranquil town in the Middle West, and to use realistic dialogue and, they said, "true-to-life" stories. "Ryan's Hope" went on the air July 7, 1975.
The serial, which is now also syndicated in Australia and Canada, has always been "very pro New York," Mr. Mayer said. "We don't bad-mouth the city, and we don't let any characters on the show bad-mouth the city - unless, of course, it involves the Mets' prospects."
The partners, who jointly gross more than $250,000 a year, outline the plot and write many of the episodes for "Ryan's Hope." Additional dialogue is written by Mary Munisteri, who also lives in Park Slope, and Judith Pinsker. The serial is taped at an ABC studio on West 53rd Street, which the partners say they visit once a week "just to keep in touch with everybody."
But the heavy creative work is done in the Brooklyn brownstone because Mrs. Labine and Mr. Mayer said they felt it was best to "keep a certain distance" from the other members of the highly competitive soap opera industry, and because Mrs. Labine likes doing the cooking and shopping for her family.
Her husband is R.A. (Clem) Labine, who edits The Old House Journal in a back room of the 95-year-old brownstone. The Journal, which has a monthly circulation of 22,000, is devoted to the preservation and restoration of old houses.
The writing arrangement generally works out well, Mr. Mayer said, except that his wife, the actress Sasha Von Scherter, sometimes complain that he is spending too much time with Mrs. Labine. "She mentions it about once a day," he said with a grin. "It's hard on her, it's hard on my kids. But, at the same time, I keep saying, 'But Claire's taller than I am!'"
[FYI: This article contains a misnomer: City Hospital was the working title for Ryan's Hope, not an actual show for which Labine, Mayer, or anyone else worked.]
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