Athens’ Own Soap Opera, Where Reality Met The Unreal

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This month marks the 30th anniversary of the beginning of a saga that included the kidnapping of an Athens orphan and the wrongful conviction of a local man, Alan Starr, on charges of kidnapping the youth and murdering the woman who cared for the teenager.

Well, not really.

That was just part of the very-convoluted plot of 45701, an Athens-produced soap opera known for mixing reality with make believe.

The first episode aired on June 21, 1984, on cable access television in Athens.

The soap opera was the brainchild of two friends, Jim Murray and Christine Tom.

“We started it together,” Tom recalled. “The first episode was filmed in my kitchen.”

The soap opera was created at a time when community access television was relatively new in Athens.

“We discovered access TV,” Murray said of the show’s beginnings. “We said, ‘oh, we can make a soap opera!’”

They recruited cast members from the community.

“All our friends were in it,” Tom said. So was her son, Jason Grey, who portrayed the teenaged orphan Ditch — so nicknamed, according to Tom, because he fell off a turnip truck and into a ditch.

Tom portrayed Connee, who was raising Ditch. (Oh, and by the way, Ditch had amnesia and wore a Walkman with an orientation tape reminding him of who he was and where he was going.)

Murray portrayed a central character, Alan Starr, a Corvette-driving talent scout who at one point was wrongly convicted of kidnapping Ditch and killing Connee (as it turned out, both were fine).

Another character was Nadeen, portrayed by Betty Markey, who was partially bionic, occasionally needed a boost with jumper cables and sometimes hung out in the appliance section of department stores.

This was definitely not Days of Our Lives or The Young and the Restless.

Actors weren’t tied to a script as long as they hit the main plot points, according to Murray. The plot had a lot of twists and turns.

“We sort of made it up as we went,” he said.

As the name of the show implies, Athens itself played a central role in the show.

“We turned the characters loose in the community,” Murray recalled.

Tom, as Connee, competed in the National Jigsaw Puzzle Contest held in Athens, for example.

Murray’s character, Alan Starr, wrote letters to the editor and spoke at an Athens City Council meeting — actions that, according to Murray, upset some people.

An article in The Athens Messenger that was published before the first episode aired included quotes from Producer Scott Gordon. The problem was, “Scott Gordon” didn’t exist, at least not by that name. Murray used the name Scott Gordon when he produced the show, the name Kid Woodson when he edited the show and the screen name Dusty Brooks when he portrayed character Alan Starr.

This looseness with names caused a bit of a problem when Murray had an article about the show accepted for publication in TV Guide that quoted Gordon.

A fact-checker from the magazine called and wanted to speak to Gordon, and, in typical 45701 fashion, Murray had another actor from the show pretend to be Gordon and talk to TV Guide, Murray recalled.

The show received cooperation from the community and from local officials. Charles Ping, then president of Ohio University, agreed to appear in a scene shot during OU’s Homecoming parade, according to Murray.

Then-mayor Sara Hendricker appeared in a special episode shot in 1989 that reunited the cast, as did then-police chief Rick Mayer. Hendricker said she recently ran across a copy she has of the 1989 episode.

“I don’t think I had seen it since 1989, until last night,” Hendricker said in an e-mail. “It’s a pretty funny sendup of the more rigorous code enforcement efforts we tried to put in place.”

Hendricker, who now lives in Texas, said she still keeps tabs on news in Athens, and is amazed at how issues seem to recycle.

“The original scripts for 45701 probably could be used again,” she joked.

Murray recalled an incident in which the crew was blocking a street while shooting a scene and a police cruiser rolled up. The police officer ended up being incorporated into the show.

“We never turned anyone down who wanted to be in the series,” Murray said. “We would create story lines around whoever wanted to be in it.”

Cooperation of the community was important, Murray said.

“It was amazing,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing this anywhere but Athens.”

The original series consisted of 15 episodes, plus three half-hour special presentations, according to a history of the show that appeared in a booklet that accompanied the 1989 exhibit Fabricating Realities: A Video/Fresco Project.

The 1989 project reunited the cast for a final one-hour episode, which, in true fabricating-reality fashion, was titled “Episode 214: Patron.”

The 1989 project, funded with a grant from the Ohio Arts Council and conceived by Murray and OU art historian Marilyn Bradshaw, incorporated the soap opera and the making of frescos, and included an exhibit at OU’s Trisolini Gallery.

People who want to get an idea of what 45701 was like can go to the website, where “Episode 214” is available as well as clips from the original series.

Murray indicated that watching the full series — if it were available — might prove disappointing to the viewer.