09/24/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
Nestled in the coastal foothills north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara projects a manicured image of quiet gentility. You'd never know there was all this messy adultery, rape, incest and S&M going on against the backdrop of polo fields, racetracks, theaters, beaches and concert halls that have served as playgrounds for the rich and powerful for the better part of a century. Of course, Bridget and Jerry Dobson knew. Santa Barbara residents for nine years, the couple sold NBC on the idea of pumping upwards of $40 million into a weekly soap, which began on July 30. Since then they've been exaggerating—as TV soaps will—the best and worst aspects of the city.
As successful writers for General Hospital and As The World Turns, the Dobsons know a fertile setting when they find one, even if it's their own backyard. "I don't know why Santa Barbara hasn't been done before on TV," says Bridget. "It isn't just wealth here, it's extreme wealth." Adds husband Jerry: "Everybody does his own thing, whether playing polo or knifing someone in the back."
It's the polo set the Dobsons care about. Their show mostly ignores the typical citizens of Santa Barbara (whose average income falls below the national average) and concentrates on the lavish neighborhoods of Montecito and Hope Ranch, which lie just outside the city limits. Montecito, with its numerous architectural landmark houses, sits in the heart of verdant hills overlooking the sea and backed by the Santa Ynez Mountains. Hope Ranch, with 30 miles of riding trails, is located on the wooded peninsula. Happily for the Dobsons, the residents' list reads like a Who's Who. Once an enclave of the old-money families—the Armours, the Fleischmanns, the du Ponts and the Cudahys—the nouveau cash includes the Shah of Iran's sister, Princess Shams, who lives in the old Lolita Armour estate in Montecito, and Essam Khashoggi, whose home is on the exclusive Hope Ranch. And Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo is 20 miles outside town.
Show-business personalities also litter the landscape: John Travolta, Bo and John Derek, Gene Hackman, Kenny Loggins, Lena Home, Steve Martin and tennis ace Roscoe Tanner, to name just a few. "When you go shopping in Von's market, it looks like a SAG meeting," says actor Bradford Dillman. It's a disturbing trend to Santa Barbara's older residents, who were attracted to the privacy promised by an area so far (100 miles) from Hollywood. That's also why few are pleased with the notoriety inspired by the NBC soap. "Once you name a show Santa Barbara, people start to recognize themselves," Bridget says. They don't always like what they see. Longtime Santa Barbara resident Judith Anderson (see following story) doesn't see herself as the bitch she plays on the show. She thinks it's fun.
Other citizens are not so sanguine. "People here who know about the show are appalled," says Beverly Jackson, society columnist of the Santa Barbara News-Press. "We had the Loud family [the subject of a PBS docudrama] several years ago and we're just living that down." Chances are they will live down the soap as well—or at least outlive it (early ratings are far from promising).
The setting and climate have drawn people to Santa Barbara ever since it was acquired from Mexico in 1846. Santa Barbara even had its own film industry: In 1913 the American Film Company built the largest movie studio in the world there, featuring such stars as "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. The studio made more than 1,200 movies, in which Montecito estates doubled for English manor houses and French châteaus.
Santa Barbara nearly came tumbling down at 6:42 a.m. on June 29, 1925, when the downtown buildings were leveled by an earthquake that took 13 lives, twisted the railroad tracks and unleashed 40 million gallons of precious water from the reservoir. When the city was reconstructed, an architectural board determined that buildings must have pitched red-tile roofs and plaster walls of Mediterranean earth tones. "Down with the ugly, up with the lovely" was the motto of the board, which also banned all billboards and garish signs. Today the ban extends to population, limited to 85,000 because of water shortages. Montecito simply will not permit any new water hookups.
About the only thing the Santa Barbarans can't keep out is NBC. Right now the soap, however much it caricatures the city, is about as close a look as an outsider can hope to get. NBC isn't worried about reprisals. "Why should they be?" asks Bridget. "If anyone gets sued, it will be us."
SANTA BARBARA'S GRANDEST DAME
Seeing Dame Judith Anderson on an afternoon soap is sort of like finding Queen Elizabeth at Archie's Place. But there she is on NBC's Santa Barbara playing Minx Lockridge, a haughty, contentious grande dame who's fighting to maintain her family's dwindling fortune and reputation. Feisty ole Minx shakes her finger a lot and carries a riding whip to whomp out-of-line servants and family members. ("The whip was my idea," Anderson boasts.) Of her latest character, the legendary actress says, "She's strong and tweedy, naughty and amusing. I'm having a good time playing her."
A role of such high camp is certainly a switch for Anderson, the first Australian-born actress to be elevated to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. But she says she's not slumming. "I don't see any conflict with doing a soap, and I certainly don't see any comedown." Her only complaint about Santa Barbara was the original first name of her character. At Anderson's insistence it was changed from Birdie to Minx. "Do I look like a Birdie to you?" Anderson asks. "Birdies are wispy old maids who have never experienced anything." Her salary should qualify as a new kick—around $5,000 per week. "Don't talk to me about money," she growls, like a true Santa Barbaran. "It's so ugly."
It's no coincidence that the actress, who is a British subject, resides in Santa Barbara. The series' co-executive producers and head writers, Bridget and Jerome Dobson, are Anderson's longtime acquaintances, and in fact created the Lockridge role and its grand trappings especially for her. It's not an easy fit: Anderson's own U-shaped, English-style cottage is as unpretentious as its owner. The living-room furniture has slipcovers. A French chair is a chewing post for Bozo, her dachshund.
Twice divorced, Anderson now lives alone. "Don't mention my marriages [University of California professor Benjamin Harrison Lehman and theatrical producer Luther Greene]," she says. "They were both disastrous. Ugly and horrible. Despicable. They were very short, but too long." Her passion now is gardening, but because of her schedule she can't spend much time tending her beloved flowers. "The gardener doesn't know anything," she says. "I've got to stand over him and tell him how to plant. He'll just take a pack of seeds and pour them out, and, of course, they can't breathe. They can't live. Maybe one will come up."
It will, if it knows what's good for it. Dame Judith usually gets what she wants. She recalls coming to America with her mother in 1918 "with very little money or looks." Just determination. Never the ingenue, she tackled the heavy, meatier roles. Just 14 years ago she did a cross-country tour of Hamlet, playing the Prince. "I've done very little comedy," she says. "Just look at my face. Babies think it's funny. I know that. But it lends itself to drama."
Her stage work has surpassed her sporadic film career. "I don't know how to act in front of a camera," she says. "I'm used to the freedom of the gesture. If I want to do that [she throws out her arm], I'll do that." Her physical condition has also hampered her. At 5'3", 102 pounds, she says she's shrinking. And the mention of her age (86) makes her livid. "Please don't print it. The kids of today, if they see it, they'll say, 'I don't want to see that old crock!' "
It was a kid—Anderson's grand-nephew, Peter Valentine, 16—who inspired her current pop-culture phase by persuading her to play the Vulcan high priestess in last summer's Star Trek III. "Peter had seen me in Hamlet and Macbeth and had no reaction. But he heard that Mr. Nimoy had come up to see me and cried, 'Auntie Judy! Star Trek! Don't you know you'd get a whole new audience?' And right he was. He had such enthusiasm and passion about it. He said he'd cut me out of his will if I didn't do it."
As for commuting to L.A. for Santa Barbara, which requires several long days of shooting, Anderson says, "I'm cutting down on all sorts of things, like entertainment. I've never enjoyed parties. That's a lie. I used to love them when I was young." Thoughts of youth move her to eloquence. She quotes from a letter she once received from the late poet Robinson Jeffers: "I'm like a leafless tree, waiting for the trunk to fall." Then she qualifies the sentiment. "Well, that's what I would be like if I didn't work," she says. "If nobody wanted me."
Despite Anderson's majestic presence, Santa Barbara has yet to win the ratings war against ABC's General Hospital and CBS' Guiding Light. Anderson herself admits her favorite soap is General Hospital, to which she's been addicted for 20 years and which she does not plan to give up. Whether or not Santa Barbara makes it hardly matters to Anderson's résumé. In her 69-year career on stage, on TV and in the movies, she's specialized in bringing to full boil a caldron of searing, seething, emotionally scalded women from Medea to Mrs. Danvers, the malevolent housekeeper who booga-boogas Joan Fontaine in Hitchcock's Rebecca. Now comes Minx Lockridge. To friends and critics who say, "But, really, how could you?" Anderson responds archly: "What do you want me to do? Sit here and rot?"