The first woman I met in line outside of the Passions: Fan Festival on Sunday morning was having sort of a shitty day. She'd left Big Bear at the buttcrack of dawn to make it to the Dave & Buster's at Hollywood & Highland by 8 a.m. and, in her haste, had slipped on the freshly mopped stars on the Walk of Fame. It wasn't until she was on the third level and we were talking that she realized the fall had caused her to drop her copy of Hidden Passions, a mock diary written in the voice of the show's resident witch, Tabitha Lenox. It was almost as if someone had put a curse on her …
Daytime soap operas have always been known for out-there, over-the-top (not to mention excessively prolonged) storylines, but then in 1999, veteran soap writer James E. Reilly was like, “Hold my beer,” and Passions premiered in July of that year on NBC. Reilly was the genius behind the controversial but memorable Days of Our Lives storyline that involved Marlena Evans becoming possessed by a demon, and when Another World bit the dust, the network replaced it with Reilly's epic supernatural saga about the residents of a fictional village called Harmony, from the upper-crusty, WASPy Crane family down through various social strata to the scrappy (and sexy), patriarch-deprived Lopez-Fitzgeralds.
You're not gonna believe this, but there was no harmony in Harmony! In the very first episode, a glowing child angel appears to Grace Bennett, one of the show's 1,700 main characters, while she's sleeping to let her know that evil is afoot. By episode five, mischievous witch Tabitha shouts at a doll enough times to make it come to life as a real boy named Timmy, played by teenage achondroplasiac dwarf Josh Ryan Evans (skip to 17:43 in the video below). In subsequent episodes and seasons, an orangutan nurse lusts after hot Latino police officer Luis, an intersex victim of incest gives birth to his father's child, and a doppelganger zombie takes over the life of hospitalized sweetheart Charity.
Passions was the last true daytime soap to premiere in the United States, but it was comparatively short-lived, canceled in 2007 after only eight years so NBC could extend the Today show by yet another hour. Basically, we had horny apes and magic and now we have Kathy Lee and Hoda bullshitting and swilling wine.
As a budding camp aficionado who'd blossom into a full-grown adult woman with a monthly subscription to the Lifetime Movie Club and an abiding love for low production values, I caught on to Passions early in its run. I started watching soaps during lazy middle school and high school summers, and Passions happened to premiere during the excessively lazy summer between my junior and senior years of high school, one day after my 17th birthday. I continued to watch in my dorm room during my freshman year of college, until life intervened and I had to do gross stuff like study and get a job (including a short, horrifying stint as a waitress at Dave & Buster's, coincidentally). I'd consider myself a casual fan, even though my recollection of the specifics is vague, but I can say decisively that I would not show up for a fan event at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning if I weren't curious who the hell would show up for a fan event at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
The answer: roughly 100 fervent fans (plus some friends and family of the show) who'd traveled from as far away as Wisconsin and New Jersey, and about three-quarters of the show's principal cast. While the cast members — among them McKenzie Westmore (Princess Diana's best friend, Sheridan Crane), Lindsay Hartley (persistent romantic schemer Theresa Lopez-Fitzgerald) and Juliet Mills (Tabitha) — spoke to a handful of reporters from soap opera networks in front of a Dave & Buster's–branded step-and-repeat backdrop, attendees sat scattered at high-top tables eating a brunch of scrambled eggs and baked goods while Christina Aguilera begged for her bottle to be rubbed at an inappropriate morning volume.
Attending alone was fitness trainer Len Whitney, who counted Passions director Phideaux Xavier among his clients in the “good old days,” when they'd talk about the show during training sessions. Whitney tells me he was partial to the Charity-zombie storyline and that he preferred second Gwen to first Gwen (he prefaced the statement by warning me it might be “unpopular”). First Gwen, played by Susan Lucci's daughter Liza Huber, was in attendance — second Gwen was not, sadly.
Elsewhere in the dining room, I sat down with friends Alex and Casey, who wouldn't give me their last names because they don't necessarily want the world knowing they went to a Passions fan festival, which I can totally understand. The two met during their freshman year of college at McGill University in Montreal the year the show premiered and bonded over their mutual affection for the program's willful disregard for reality. “We'd go to early classes, go home to take naps and wake up in the middle of this nonsense,” Casey recalls. “I hadn't been into soaps,” Alex says. “I was like, 'Are all soaps like this?' The answer is no.” They came to the fest because the idea of attending a Passions fan event seemed so deeply ridiculous that they couldn't resist. Plus it was an excuse for Alex, who lives in Portland, to visit Casey in L.A.
Alex wryly says that the crowd seems like a “prismatic representation” of Passions fandom, and the two kind of keep to themselves. They know that they know they're there because the show is campy and ridiculous and they get that, but does everyone here get that? And will people think they don't get that?
At the after-brunch panel, it was abundantly clear that the cast, at least, is very aware that the show was insane. Everyone laughed through the 10-minute clip blitz that preempted the cast Q&A, but there were moments of reverence too, particularly when it came to Josh Ryan Evans, the actor who played Timmy, who died during heart surgery after three years on the show. Referring to Evans as her “little darling,” Mills recalled that she and Evans always had an early call to makeup, much to his chagrin since he wasn't an early riser. He got the nickname “Grumpy” and later took to wearing a ball cap that said “Grumpy” to set in the mornings. To Mills' recollection, Evans passed away the very same day his character passed away on the show. Westmore recalls being Evans' first kiss (he'd later brag to Galen Gering — aka Luis Lopez-Fitzgerald — that Westmore had told him he was the better kisser).
There were horror stories, too, like the time Westmore's character Sheridan was trapped in a pit for six months and had to wear the same costume every day, and they wouldn't clean it for continuity (which, if you've seen the show, is sort of a hilarious pretense). She says that to this day she can't stand the smell of Febreze.
After an hour or so of reminiscing, the cast members and fans filed out of the conference room and back into a less fun world where supernatural storytelling has been replaced with judge shows and Steve Wilkos' parade of meth-heads on daytime TV. Mostly, I just hope Big Bear lady felt like her morning of nostalgia was worth the trip.