During the 1990-91 recession I was working as an independent video producer with a limited portfolio of clients—mostly environmental groups, social service agencies and a couple of hospitals. With business slowing down to a crawl, I decided to sign up with a temporary secretarial agency and try my hand at “temping” as a clerical worker until the economy improved.
After filling out some forms and punching my way through a typing test on a hefty IBM Selectric, I sat down with my placement specialist, a conservatively dressed middle-aged women with an optimistic smile. “You’ve worked in television,” she declared enthusiastically. “We can send you to one of the movie studios.”
“That’s not necessary,” I said. “The first opening you have is fine.”
A few days later she called with the news that she had landed me an assignment at the Burbank Studios. “Ken Corday’s secretary is sick,” she explained. “How soon can you get there?”
Long Days Journey
If I knew anything about Days of Our Lives before I drove on the studio lot that morning, it certainly wasn’t the name of the executive producer. But Corday was quick to introduce himself. I later learned that his parents had started the daytime drama in 1965 when he was a teenager. And although his real love was music, not television, he had taken over the family business in 1981.
“I’m waiting for a phone call,” he said. “It’s the most important call you will ever answer.”
He explained that he was pitching a primetime drama to NBC and had it on good authority that one of the network’s top executives would be calling to discuss the idea.
“Whatever you do, make sure you put the call through,” he said. “Don’t put him on hold.”
It was my introduction to Hollywood telephone etiquette, one of the most important skills a secretary can master. The rules of the game are simple: When brokering a phone call between two people, it is considered a gross insult to ask the person with greater status to wait for the other person to come on the line.
In a land of legendary egos, the trick is figuring out who gets the greater amount of deference.
Needless to say, it made for a stressful day. Every time the phone rang, I had to weigh the power deferential between the caller and Corday. It helped if another secretary was placing the call. “Remind me,” I’d say, trying to sound snobbish. “What does your boss do?” If the caller was a network or studio executive, I would put Corday on the line first. But, if it was an agent, writer or actor calling, they’d have to hold the line, if Corday took the call at all.
I don’t know how it is today, but back then no executive in Hollywood would think of dialing a phone. If they needed to reach someone, they would direct their secretary to set it up.
Corday had the habit of simply yelling out when he needed to talk with someone. “Get me Al Rabin,” he would shout, or “Get me Gene Palumbo.” I’d consult the Roladex file on the desk outside his office and make the call.
The only time he threw me was when he angrily yelled, “Get me the bitch!”
“Yes sir,” I said, confidently. But almost immediately I realized I was in a quandary. I picked up the phone but had no idea whose number to dial. As the dial tone sounded in my ear, I considered my options. Could he be referring to his wife? Perhaps he was going through a divorce. That seemed a dangerous assumption to make. And how would he react if I dialed his wife when he meant someone else?
Then I remembered hearing talk around the office that Corday was having difficulty enticing actress Deidre Hall to return to the show. Hall was driving a hard bargain, apparently, demanding she reprise the role of Dr. Marlena Evans rather than play a new character.
A few minutes later, I had the call lined up. “Miss Hall on line 2,” I told Corday.
From what I could hear of the conversation, the two got along famously. They joked easily with each other, and Corday invited Hall to dinner before hanging up.
I was sure I had made a huge mistake and began filling out my timecard.
Corday appeared in the doorway of his office and looked at me with an appraising eye.
“You’re good,” he said with a smile.
He didn’t actually admit that Hall was the person he had in mind for the call. But he didn’t ask me to connect him with anyone else.
Over the next two years I worked for Corday every few months, whenever his secretary took a day off or went on vacation. In what I’m sure he considered a compliment, he said he liked having me fill in because I had just the right balance of independence and subservience. I stayed out of his way, but was never far if he needed something. And I could be relied on not to ask too many questions.
Today, Days of Our Lives is one of the longest-running daytime dramas in the world, having aired more than 12,000 episodes. Deidre Hall remains a fixture on the show in a role she has played for more than three decades.