|MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Inquirer Staff Photographer
Erica and me: In his Philly townhouse, Dan J. Kroll tapes soaps for later review on his Soap Central.
Fans of Soap Central have come to expect timely casting and plot alerts about their favorite daytime dramas from the Web site. And they get a little steamed when that doesn't happen.
"I get these angry messages, saying, 'You should fire all the people who work for you,' " says Dan J. Kroll, the site's founder. "It's a great compliment that people think that this is the product of a large organization. They don't realize it's just me in my pajamas trying to get the items done so I can go get something to eat."
That's right, a Web site with more than 1.25 million unique visitors per month is the handiwork of a sole soap fanatic, toiling away in his townhouse in Philadelphia.
On this steamy June afternoon, Kroll, 33, is preparing to leave for Friday's Daytime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, the soap industry's big night.
For the first time, you'll be able to see video of the event on Soap Central.
"This year, I plan to take the camera and show red-carpet interviews with the stars, acceptance speeches, after-parties and things of that nature," Kroll says.
Despite the site's professional look, Kroll learned his videography skills from the same person who taught him about graphics and programming and all other aspects of online presentation: himself.
Necessity is the mother of Web design.
"I handle most of the advertising," he says. "I handle all the graphics. Everything people see on the Web site has been a learning process."
There isn't a lot of downtime when you're editor, publisher and chief bottle-washer. "I get very touchy about what I do," says the soap savant. "It drives me berserk when people say, 'You sit home and watch TV all day.' I'm sure they don't understand how much time goes into contacting the shows, arranging interviews with the stars, creating the graphics, writing the news stories, and making sure everything is updated."
How Kroll became a preeminent Internet soap clearinghouse is a story with more improbable twists than a month of Days of Our Lives.
"I grew up hating soaps," the Allentown native says. "I remember coming home from school, and my grandmother was watching Another World. I just couldn't figure out what the appeal was."
The biggest serial fan in the house was his father, who followed All My Children before heading off to work the second shift as a mechanic at a brewery in Allentown.
It wasn't until Irene Ng, a 10th-grade classmate, was cast on that ABC soap that the boy decided to sample his father's afternoon delight.
Ng was let go after two weeks when the show abruptly decided to change her character from victim to viper. But the younger Kroll was hooked.
"I had never seen a storyline about an evil twin who threw her sister down a mine shaft," he says. Ah, the tempestuous relationship between Janet and Natalie! "It kind of blew my mind. I kept watching to see where it would go, not realizing that on soaps it would take months to get resolved."
Very quickly, he was exhibiting classic symptoms of addiction. "Long after my classmate was gone [from the cast], I remember halfway through the day realizing I had forgotten to set the VCR to record All My Children," he says. "So I had to find an excuse to be sent home from school."
There was a period of forced withdrawal when Kroll enrolled at Temple as a premed student. TV reception in his dorm was dreadful.
"Channel 6 came in so grainy," he recalls. "It always overlapped with the signal from another channel, so for the longest time it looked like Susan Lucci was sleeping with Benson."
His life changed irrevocably in 1994 when he was attacked and beaten unconscious on a SEPTA subway platform while looking for off-campus housing.
Back in Allentown to recover, he began playing around in the still sketchy sandbox of the Internet. He set up a home page with sections about himself, Philly and All My Children. It soon became apparent that no one was interested in the first two categories.
So, AMC Pages was born. At the request of readers, he gradually added daily recaps and news about other shows.
"I didn't plan to make money off the Web site," he says. "It was a hobby. But it was becoming a really expensive hobby. I decided I couldn't go back to Temple -- the whole association thing. So I got a job [in Philly].
"It was great having Internet experience. I was a pioneer of coding," he says, "and a lot of people needed that. I did some work as an Internet designer and got into advertising in a backdoor way. After working eight hours at a job, I would come home and do eight hours on the Web site."
Gradually his labor of love, rebranded soapcentral, gathered enough visitors and advertisers to allow Kroll to quit his job and devote all his time to the site.
He soon discovered how zealous soap opera fans can be about their "stories."
"It used to be that the fans of Days of Our Lives and General Hospital were the ones that were the most passionate, but now I think that every soap has its share of over-the-top fans," he says.
"Sometimes in reading their e-mail, I think that fans have forgotten that the people they are watching on television every day are actors. Somewhere, the line between reality and fiction gets blurred -- maybe because they are seeing the people five days a week, every week of the year.
"To me it is often a little scary. It's not quite like all the fans you see on television who were crying and passing out at a Michael Jackson concert, but it's kind of on that same level."
Over time, Kroll came to rely on telephone spies who provide him anonymously with scoops on all the shows. "I have no idea who they are. They could be writers," he says. "They could be crew. I know they're not performers because I think I would recognize their voices."
Even with mystery informants, the job is Sisyphean.
"There aren't enough hours in the day," he says. "There are nine shows on now, so that's 81/2 hours of soap watching. It's almost impossible to do and then put eight hours of work on top of it. But you have to be well versed."
And because the soaps (with the exception of Passions, now on DirecTV) air five days a week year round without repeats, it's hard to catch a breath.
"For me it's really difficult to go to lunch and know there's something to be updated," he says. "I don't get to take too long a vacation, and even when I do go, I end up doing work in my hotel room at night."
It's enough to make a guy wish for an evil twin, just to share the load.