THE SOAP DISH The daytime stars come to the fans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Joyce Becker would love to take credit for inventing the soap opera festival.

But that distinction actually belongs to the Swifton, Ark., farm wife who two decades ago won a trip to the set of her favorite soap from a fan magazine Ms. Becker worked for at the time.

"On the way back to the airport," Ms. Becker recalls, "this woman turned to my husband and I and said, 'You know, you could make a million dollars doing this for my neighbors.'

"I said, 'What? Bring them all to New York?'

"And she said, 'No, bring the soap stars to places like Swifton and let the fans meet them.' "

And that's how Ms. Becker's world has turned for the past 16 years. As president of Soap Opera Festivals, Inc., the company she runs from her Morganville, N.J., home, Ms. Becker has introduced more than 500 daytime stars to their devoted followers.

On Saturday, Ms. Becker brings her act to Washington for a "Capital Celebration of Daytime Drama," a day-long event to benefit the USO of Metropolitan Washington.

Best of all for local soap fans, stars from Baltimore's top-rated soaps -- "The Young and the Restless," "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "Guiding Light," ranked one, two and three respectively by the A. C. Nielsen Co. -- will be in town.

Y&R;'s Kristoff St. John (Neil) and Christian LeBlanc (Michael); B&B;'s Brent Jasmer (Sly) and GL's Vincent Irizarry (Nick), Barbara Crampton (Mindy) and Jerry verDorn (Ross) are among the 51 daytime stars slated to attend.

It's not just soap fans, though, who will have the chance to rub elbows with the stars. The same day, many of the actors and actresses will visit local military installations and hospitals in conjunction with the USO.

"This is a very special event for us," explains Gail Moore, publication relations coordinator for the USO of Metropolitan Washington, which also serves the Baltimore area.

(Ms. Moore herself admits to being a soap addict. "When I was in college, I actually scheduled classes around the soaps," admits the "Young and Restless" devotee.)

The festival kicks off at 3 p.m. with a 90-minute, free question-and-answer session with soap stars at the Sylvan Theater on the Mall.

The event will have as its host Ms. Becker, who will race through the crowd with a cordless microphone the same way Oprah and Phil do. (And yes, you can bring your camera.)

Later that evening, fans who've purchased a weekend package will meet and mingle with the stars at a private autograph session, a cocktail party and a dinner at the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington. (See box for ticket information). Proceeds from ticketed events benefit the USO.

Ms. Becker, whose first festival was a 1977 New Haven Hotel luncheon featuring four soap stars, says it's only daytime virgins who are surprised when they hear a festival this size will draw "upwards of 13,000 people."

"Soap opera fans are devoted because the actors are their windows to the world," she notes without sounding condescending.

And because the shows air five times a week, Ms. Becker adds, "these people become our families."

Professor Michael Peslikis, who has taught popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, agrees with Ms. Becker. "That's why soap fans sometimes discuss characters as if they're talking about people they know," he says.

Soap stars support this notion. Mr. LeBlanc -- who plays sleazy attorney Michael, who's currently in jail for attempted rape -- says when his character's father died while he was on "As the World Turns," "I got letters from fans saying 'Call me. My father died, too. I know how hard it is.' "

But Mr. Peslikis takes the idea one step further. He says it's this very familiarity, combined with the fact that many soap story lines reflect reality, that contributes to fans sometimes blurring the line between the real and soap worlds.

In other words, Mr. Peslikis believes soap viewers are so fanatical because they can relate what happens on the soaps directly to their lives.

"Even though you know who the bad guys are and you know who the good guys are, and you think the bad guys are going to be punished and the good guys are going to be rewarded, it doesn't always work out that way," he explains. "Life isn't always fair and neither are the soaps."

Why are soap stars so willing to reach out and touch their fans?

Ms. Becker, who also writes for the weekly Soap Opera magazine, believes it's because they don't enjoy the same ego-related perks as their film and theater peers.

"Nighttime television stars and movie stars are just that -- they'restars," explains Ms. Becker, who organizes between 115 and 140 festivals annually throughout the United States and Canada. "They go out to big premieres and to all the parties. And theater people get the one thing that soap stars don't get -- applause."

"An actor becomes an actor a) for the grease paint and b) for the roar of the crowd. What we do for the soap people is bring them out to hear that roar of the crowd."

Lisa Brown, who plays farm-girl-turned-society-matriarch Iva on "As the World Turns" and who recently appeared on Broadway in a revival of "42nd Street," agrees: "I hadn't been on stage in awhile and it was just fabulous having an audience. We'd do something and people would laugh. That's what you miss doing daytime."

Mimi Torchin, editor-in-chief of Soap Opera, offers a more pragmatic explanation.

"Soap fans are extremely vocal and many a job has been saved by fan outcry," she says. "The mail to the shows is read. It is measured. They know who is popular and who isn't. So when it comes time to renew contracts and give raises, those things are taken into consideration and the soap stars know it."

And soap stars say they enjoy getting feedback in person. "Some of the things I complain about, I find the fans like and what I tend to favor, the fans sometimes don't like," says Mr. verDorn, who plays villain-turned-community-pillar Ross, on "Guiding Light." "So it's sort of an eye-opener to go out on the road."

At the same time, Ms. Torchin believes many stars genuinely want to repay their fans for their intense devotion.

"The fans pour out so much emotion and love that some of the stars feel they need to return some of it; that it's only fair."

Because the popularity of daytime soaps is on the rise -- this year's Daytime Emmy Awards show was the most-watched program in America the week it aired -- Ms. Becker expects the festival business to remain as healthy as Dr. Steve Hardy's "General Hospital" patients.

According to Ms. Becker, the other branches of the entertainment industry "are allowing soap operas to come out of the closet. They were the stepchild of the industry, but now they realize that doctors, lawyers, police officers and factory workers -- men and women -- all watch soaps."

Not to mention the farm wives of Swifton, Ark.

You can't tell the players without a score card, especially in the world of soaps. So here's a look at 10 daytime stars who will be in Washington Saturday for an all-day soap festival to benefit the USO of Metropolitan Washington.

Remember, though, by the time you reach the end of this, half of their characters may have come down with a mysterious terminal disease.

* Sarah Michelle Gellar (Kendall Hart on "All My Children")

On camera: Long-lost, trouble-making teen daughter of supermodel/cosmetics magnate.

Off camera: Once a competitive figure skater, Gellar played the young Jackie Kennedy in the TV miniseries "A Woman Named Jackie."

4 * Brian Green (Brian Bodine on "All My Children")

On camera: Self-righteous college hunk from the wrong side of the tracks.

Off camera: Green and his pop vocal group, The Tonics, recently appeared with Liza Minelli and other stars at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Stephen Sondheim.

* Tom Eplin (Jake McKinnon on "Another World")

On camera: Rogue with GQ looks who's slept at various times with a society matron and her twin daughters.

Off camera: Eplin's wife, Courtney Gibbs Eplin, is a former Miss USA whose acting resume includes a brief stint on "All My Children."

* Ricky Paull Goldin (Dean Frame on "Another World")

On camera: Sensitive rock star with a chip on his shoulder and a former convent student for a girlfriend.

Off camera: On-again, off-again beau of Yasmine Bleeth (ex-Lee Ann on "One Life to Live").

* Christie Clark (Carrie Brady on "Days of Our Lives")

On camera: Beautiful daughter of police commander who falls for even more beautiful reformed bookie.

Off camera: Clark's film credits include roles in "Children of the Corn, Part II" and "A Nightmare on Elm Street, Part II."

* Terry Lester (Royce Keller on "As The World Turns")

L On camera: Suave architect who may or may not be a murderer.

Off camera: Lester, a four-time Emmy nominee, lives alone with his two dogs, Gus and Morgen.

* Lisa Peluso (Ava Rescott Alden Masters on "Loving")

On camera: Manipulative siren with knack for choosing the wrong men.

Off camera: Peluso began her modeling career at the age of 4 in Philadelphia Phillies advertisements.

* Tonja Walker (Alex Olanov Hesser on "One Life to Live")

On camera: Power-obsessed ex-federal-agent-turned-lawyer-turned-mobster.

Off camera: Representing her home state of Maryland, Walker won the Miss Teen All-American pageant and was a finalist in the Miss USA pageant.

* Wortham Krimmer (Reverend Andrew Carpenter on "One Lifto Live")

On camera: Kindhearted man of the cloth who's also son-in-law of town shrew.

Off-camera: Krimmer dropped out of law school to pursue a career in acting.

* Louise Sorel (Vivian Alamain on "Days of Our Lives")

Faux aristocrat who'll do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Off camera: Sorel's former husbands include Ken Howard of "White Shadow" fame.

EVENTS LINEUP

* A free, 90-minute question-and-answer session with soap stars begins at 3 p.m. at the Sylvan Theater on the grounds of the Washington Monument (Smithsonian Metro stop). Some 13,000 people are expected and parking is very limited.

* A cocktail party, dinner and autograph session begins at 7:30 p.m. at The Sheraton National Hotel. The cost is $179 per person for the cocktail party, dinner and autograph session; or $249 per person, for double occupancy rooms at the hotel, which includes all the above as well as accommodations and Sunday morning breakfast. For ticket information call (800) 468-9090.

Fannie Weinstein is a Detroit-based journalist and a contributor to People magazine.

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