The daytime stars come to the fans

THE SOAP DISH

August 18, 1993|By Fannie Weinstein | Fannie Weinstein,Contributing Writer

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."

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