At Lisner Auditorium, many of the 350 soap opera enthusiasts are on their feet, snapping pictures, applauding, whistling. Seven stars of such soaps as "All My Children,," "The Doctors," "As the World Turns," and "High Hopes" are being introduced.
"Is Lisa really as bitchly as she is one the show?" asks Joyce Becker, the emcee. "Today you will find out."
"Does Phil kiss as well as he does on TV?" she asks.
Eager for answers, the crowd cheers. Lisa (Eileen Fulton in real life) is Lisa Coleman, on "As the World Turns" for 18 years now. She's been "married" four times and has had 32 lovers. "She's a deceitful, selfish, mean, mean," says a smiling Allan Sugarman, copromoter with Becker, his wife, of "Soap Opera Festivals." Lisa is also loved by her fans, many of whom rush toward the stage to get her picture.
Phil is handsome, dark-haired Phil Brent, policeman on "All My Children," actually Nick Benedict, a former drummer. "It's all part of the job, folks," he says, putting his arms around both Susan Lucci, who is Erica Kane in "All My Children," and Barbara Kyle, Trudy Bowen of "High Hopes."
There were also Jim Pritchett, 13 years as Matt Powers, forceful head of Hope Memorial Hospital in "The Doctors" Bruce Gray, Neal Chapman, a family counselor in "High Hopes," and a bonus. Dorothy Malone, Oscar winner in "Written on the Wind" and alumna of "Peyton Place." She will be on "High Hopes" for the next seven weeks, taking her problem to Dr. Chapman. The problem is her 18-year-old daughter, who is not getting along with her stepfather.
But then, all the soap stars have their problems. Phil is suffering from a lot more pressure on his job, and his marriage with Tara is breaking up. Erica wants to get an earlier marriage annulled so she can marry a devout Catholic in his church. And poor Matt Powers: He's got a 16-year-old daughter with an unwanted pregnancy.
The fans at Lisner paid $7.50 or $6 each to ask questions and get autographs and door prizes (one woman got a kiss from Benedict) in the benefit for the National Capital Area U.S.O., and they wanted answers.
"Are you going to get a divorce from Grant?"
"Are you married?"
"Will Phil tell little Phil he's his real father?"
Questions also were flying earlier at a brunch for the soap stars at the Georgetown home of stockbroker Bill Cook. The crowd included President Carter's sons, Jeff and Chip, and their wives; Jerry Rafshoon, the president's new communications adviser; Dot Padgett, assistant chief of protocol; Rick Hutto, Operations officer for the White House Conference on Small Business, Sen. and Mrs. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. But the big Carter family soap watcher, Miss Lillian, was out of the country and will have to catch up on all the story lines when she returns.
Jim Pritchett/Matt Powers said that his daughter's unwanted pregnancy is "the stickiest personal problem since my wife went off on a romantic weekend and since I was indicted for murder." Pritchett says he doesn't know what's going to happen because he hasn't read that far ahead in the script, if in fact it's been written.
Brent/Benedict, 31, called by one woman "the sex symbol of daytime soaps," has been through a number of jobs in his shows: an environmental conservationist, a waiter, a maitre d', car wash manager, and now policeman. A tough-luck sort, he's been shot twice along the way, even stopped breathing once, but never worried. "I knew I wasn't going to die," he said. "I have a contract."
Lucci Kane, the infamous Erica of "All My Children," is a character "people love to hate," said promoter Sugarman. But she objected. "I'm just a girl trying to have to good time." A Miss Universe semifinalist, she confessed the only personally trying time she has had on the soap was acting out Erica's miscarriage when she herself was pregnant.
Sugarman said about 22 million people watch soaps daily - and the ratings go up even more when the problems faced by the characters mount.
"Between story lines," he said, "it's possible the audience will switch to another channel. People want entertainment and inspiration.
"Nighttime (TV) is too much fantasy, not close enough to reality to deal with. But a woman identifies with Lisa going through her ordeal, one to one. We're all going through our human dilemmas. It could be a drinking problem, an in-law problem, any one of a hundred marriage problems. The highest ratings are when there's a real problem."
"Everybody has his own problems in life, he wants to watch other people's problems," said Gayle Mumaw of Arlington, after seeing her favorites, Erica and Phil, in person. "People get bored with their own lives. It's an escape." Besides, she added, "Chuck's coming in between Phil and Tara. I'd like to know the outcome."
The soap stars are followed with a passion.
"Maybe more than a big star," says Benedict. "People are seeing you every day. One day I was driving down Sunset Boulevard and I see Sammy Davis and his wife in another car. She yells out, "Don't marry Erica. Don't marry Erica.'"
Women outnumbered men 3 to 1 at yesterday's Lisner appearance; there were more middle-aged and up than younger. A young man, Steve Croteau, 19, of New Carrollton, who works in a supply store, said he liked the "All My Children" characters, especially one who wasn't there, Billy Clyde. "Recently I was on two weeks vacation and got interested. We're not allowed to watch television at work, but I can hear the voice."
Mary Downs, who works for the Department of Labor, watches "All My Children" on her lunch hour. She won a door prize, a hand mirror and hanky used by Erica, who has been known to weep. Erica handed them over as Andrew Downs got the picture of his wife and heroine. "She's the one I came to see," said a joyous Mary.