"Hey kids, a little slower on 'better day,' " shouted Valerie Landsburg, who plays Doris on the television show "Fame." "Think of slowing down on make -- we'll make a better day . . . let's run that last tag one more time."
Arrayed before her yesterday in Constitution Hall were 96 aspiring talents, dressed in artistically ragged sweat pants and denims, from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Washington's counterpart to the performing arts school that is the setting for "Fame." The TV show, like the movie that inspired it, is in part a show business fantasy that speaks to teen-agers' desire to be stars.
So what was going on here?
It seems that some cast members of "Fame" have a Bible study group and wanted to do something to help the famine victims in Ethiopia. So they contacted a Christian relief organization called World Vision, which organized a concert last night in Constitution Hall. By late afternoon, more than 2,300 of the hall's 3,746 seats had been sold, and there was a line at the box office.
The kids from Duke Ellington were invited to participate in the concert, aimed partly at raising money and partly at enlisting volunteers for a 40-hour fast at the end of this month. A spokesman for World Vision said the charity hopes to raise $1 million for relief efforts through the fast.
"It's like 4,000 people a day dying," said Carlo Imperato, 21, of the Bronx, who plays Danny on the show. "That could wipe out the U.S. That's worse than the plague."
Imperato, a singer and actor, is a member of the Bible study group, which meets weekly at his house. His girlfriend, Leanne Gerrish, a dancer on the show, was the prime organizer of the benefit, he said. They persuaded other cast members to take part, including Nia Peeples (who plays Nicole), Gene Anthony Ray (who plays Leroy) and Landsburg. All were motivated, Imperato said, "by the catastrophe that's happening."
A skinny boy in dancers' sweat pants approached tentatively.
"Hi," he said boldly. "I'm Terrence."
"Hey," said Imperato. "I'm Carlo."
Terrence scampered off. The Duke Ellington kids reacted to the entry of the "Fame" kids with studied cool. The show isn't realistic, several said, but they still wouldn't mind being on television.
"Is Debbie Allen here? That's the one I wanted to see," said Rhoda Lawrence, 16, a voice major at Duke Ellington.
No, Debbie Allen, the former Washingtonian (and teacher at Duke Ellington's predecessor, Workshop for Careers in the Arts) was not there. Allen, who plays a dance teacher on "Fame," is making a movie with Richard Pryor.
"Move or you'll all be expelled," growled Ken Swofford, who plays Principal Morloch on "Fame," as he elbowed his way to the stage through a crowd of students. They giggled gleefully as they recognized him. Just like on TV.
"They're getting paid to pretend they are us," said Lawrence, an aspiring singer.
World Vision operates 10 feeding centers and 35 development projects in Ethiopia, said spokesman Brian Bird. "We feed 67,000 people a day directly and 150,000 indirectly," he added. "Plus we have two aircraft that make seven flights a day each to take food upcountry."
The fasting project, called "Get Hungry," has already signed on 21,000 fasters, he said, and it hopes for 35,000 by April 26. Participants will earn money for famine relief by signing up sponsors for each hour of their fast.
"We have a very sophisticated machinery set up for tracking the success of the project," Bird said. "It will all be on a computer. If it's a success in this area we'll try it elsewhere."
Meanwhile, the gang on stage was rehearsing the finale, "We Are the World," the hit song that has become the pop music industry's anthem for the Ethiopian famine victims. Peeples was singing a verse into a microphone -- and, at the moment, singing flat. "Oh dear," said one onlooker.
"We need more people singing 'There's a choice we're making,' " Peeples said to the assembled performers.
"One more time," said Landsburg, helping to conduct the choir. "Then all you Ellington kids go and eat dinner."