A pouty Prince sat next to Madonna on the steps by the Laurel Centre shopping mall stage, while the Blues Brothers cooled their heels in front of Patti Labelle.

But Prince was too tall, Madonna was too short, Patti Labelle was too old, and the Blues Brothers seemed to have lost a lot of weight.

They were only imitators, part of 10 finalist groups battling it out for a place on "Puttin' on the Hits," the syndicated television show where contestants lip-sync the hits of their favorite singers. (It airs here Sundays at 7 p.m. on Channel 20.)

Shoppers and gawkers, old and young, packed themselves around the stage. "Prince" got loud cheers, as did "the Charlie Daniels Band." But applause was limp for "Madonna" and "Rod Stewart" ("I don't like Rod Stewart," confessed a little girl to her mother).

But they loved "the Blues Brothers," especially John Roper's near-perfect rendition of Dan Aykroyd's clunky-heeled Elwood, and they screamed for the well-choreographed group that did the funk act "New Edition," although the screams seemed to be more for the group the imitators represented than for the imitators themselves. The show went glitch-free for all the performers, although "Patti Labelle" (Yvonne Thomas, a 43-year-old financial adviser from Baltimore) lost her red belt in the middle of her act.

Allen Fawcett, the show's emcee (an American University and "Edge of Night" graduate), introduced the contestants by the names of their "would-be's" and had friendly pre- and post-act Dick Clark-style chats with them ("Who does your dry-cleaning?" he asked the Prince character.) Actually, the show's executive producers are Dick Clark himself and Chris Beard, and the producer is Richard A. Clark, Dick Clark's son. "Rac," as he is known, was there yesterday.

Most of the contestants said they were there just for fun, only a few said they have professional aspirations. Chris Howell, 18, a student from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts who imitated Prince, said he spent $500 for his costume (a Xerox copy of Prince's purple jump suit, including a set of white pumps). He wants to be a "musician/actor" and has been doing the act for seven or eight months. The "Mary Jane Girls," as played by siblings Cynthia, Carolyn and Robin Hopkins of Riverdale, have their own local professional singing group, Lace. ("We're trying to get to Hollywood . . . I wouldn't mind taking the show's help," said Carolyn.)

"We spent two hours of intense shopping at Columbia Mall to get these matching white dresses," said "Patti Labelle" group member Debbie Bartee, 30, of Baltimore. "We're not professional," she said. "We're in insurance."

The "Charlie Daniels" contingent, by contrast, had watched the show for four weeks, deliberating over what act to do, according to "Charlie" (Barry Durand, 29, of Wheaton) and "rehearsed quite a lot."

It showed. The six-piece band, in performing the hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," had complex roles to play within their allotted two minutes. While Durand air-fiddled as a potbellied, bearded Charlie, the four backups (Dawn Blorsted, 20, of Aspen Hill; Billie Therrien, 30, and Steve Epperly, 22, of Rockville; and Roy Trevarrow, 28, of Bethesda) had to double up first as the Band of Demons for the "Devil," and then as the square-dancing backup for "Charlie." The "Devil," Kenny Pugh, 30, of Arlington, was dressed in devilish crimson (his lips black with eyebrow pencil) and reveled satanically on his plastic fiddle.

And they won.

The crowd was divided on the outcome. "The Blues Brothers" and "New Edition" had been the real crowd pleasers. When the judge's panel gave "New Edition" third place, one of the members hung his head briefly with disappointment and then rushed to catch up with his four colleagues (Bowie residents Kevin Joseph, Duane Dudley, Melvin Jackson and Zack Hart, all 17, and Sudan Jackson, 16) on stage.

Yesterday's show was the first of a 26-stop tour to garner talent for 180 spots on the show. The acts were videotaped to be looked at later "in Hollywood," as emcee Fawcett breathily put it.

"This is the highest-rated first-run show," said Richard Clark later. "We got a 9 rating. That's like 15 to 16 million people. And in some markets, like Chicago, we got a 30 share. Thirty percent."

The contestants who come to the show's regular auditions in Los Angeles, he said, are "generally in it for the fun. You name the job, we've had them -- accountants, teachers, gas-meter readers, some of them musical acts that didn't make it . . .

"One guy was into slam-dancing. He came to the audition, put on music by the Dead Kennedys or something, and kept slamming into the wall . . . A little too bizarre for the mass media."

And on to the next city he went.