"Excuse me," the pleasant young man asked a Woodward & Lothrop salesclerk at Prince George's Plaza Saturday, "can you tell me where to find the Reeboks?"
"Why they're . . . " the salesclerk began, as she looked up at the customer. Then, "Omigod, you're Kurt."
"Yes, ma'am," conceded actor Mark Lewis quietly, but not so quietly that a few shoppers didn't drop their Easter packages and run over to get autographs from Lewis, who plays Kurt Corday on the daytime soap "The Guiding Light," and from his Reebok-hunting companion Scott Bryce, a k a Craig Montgomery, the just-flawed-enough hero of "As the World Turns."
Lewis, Bryce and three other soap opera stars spent about five hours Saturday at Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville promoting soaps, soap and the D.C. Area Volunteer Action Centers.
It was all put together by Procter & Gamble, with more than a little help from Soap Opera Festivals. That's the family operation that plucks the stars out of their on-screen imbroglios and puts them nose to nose with some of the 20 or 30 million people who watch -- or at least keep track of -- the baker's dozen "daytime dramas" currently on major networks.
Also on hand were some local deejays and a lot of dirty dishes. Spaghetti-and-meat-sauce dirty. Most of the Joy generated was the kind that comes in a yellow bottle, the kind you, yes, use to wash dishes. Not inappropriate, because Procter & Gamble, the megaproduct firm that began life making soap and candles, is what came to characterize daytime serials as The Soaps.
They had all come to the mall for the "scrub-off" -- a dishwashing competition right in the middle of Easter shoppers, chocolate-covered kids and even a person dressed up in a rabbit suit ready to pose for pictures.
"Are you a bad person?" a Joy girl -- a blond model in a Lemon-fresh Joy T-shirt -- asked Sharon Gabet of "Another World." "Well, sort of, I guess," answered Gabet.
"Well, I know my mother would love your autograph if you're a bad person."
"I'll sign it with both my characters' names," said Gabet, who has appeared on two soaps. "She'll probably know me better as Raven."
"Oooooh," squealed the model, "You're Raven."
The soaps and the stars were P&G's own: the venerable "Guiding Light," which started glowing on radio dials in the mid-1930s, represented by Kim (Reva Shayne) Zimmer and Mark (Kurt Corday) Lewis; and "As the World Turns," with Bryce and newcomer Jon (Holden Snyder) Hensley, a shy 20-year-old who worries a little that his seduction scenes with 16-year-old Lily "are really soft porn." And then there was Gabet, now Brittany Peterson on NBC's struggling "Another World," but still best known as the bitchy Raven on the defunct (except on cable reruns) "Edge of Night."
The competition was soap stars versus radio personalities, and the latter didn't have a chance. John Dowling, a longtime Washington deejay who is now at WCLY, said after he lost his session by five plates that "it was a setup. They want the soap stars to win, so they win."
"Sign your character's name, not your real name," directed the Joy girl, collecting autographs back in the mall's management office. "Ah," sighed Scott Bryce, "that goes over real big with actors."
Undaunted, the Joy girl thrust a not-quite-clean plate at Mark/Kurt for a signature, asking, "What's your character's name?" "Andy," he deadpanned without a pause. But not without a sigh.
Said Sharon Gabet, "I had to sign my name once on camera. I spelled it wrong."
"It's just a little Easter present for my mother," said the Joy girl of her autograph collection. "Couldn't you say a middle-sized present?" asked Lewis. But she didn't hear.
Scott Bryce is the only one of Saturday's sudsy quintet to have been "born in the business." In fact, he is a second-generation soap star. His father, Ed Bryce, claims the distinction of having died three times on "Guiding Light," where he held down the role of Bill Bauer for 17 years before he (Bauer, not Bryce) died of a heart attack, then came back only to go down in a plane crash and finally returned again last year only to get thrown out of a window in a presumably irrevocable mortal act. "But," says Bryce speculatively, "the wonders of TV and all that."
Mark Lewis is the son of a missionary, born in Argentina and one ofendcol eight children. Acting was not considered a professional option in his upbringing. And Jon Hensley was supposed to be a foreign service officer.
Gabet, married to actor Larry Joshua and mother of a 17-month-old daughter, is a registered nurse and worked three years as a cardiac care and private duty nurse before she started making it in theater. Kim Zimmer, whose Oklahoma/Texas accent as the loaded-with-woe Reva Shayne bears little resemblance to the tones of her native Michigan, is also a mother -- her daughter, Rachel, is almost four -- and her husband A.C. Weary is also an actor. Zimmer and Reva won the daytime Emmy best actress award in 1984, although currently her character has shed her vibrance for a long-lasting, long-suffering mode. "Guiding Light" is "suffering from a bit of a writers' crisis," Mark Lewis said. "But we just tell people to hang in. It will get better."
Only one star at a time is engaged in the half-hour "scrub-offs," so there is a lot of down time for a little shopping ("intimate apparel," announces Zimmer), a little gossip and some wry commentary on fame and recognition. Hensley is asked to sign Mark Lewis' picture. Lewis sighs that they are being mobbed by the "fives and sixes," but then tells the story of how he was "flashed" by a woman in Dover, Del.
Soaps, Zimmer and Gabet agreed, are freer than they used to be. For one thing, they no longer require actresses wear bras all the time. On the other hand, sometimes they have to use Band-Aids instead. "No nipples," said Zimmer, "on 'Guiding Light.' "
The really bad news, though, for loyal soap fans is that Scott Bryce doesn't plan to stay on "As the World Turns" for much longer than another year, when his contract expires.
He wants to travel a while, enjoy the fruits of the Craig Montgomery role ("Remember, I'm the guy who burned down a shelter for refugee orphans for profit"), check out "the girls in Australia" and find "some real work" when he comes back.
What real work? he is asked.
"Plastics," he answers.