Two Pinellas County sisters resist soap operas decline, bringing All My Children stars to Clearwater
LARGO – The floor of Patti Werynski’s comfortably decorated condo is crowded with mementos from a time long past.
Autographed photos of All My Children star Susan Lucci, snagged at Disney/MGM’s long-discontinued Super Soap Weekend for fans. Snapshots of a fresh-faced Josh Duhamel (Transformers) waving from an open convertible, greeting fans during his stint on All My Children nearly a decade ago.
And an autographed copy of Lucci’s memoir All My Life, sealed in plastic.
These and many other soap opera focused goodies will serve as prizes for a special meet-and-greet event Saturday that Werynski, her sister and several friends have organized to bring four hunky male stars from All My Children to the Clearwater Country Club Saturday.
Werynski, sister Barbie Tsagaris and a few buddies have organized these fan get-togethers for seven years now, featuring up-close contact with soap opera stars. But this will be the first one since ABC canceled All My Children in September, making room for the cooking show The Chew. The network also announced plans to end One Life to Live in January, sparking a blizzard of new stories on the death of soap operas.
Still, suggest that Patti and Barbie might be organizing the equivalent of a buggy whip collectors convention, and the two push back – with good humor, of course.
“We have people from age 16 to 90 come to our events, so I know the fans are out there,” said Tsagaris, 49. “You can’t have everything on TV geared to 16 to 25-year-olds.”
The ladies spend three months organizing their events, which this year features Vincent Irizarry (Dr. David Hayward), Walt Willey (Jackson Montgomery), Darnell Williams (Jesse Hubbard) and Jordi Vilasuso (Dr. Griffin Castillo).
Fans pay $75 each for a luncheon which includes lots of opportunities for autographs, door prizes, and bidding on a dinner with the stars. The $150 VIP ticket gets you seated at a star’s table and access to a smaller pre-party. Proceeds go to a charity established by Willey, the WilleyWorld Endowment Fund, to aid children’s charities.
The sisters began organizing the get-togethers as smaller, more personal affairs, after experiencing increasingly impersonal events like the Super Soap Weekend, which drew tens of thousands of fans until Disney discontinued it in 2008.
“I’ve been to events where you pay $10 for a glossy photo signed in two minutes,” said Werynski, 58, who expects between 100 to 200 people at Saturday’s event. “Here, you get four hours of personal time with the stars. And the stars love their fans as much as the fans love them.”
Irizarry, a veteran of soaps who scored his first role on Guiding Light in 1983, agreed, noting that continuing connection to the fans is crucial for the next possible phase of the soap opera – moving online.
Prospect Park, a new company formed by an ex-Disney executive, has licensed the rights to create online versions of both All My Children and One Live to Live to anchor a new web-centered video network. But the company has focused on One Live to Live, planning a quick transition to online episodes soon as the broadcast run ends in January, putting All My Children on the back burner, Irizarry said.
“That fan base that we have is in large part the reason why anything is moving forward now,” said the actor. “They were so vocal about the shows…their interest shows hope that they’ll bring a huge audience onto the Internet. Hopefully, One Life will pave the way and a couple of months later, we’ll be there, too.”
The economics of daytime TV are brutal. After paying millions to move All My Children’s production to Los Angeles a few years ago, ABC canceled the soap opera for The Chew, which gets lower ratings but also costs 40 percent less, Irizarry said.
Tsagaris, who is helping her father Steve Tsagaris close up his Colonial Shoe Store in Largo after 38 years, calls herself a “fighter” used to sticking up for longshot causes – fully prepared to stand up for a genre she’s loved for 40 years.
Like serious Star Trek or Lord of the Rings fans, she and her sister can trade stories about their favorite storylines or star interaction – Willey, who is in the area often performing as a standup comedian, is a good friend who helps them bring other stars to events staged two or three times each year.
And the sisters admit – with some trepidation over how a newspaper writer will use the information – that even they rarely watch their favorite soaps broadcast live on television, anymore. Instead, reruns on the SoapNet cable channel, online clips and digital video recorders provide their daily fix; proving that traditional soaps will have to change, even to reach committed fans with newl ives and new schedules.
“What else has been on TV for 40 years besides news shows?” Tsagaris said. “I remember watching Susan Lucci in high school. These shows, these actors, they become a part of your life.”
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.