MASARYKTOWN — A brunet woman waiting in line to get an autographed photo couldn't stand it any longer.
"He is just too handsome!" she shouted to no one. The other women in line nodded, their eyes locked on the tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed man in front.
Walt Willey, the most famous person in memory to visit Masaryktown, a rural township of 1,000 straddling the Pasco-Hernando county line, is used to this, reducing otherwise respectable women into giggling mush. Every day for decades he was in their homes, a dreamy, caring constant through life; marriage, divorce, children, death, skinny jeans, elastic waistbands. He is their comfort food.
A heavily pregnant woman sidled up to him.
"We've never met before, have we?" he said with mock nervousness. The ladies howled with delight. One kissed him on the lips in front of her boyfriend. Another asked him to sign her shirt above her breast.
"This is my life," he said and flashed his television smile.
It was Friday night, two days shy of the one-year anniversary of the last broadcast of All My Children, the soap opera Willey starred on since 1987 as the character Jackson Montgomery, successful, debonair district attorney and on-and-off-again lover of Susan Lucci's Erica Kane.
"He was every woman's dream," gushed Donna Roberts, 50, a township leader.
Since All My Children was canceled, Willey, 61, who lives on a New Mexico ranch with his wife and two children, has been touring with his comedy act and performing a one-man play he wrote titled, Wild Bill! An Evening with James Butler Hickok. Willey, who has been doing stand up since 1989, already had gigs lined up in Sarasota and Tampa when asked if he would perform in Masaryktown, a place he, understandably, had never heard of. A woman who plays bingo at the Masaryktown center has a daughter who knows him, so Roberts got his number and called.
"I was shocked that he said 'yes,' " Roberts said. "He is a very big name."
Masaryktown — pronounced muh-ZAR-ick-town — is an hour's drive north of Tampa. It was founded by Czechoslovakian immigrants in the early 20th century. There is no post office or police station, and most of the immigrants have died and their children moved away. Roberts and other town leaders hope events at the community center can unite the dissipating community. Willey was the first act they booked.
They needed 150 tickets to break even. They sold 151.
The night before the show, Roberts took Willey to dinner at GlenLakes Country Club in Weeki Wachee, where he ordered the leg of lamb and a woman nearly walked into a wall because she was staring at him.
"He's a spectacular man," Roberts cooed.
The first woman in line Friday was Terry Conley, a 59-year-old from Indian Rocks Beach with bright red hair, clutching a plastic bag of photos she has taken with Willey from the past two decades. She and her mother used to go to all of his events, his comedy shows, the soap opera weekends in Orlando. The photos show Willey hugging and kissing her tiny mother.
"He made her feel so special," Conley said.
Her mother died in 2006, but she didn't feel the enormity of her loss until All My Children was canceled last year, her tie to her mother, the life they shared. Now she follows Willey alone.
"I miss having him in my living room every day," Conley said.
The community center was built in 1977 and it looks like it, low ceiling, wood-paneled walls, linoleum floor, bar in the corner, kitchen serving burgers, nachos and pie. There is a disco ball and the walls are decorated with red, white and blue ribbons. The spotlights are two overhead neon lights. To the side of the stage is the ladies room. During the show, the room door kept flinging open, flooding light on the guests.
"So one year after All My Children," Willey told the audience in his smooth, Marlboro-soaked leading man voice, "and I'm performing in VFW halls — with disco balls."
Fans expecting goody-two-shoes Jackson Montgomery got a shock. Willey's comedy is bawdy, jokes of sex and intimate anatomy, much of it too explicit for a family newspaper.
He got a standing ovation.
The night was weird, Willey said, but worth it.
"I really believe that, especially in the kind of world we are in today," he said, "getting a bunch of people in a room and sharing a laugh is one of the most elemental and important things we can do as people."
After the autographs and photos and kisses, Willey told Roberts he was ready to go, which caused some panic as the board members realized they forgot to go to the bank and get his payment. So they handed him $2,000 from their bingo fund and he headed into the night, back to the Holiday Inn Express, out of their lives and absent from their televisions.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.