Want a secret glimpse into the soap opera world when the actors share their private moments and stories from their experience from working on daytime television? Then, don’t miss the 11th Annual SoapFest Charity Weekend. Daytime soap opera stars are returning to Marco Island Saturday and Sunday to celebrate SoapFest 2009 to benefit local children’s charities.
Eighteen soap stars — who play parts on some of the networks’ greatest soap operas, including “As the World Turns,” “All My Children,” “Guiding Light” and “One Life to Live” — will give fans the opportunity to mingle with their onscreen obsessions set amidst the balmy Gulf breezes and sandy white beaches.
“Funds raised from SoapFest benefits several children’s charities including the Marco Island Center for the Art’s summer art program,” reports festival director Pat Berry. “Another beneficiary is Eden Florida’s newly opened Eimerman Center, providing educational and outreach services for children with autism.”
Once again, master of ceremonies this year is the dapper, handsome, blonde-hair, blue-eyed Walt Willey, well known as “All My Children’s” heartthrob Jackson Montgomery. Raising funds for Eden Florida is personal to Willey.
“My 13-year-old son Chance has Asperger’s Syndrome (children who have autistic behavior but no problems with language) and my soap opera daughter Lilly has autism,” Willey explained.
“Art therapy and expressive art are used frequently with autistic children. I have seen first-hand how occupational therapy has changed not only my son’s life but many other lives, too, and I’ll do anything that I can to help children obtain needed therapeutic services so that they may lead fuller lives.”
Many soap fans may not be aware that Willey, a skilled painter and illustrator in addition to his acting career, majored in sculpture at Southern Illinois University. He recently illustrated a cookbook and is passionate about painting with children.
Willey will join other soap stars at a private annual art session called “Art for Autism” on Saturday morning to paint with children suffering from autism. The jointly signed artwork will be auctioned off later that evening to help raise additional funds.
Well known for his stand-up comedy act “Wild & Willey,” Willey was immortalized by the late Phil Hartman’s hilarious parody of his “All My Children” character on “Saturday Night Live.”
According to Willey, he did numerous un-named bit parts on “All My Children” before landing the role of Jackson Montgomery. His first acting job was as an extra on the soap, and he worked on “Another World” and “Ryan’s Hope” before “All My Children” called him back to play Jackson.
“I have been a working actor for more than 30 years,” Willey proudly notes. “My father was a coal miner for 30 years! I am so blessed to have the continued opportunity to work in this industry and give back whatever I can, when I can,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing everyone in Marco Island.”
Native New Yorker Caitlin Van Zandt (Ashlee Wolfe on “Guiding Light”) is no newcomer to Southwest Florida, either. This is the fourth year that Caitlin has participated in SoapFest, and she says she wouldn’t miss it for the world. She’s bringing her mom with her this year. “How do you say no to (SoapFest director) Pat Berry?” Van Zandt remarked. “How do you say no to the beautiful weather, friendly people and a well organized weekend to raise money for children?” It’s a fun, relaxing event and a chance to meet the families of our fans. I see some of the same fans every year at SoapFest — they’re extensions of my TV family.”
The 23-year-old actress joined the CBS soap opera, “Guiding Light” as Ashlee Wolfe in 2006. It was a part that was initially only meant for a six episode run. Instead, her character was bumped up to recurring status and eventually; in 2007 Caitlin joined the cast full time. In 2006, Caitlin landed a role on the hit HBO series, “The Sopranos,” where she played Allegra Marie Sacrimoni.
Next up? “Bartending at the Celebrity Bartender Bash is my favorite SoapFest event,” Van Zandt said. “It’s footloose and fancy-free. I’m a very strong mixologist, so everyone better be ready.”
John Driscoll, who plays Coop Bradshaw on “Guiding Light,” arrived on Marco Island yesterday after a visit with his folks and family in Virginia.
“This is my fourth or fifth year with SoapFest. You can consider me a real veteran,” Driscoll said. “I just love coming to Marco. I love working with the kids. You get to visit with some of the same kids from prior years, and it’s so special to watch the kids interact with each other,” Driscoll remarked.
“Before “Guiding Light” I was working in the Washington, D.C. area, and since I’m a union actor, there’s not a lot of union parts in that region, so I moved to New York. I was only in New York two months and was picked up by ‘Guiding Light,’ ” Driscoll said.
Driscoll also has other television roles to his credit, including “The Book of Daniel” and “Dawson’s Creek.”
“I also did an episode of “Law & Order” — the joke in the city is you’re not an actor unless you’ve done a “Law & Order,” Driscoll laughed.
With “Guiding Light” exiting the soap opera scene with its last airing scheduled for September this fall, what’s next on the agenda for John Driscoll?
“I’m being picked up by another show, but I can’t say what it is. You’ll see me again this summer!” Driscoll said.
Actor Jeff Branson, “Guiding Light’s” Shayne Lewis, has been with the show for 10 months.
“I was with ‘All My Children’ for four years prior to ‘Guiding Light,’ Branson commented.
“This is my third year with SoapFest. Being able to do something good for charity and giving of you is what’s so great about this. Pat Berry is phenomenal — there are so many special moments — the charity is top notch. Pat has a good balance with this program. I always come away with a good feeling — very positive,” Branson explained.
“I really like Marco — the weather, the white, sandy beaches. It’s incredible. I’ve been in New York for 14 years, so coming to Marco is special,” Branson said.
Branson has done other television roles as well as Broadway and film work.
“I did a lot of Eugene O’Neill. All the venues have their perks,” Branson noted.
For additional ticket or sponsorship information, e-mail SoapFest@vsm.net. Tickets may be purchased online at SoapFest.com or by calling 239-394-4559.
Saturday, May 2
6 p.m., A Night of Stars @ Bistro Soleil — SoapFest 2009 kicks off with “A Night of Stars” at Bistro Soleil, located in the historic Olde Marco Inn at 100 Palm Street, on Marco Island. Guests enjoy up close and personal time with residents of Springfield, Oakdale, Pine Valley, and Llanview. Celebrity guests will be available for autograph signing, photos, Q&A, auctions and lots of surprises. This intimate and upscale event sells out quickly with tickets costing $100 per person — includes bar and catered buffet by one of the area’s top chefs. Special limited VIP tickets are available at $150 and guarantee seating with one of your favorite actors. Additional special ticket packages are available at SoapFest.com.
10 p.m., Celebrity Bartender Bash @ Almost Famous Mel’s — The fun continues later that evening with our “Off the Hook” annual Celebrity Bartender Bash to be held at Almost Famous Mel’s, 657 South Collier Boulevard. Back by popular demand, this Karaoke event showcases celebrities singing their hearts out and serving refreshments to raise funds. This year’s new feature is a festive “bottle grab” game. Tickets costs $40 each. Discounted tickets are available when combined with tickets to the “Night of Stars” event.
Sunday, May 3
11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Cruisin’ Boozin’ & Schmoozin’ — Aboard the beautiful Marco Island Princess, this event always sells out and provides the perfect opportunity to mix with daytime’s best during a sightseeing tour of beautiful Marco Island in a tranquil and intimate environment. Plenty of opportunities for autographs, photos, games, raffle prizes and auction items. Cruise tickets cost $75/person and space is limited. This event includes buffet lunch and entertainment. Board the Marco Island Princess at 951 Bald Eagle Drive.
Golfing with the Stars — If cruising isn’t your thing and you prefer golf, you can tee-off with one of your favorite actors for a “private” one-on-one game. Spaces are limited and only “serious golfers” wanted. Email SoapFest@vsm.net if you’re interested. Auctions throughout the weekend will include exclusive one-of-a-kind items such as original artwork by actors, private studio tours on sets usually closed to the public, ticket packages to the Emmy Awards, and lunch with your favorite star. All bidding must be in person as items will be offered and auctioned off during each event.