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October 23, 1994|LIBBY SLATE

At the dress rehearsal for the CBS special "50 Years of Soaps: An All-Star Celebration," two-time Daytime Emmy winner Peter Bergman was hopping from empty table to empty table, looking at the seating assignments marked with photos of the soap stars.

"He went around saying, 'Oh, so-and-so's going to be here! I haven't seen her for years,' " recounts John C. Moffitt, the show's executive producer-director. The excited Bergman ("The Young and the Restless") was "like a kid," Moffitt recalls.

That excitement and sense of reunion are exactly what Moffitt and fellow executive producers Pat Tourk Lee and Bruce Nash hope to convey to viewers watching the two-hour special Thursday night.

Taped in August on a Hollywood sound stage, the show brings together past and present cast members of all 10 current daytime dramas, as well as performers from serials long gone by. The show aims to be a glitzy but thoughtful salute to what may still be television's least respected medium. Fifty-two daytime stars appear on stage, with another 100 or so in the audience.

Clips selected for the special highlight memorable moments in daytime romance, the stormy and poignant relations between family members, soaps' depictions of social issues, the heinous doings of vixens and villains, humorous vignettes, turning points in plots and, yes, the influence of soaps worldwide.

There are tributes to William J. Bell Sr., Agnes Nixon and the late Irna Phillips, creators of nine of the soaps on the air today, and short speeches by viewer favorites Eileen Fulton, Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes, A Martinez, Kim Zimmer and Victoria Wyndham.

Some of soapdom's dynamic duos are reunited here, including Mary Stuart and Larry Haines of "Search for Tomorrow," which went off the air after 25 years in 1986; Jonathan Frid and Lara Parker of the 1966-1971 "Dark Shadows" vampire soap, and Jacqueline Courtney and George Reinholt of NBC's still-airing "Another World."

The finale features a fashion show of 10 actresses in their characters' lavish wedding gowns.

"We wanted to present an event that (the daytime community) would feel proud of," says Moffitt, whose other credits with Lee include "Comic Relief," ABC's "40 Years of Television" and HBO's 20th anniversary show. "It's sort of like an awards show without the awards--we're honoring people for their contributions and showing great scenes, as much as we could."

Footage from soaps was rarely preserved before the 1970s. Research staff culled clips from the production companies and networks, the Chicago Museum of Radio and Television, fans, collectors and the daytime actors, directors and writers themselves. Their earliest find was a 1954 clip from "Love of Life." "It was a real detective story," Moffitt says.

The sleuthing off. "I was very skeptical, because no one consulted me about anything--we had some people here who don't know our shows, and they were making a lot of choices," says Bell, co-creator of CBS' "The Young and the Restless" and "The Bold and the Beautiful."

"But they surprised me. They did their homework. And they did what rarely, if ever, has happened before: There was real dignity given to our product, with no potshots or cheap shots that made us look a little dumb."

The actors, too, had "a blast," in the words of A Martinez, who zoomed to stardom as Cruz Castillo of "Santa Barbara," which is now off the air. "I got to see a whole bunch of people I hadn't seen for a long time. They asked me to pick my favorite scene from 'Santa Barbara,' and it was a treat--I got to time-travel back through the past. And I loved watching (other performers') work."

One of them was Helen Wagner, who has played matriarch Nancy Hughes on CBS' "As the World Turns" since its 1956 premiere. "People had to board red-eyes to get back to New York," she says of her fellow attendees. "But instead of wanting it to be over, they left reluctantly."

The retrospective even drew the participation and praise of Anthony Geary of ABC's "General Hospital," who is known for his dislike of publicity and other trappings of soap celebrityhood. "It was relatively painless, so on my scale it was a pretty good evening," he says with a laugh. "I expected to be bored to tears, but it was an amazingly pleasant experience. I like to be involved with something that presents the medium for its work, not its cosmetics or pectorals."

As for the viewers, Moffitt believes that the show will appeal even to those who are not already soap fans. "We wanted the clips to be self-sustaining, so that you didn't have to know the back story," he says. "You can see the talent of the actors and the writers. So for those who don't now watch, I hope they'll say, 'I'm missing out on something. I'm going to tune in.' "

"50 Years of Soaps: An All-Star Celebration" airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBS.

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