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`General Hospital' raises funds to fight pediatric AIDS

In less genteel circles, it's known as putting your money where your mouth is.

While the cast of "General Hospital" has been singing, dancing and emoting on screen at the show's annual Nurses' Ball, a talent show to raise money for the fictional hospital's pediatric AIDS wing, the cast and crew of the show also have been raising money off screen for real-life AIDS research.In the past two years, "GH" has contributed more than $109,000 to the nonprofit Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, where it's been used for research and emergency care for AIDS patients, said Doreen Lane, the foundation's special events manager.

"There are a lot of daytime shows that do something to recognize those with AIDS and HIV, but `General Hospital' went one step further," said Lane. "Worldwide, there are 1,600 children a day infected with the AIDS virus, and we need all the help we can to educate people and find a cure. `General Hospital' has been very generous in helping us do that."

"GH" is one of a dozen or more daytime serials and talk shows that mark the nationwide Day of Compassion, an annual remembrance of those who have died and those living with AIDS and HIV.

The sixth annual Day of Compassion is Friday, the day the fifth annual Nurses' Ball begins airing on "GH" and also - for the first time - on its year-old sister show, "Port Charles." The second half of the ball airs Monday on both shows.

"GH" executive producer Wendy Riche said the idea for the Nurses' Ball came from her own desire to see cast members' usually unseen singing and dancing talents showcased. The first ball, in 1994, was so successful with cast members and viewers alike, she decided to make it an annual event, and to tie it to the Day of Compassion.

The fund-raising effort came later, after "GH" broke ground in 1995 with the first story line in which a teenager died of AIDS and another was HIV-infected.

While some viewers complained that the long-running story - which let the disease play out in real time - was depressing and changed the channel, others were riveted to their television sets. They watched as young street kid Stone Cates (played by Michael Sutton), who picked up the virus during sex with an infected drug addict, was diagnosed, fought the disease and died.

Days before his death, he learned that he had passed the virus along to his girlfriend, young Robin Scorpio.

On the show, Robin (played by two-time Emmy winner Kimberly McCullough) has battled the disease with daily drug cocktails, practiced safe sex with a new boyfriend and talked to other teens about how to avoid disease transmission.

In real life, Sutton and McCullough appeared in an "After School Special" teaching kids about how AIDS is transmitted and can be avoided; both actors and "GH" have received several awards from AIDS groups praising the show's responsible portrayal of effects of the disease.

"I've been approached a lot to do public service announcements to teach people about AIDS and make appearances and things," said McCullough. "And any chance I get, I do them because it's so important to fight this disease."

The on-screen fight against AIDS became even more poignant when at the 1997 Nurses' Ball, the real-life death weeks earlier of AIDS-infected actor Jon Hanley, who had helped stage the annual ball, was announced.

The money "GH" donated to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation - which has an annual budget of about $9 million - came from royalties from "Robin's Diary," a fictionalized journal of teenage Robin, and from the mail-order sale of the same kind of Nurses' Ball T-shirts worn on the show by cast members.

"The decision to donate to pediatric AIDS causes came from our hearts," Riche said. "Everybody here feels so proud of the opportunity to contribute through the Nurses' Ball. It's become a very important week in the lives of the cast and crew."

Although the royalties from the book keep rolling in, T-shirt sales were shelved this year because of the complexity of staging the Nurses' Ball on not one, but two soaps, on two days. Viewers get a bonus, though: three hours of the Nurses' Ball instead of the usual two, plus events surrounding the ball.

At this year's ball, where 19 blocks from the national AIDS Quilt decorate the ballroom, there'll be the usual touching speeches, on-stage high jinks and - show sources hint - some surprises that could be . . . well, murder for one guest.

"General Hospital" airs weekdays at 2 p.m. on KTVX-Ch. 4. "Port Charles" is delayed until the wee hours of the morning - Monday-Thursday (early Tuesday-Friday) it is seen at 3:05 a.m.; Friday (early Saturday) it airs at 3:35 a.m. on Ch. 4.)