Now Appearing at Local Stores and Delis : . . . This two-fer sighting confirms the degree to which Ventura Boulevard has evolved into a prime locale for star-gazing, equal to any strip over the hill.

The next time Helen crosses my path, I really wish she'd say hi.

Helen Slater, I mean. The actress. Even if the name isn't a household word, you probably know the face. She was the cowgirl wanna-be in "City Slickers," the good-hearted young wife in "Ruthless People." The basic blonde, blue-eyed, girl-next-door type. Back in 1984, she was none other than "Supergirl" on TV.

We met a few years ago, and I'm sure that Helen remembers. She dropped by The Times to research a role for a Lou Grant-ish TV drama that, as it turned out, lasted but a few episodes. Inside the newsroom she looked lost and alone.

"May I help you?" I asked.

Helen looked into my eyes. There was a dramatic pause. Then she said: "Thanks. I'm waiting for . . ." She named a woman reporter.

No, it wasn't a long conversation. But Helen had to feel the chemistry. So why didn't she offer a simple hello, great-to-see-you, let's-have-lunch-real-soon when we ran into each other the other day at Art's Deli?

Now, being an Angeleno, I don't go Ga-Ga when I see a celebrity. Proper etiquette requires to not intrude on their daily existence. But it's good to be vigilant, because one of the nice things about living in L.A. is the way that famous actors play bit roles in the drama of our own lives.

Out-of-towners envy this fact. We are all familiar with friends and cousins who ask: "Do you ever see any stars?!?"

"Oh, sure," I say, and yawn.

As it happened, Helen wasn't alone that day. The attorney I'd met for an interview alerted me to "the two Helens" in our midst. My Helen's breakfast companion was actress Helen Hunt, of TV's "Mad About You." Judging by the sweat shirts, spandex and tousled hair, they'd just been to the gym.

Although I'm disappointed that Ms. Slater was so shy, this two-fer sighting confirms the degree to which Ventura Boulevard has evolved into a prime locale for star-gazing, equal to any strip over the hill, such as Sunset, Melrose or Rodeo Drive. Sadly, Hollywood Boulevard's Walk of Fame today serves the purpose of nostalgia and gritty urban adventure. If you want to see real celebrities, not symbols embedded in the sidewalk, try Ventura Boulevard.

As a child, I once tagged along with my parents and an aunt from Alabama on a tour of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. We bought our Map to the Stars' Homes and paid homage to the Beverly Hillbillies mansion. But the highlight occurred when we were stopped at a red light and a fancy convertible pulled up behind us. A genuine star was at the wheel. We bounced with excitement, smiling and waving. Louis Nye smiled and waved back. (Memory is a fuzzy thing, but I think he was wearing an ascot.)

Today, I'd take the kinfolk out to The Boulevard. Jerry's Famous Deli is, famously, a good place to start. The last time I dropped by Jerry's, my companion was jazzed to see "the guy who played the older brother in 'The Wonder Years.' " A recent Harris Poll, conducted as a public service via an E-mail survey of my colleagues in the Valley Edition, noted such recent sightings at Jerry's as Roseanne and Tom Arnold, Jerry Seinfeld and Sandra Bernhard.

There seems to be a 20-way tie for the second best spot for star-gawking. A fellow reporter, I'm told, recently embarrassed the Fourth Estate with groupie-like behavior at Hamburger Hamlet in Sherman Oaks. When he spotted rocker Edward Van Halen, he just had to get his autograph. Jonathan Winters, I hear, sometimes leaves them laughing at Paty's in Toluca Lake. Not too long ago at Art's, another colleague's baby girl lunged for a handful of Meg Ryan's hair. She was with her hubby, Dennis Quaid, and their little one.

After restaurants, groceries, pharmacies, video stores and book shops are also said to be good places to send celebrity-hungry tourists. Staff writer John Glionna reported: "Charles Nelson Reilly shops at my Hughes market at Coldwater and Ventura. Cool!"

John, who is somewhat new to L.A. himself, may be distressed to learn that an editor claims to have seen Marlon Brando, no less, at the same market. Brando was buying "a six-pack of beer and a couple loafs of Wonderbread." Or so this editor says. His claim of seeing Kirstie Alley buying ice cream at midnight at the Ralphs in Encino seems more credible.

Who else has been seen out there? Richard Dreyfus, Jody Foster, Judd Hirsch, Jay Leno, Martin Sheen and his boys, Molly Ringwald, Henry Winkler, Telly Savalas, Heather Locklear, Kelsey Grammar, Erik Estrada, Dick Van Patten, Paula Abdul, Soleil Moon Frye . . . Obviously, we could go on. (There were numerous Elvis sightings, but not a single Heidi Fleiss.)

The extras in my life have included Dolly Parton, Sissy Spacek, Mickey Rourke, the late Brad Davis and Jamie Lee Curtis. Strangely, I've bumped into Ed Marinaro three times in different parts of the country.

Ed, an ex-footballer-turned-actor, is perhaps best known for "Hill Street Blues," although he also was a boffo Joey Buttafuoco. Our first encounter was on a flight to New York, then on a vacation in Maui, then in a saloon in Santa Monica. If I run into him at Northridge Fashion Center, I may have to seek a restraining order.

Come to think of it, Ed, like Helen, didn't bother to say hi. But then, Ed and I have never actually spoken to each other.

But Helen. . . we had something once.

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Readers may write Harris at The Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311.

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