Mario Lopez, a recurring television host and tabloid staple on supermarket check stands, is best remembered for his portrayal of A.C. Slater on the ’90s series “Saved by the Bell.”
But here in Burbank, where the 35-year-old keeps a home, the kids know him simply as Mario.
“Thank you, Mario,” a large group of children, teens and their parents bellowed in unison at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Burbank & Greater East Valley. “Thank you, Mario,” they repeated, this time even louder.
Once the unofficial ambassador of vivid tank tops and wiry-mullets, Lopez is a member of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America Hall of Fame and this year became the organization’s fitness ambassador.
“I go to a lot of Boys & Girls clubs because I was a boys club member myself,” said Lopez, after delivering two trunks worth of sports equipment to the center on North Buena Vista Street Thursday. “Being that I live in Burbank, it’s cool and special for me to attend this one.”
Lopez, entourage in tow, led the children through a warm-up round of jumping-jacks before dribbling his way through a couple games of three-on-three basketball at the center’s outdoor court. Camera crews, on site capturing promotional footage for Ford Motor Co., followed the actor from sideline to sideline as Lopez implored a teammate to “share the ball — don’t be like Kobe.”
Rose Cowart, too young to remember the television host and experienced dancer from his days at the fictional Bayside High School, joined a gaggle of tweens on the sidelines.
“He’s awesome,” said Rose, 12. Her friend, Sarah Han, covered her mouth to help cork the excited, foot-stomping laughter.
“He so buff,” Sarah said. “It’s cool for me and for us to know that we come to a place where famous people, a bunch of celebrities, went.”
Despite limited resources, stretched even thinner by the languid economy, the club has managed to fulfill its promise not to turn away members regardless of what their parents can afford. Some pay $10 a week, others less, leading to a doubling in enrollment compared to the same time last year, said Chief Executive Shanna Warren.
“This summer we are getting a lot of families who in the past would have gone with fee-based day camps or overnight camps,” Warren said. “I think it’s a clear result of the economic picture.”
The city has lightened the load a bit, she said, by allowing the use of its parks, but the 400-plus members signed up this summer continue to pack the center, as they did when Lopez came in to offer a few words of encouragement.
He turned their attention to rising obesity rates, particularly among children, using a nearby fast-food franchise as a rallying cry against $49-cent tacos.
“No one loves food and lunches more than I do,” Lopez said. “But you want to take it in moderation. Break a sweat a little bit every day and stay active.”
Lopez, after snapping a couple of pictures and shaking hands, climbed into a Ford Fiesta to continue shooting the promotional spot. The children by then had moved on to playing bumper pool, board games and air hockey.
“He’s a regular, nice person,” said Forrest Mitchell, 11. “He took the time to come here, delivered all the balls and toys. I think he made a lot of people happy.”