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Summer Musical Workshop Gives Young Performers Chance to Shine in Spotlight

August 21, 1988|SIOK-HIAN TAY KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

"There's no business like show business," the 35 prancing youngsters belt out, their expressions providing vibrant testimony to their song.

An hour later in a warehouse-turned-studio in Duarte's Mountain Vista Plaza, an older group of children concentrate on singing "Lullaby of Broadway" in tune. "Sit up, backs up! You're professionals, right?" choreographer Russ Stewart shouts over the tape.

"I didn't get a breath there," one boy declares when the piece is done.

"Can we dance now?" another small voice urges.

Showtime for Kids is a summer musical workshop that Monrovian K. Robert Neeley thought up in 1983 to help San Gabriel Valley children discover their performing talents.

The next year, the dancer-singer from Brigham Young University's Young Ambassadors company was killed by lightning at 24, but his dream lives on. The K. Robert Neeley Memorial Scholarship Foundation, created by his parents, resurrected Showtime last summer with 100 children.

'They Can Be Stars'

"It's a positive thing all around," said Stewart, a professional dancer who choreographs commercials and high school musical productions. "What we do here is teach them to be professionals so they can be stars, (and) they're learning social skills. . . . I would've killed to have something like this when I was little."

Stewart said he coaches with Showtime because as a child he idolized Neeley, his brother's best friend.

"I loved Rob; he was my hero. I remember walking back and forth in my living room trying to walk like him," he said.

Unlike most productions where only the best performers are spotlighted, Showtime helps "all the kids succeed. My instructions are to make sure each kid is in the center at some point," Stewart said.

After three weeks of coaching by professional singers and dancers, 160 youngsters 4 to 18 will perform this year. The cream of the crop will be selected to perform as a troupe about three times a month in community areas such as hospitals and malls.

The foundation was started in 1985 after Neeley's parents pledged to bring to America a young Chinese ballet dancer-teacher with whom their son had become close friends during a Young Ambassadors tour overseas.

Liu Ge-Yao of Guangxi province entered Brigham Young University for postgraduate studies that fall. Now a member of BYU's International Folk Dancers, Liu hopes to teach Chinese folk dance at Showtime. He has received about $5,000 a year from the foundation.

$100 to $500 Scholarships

Neeley's mother, Nola, 50, said the foundation paid the $100 fee for 75% of this year's Showtime performers, using some of the $25,000 raised last year. High school students have the option of using scholarships, ranging from $100 to $500, to help pay for college. So far, the foundation has provided $30,000 to help San Gabriel Valley youngsters.

Most of the money is used to sponsor Showtime.

The troupe has become so well known that it performed a patriotic musical at the Governor's Ball, which celebrated the signing of the U.S. Constitution, at Knott's Berry Farm in September. They have been invited to this year's celebration at the Universal Sheraton. Broadway, Hollywood and anti-drug themes are part of their repertoire.

"We're thrilled with (the troupe's) caliber," said Monrovia Councilwoman Mary Wilcox, adding that the city has asked the group to entertain at its Constitution Day celebrations Sept. 18.

Some parents volunteer to help in exchange for lessons for their children.

Anne Vanderheide and her husband Jan, 65, are retired janitors who clean the studio after practice every day so their foster children can attend the workshop free.

Vanderheide, 63, is a foster mother to six bubbly Showtimers. Four years ago, she recalled, three shy and reserved sisters came to her home as foster children.

"Now they want to talk, they want to fidget, they are more open," said Vanderheide, adding that she was flabbergasted when she heard that the sisters had come forward asking for solo parts this year.

"Every child should have this opportunity. . . . Showtime is a blessing out of the sky," she said. "There are a lot of good people there that really love the children.

"They get the biggest kick out of hearing themselves. . . . I will do anything to get the children anywhere they want to go," she added.

More Confident Now

Tiffany Brotherton, a 16-year-old who knows exactly where she wants to go, was a Showtime soloist last year and says she is more confident now. She aims to study musical theater "or maybe (make) a record."

"I had never worked with a large group of people before," Tiffany said, adding that the experience taught her professionalism and cooperation. The Duarte High School sophomore starts classes this fall at the competitive Los Angeles County High School for the Arts.

"I didn't think I was good enough before to apply," Tiffany said.

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