Mark Henson graduated from high school 11 years ago, but he still hangs out with a pretty young crowd.
A professional singer and voice instructor, the 28-year-old Henson directs the Young Entertainers, a nonprofit, North Orange County song-and-dance troupe of 28 high school students. The youths, who receive free weekly vocal and movement training from Henson and other professionals, will present their annual holiday concert "Winter Winds" tonight through Saturday at Brea's Curtis Theatre.
Henson and his kids have literally grown up together. A 1980 graduate of Fullerton's Troy High School, he said he was dissatisfied with the "dwindling" music programs in his district and began looking for ways to give high schoolers ongoing training and performance opportunities. In 1981, at the age of 19, he enlisted the aid of former classmates and district music instructors and founded what would ultimately become the Young Entertainers.
There were few public performances in those early years, but encouraged by high marks at two high school choral competitions, the Fullerton College Jazz Festival and San Diego's Tops in Pops event, the group continued to grow. Public interest grew as well, said Henson, and the group now entertains regularly at everything from civic festivals to corporate parties. The Christmas show is the group's seventh annual at the Curtis Theatre; its members also present a spring variety show there each year.
"Winter Winds" will feature 16 members of the troupe performing traditional and contemporary holiday tunes ranging from "Carol of the Bells" to "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer." The finale includes a Christmas medley capped off by a 30-second song sampler--snatches of eight popular tunes sung in quick succession.
The chance for teen-agers to work together as entertainers and perform for the public is "such an important part of the whole growing-up thing," Henson said. "It builds relationships. All of these kids come from different economic and family backgrounds, but they share a common love of performing." Participation in the group is open to any county resident between the ages of 14 and 18. Each week during the school year, the students meet with Henson and his three-member staff at Placentia High School. Vocal coach Jo Monteleone and Henson help them polish their singing skills while Kimberley Hahn, a regular choreographer of Disneyland shows and parades, and Dede Madrigal, owner of a private dance studio in Fullerton, lead them in movement exercises and dance routines. The performers are also offered hands-on industry experience. Each year they cut a demonstration tape in a professional recording studio, and they have taped cable television specials and a promotional video for the Boy Scouts of America's National Exploring Program.
The Young Entertainers pay nothing for their training. Instead, the group covers most of its costs through ticket and program sales at its two annual concerts, booking fees for private parties and small donations by local businesses and individuals.
While many graduates of the group do go on to study the performing arts in college or land jobs as entertainers, the program's real lessons go far beyond do-re-mi, Henson said.
"Not all of these kids aspire to be professionals," he noted. "This is a terrific forum for social development, in that they have to represent themselves in a variety of situations and to a variety of people. It's a real confidence-builder."