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Lights! Camera! Books! Teachers Play Role on Sets : * Education: Instructors give lessons to child actors between scenes. They also keep an eye on working conditions for the state Labor Commission.

December 25, 1991|PETER BENNETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

W ANTED: Open-minded teachers with elementary and secondary teaching credentials to instruct creative, talented children for three hours a day in intimate setting on a studio lot. Minimal paperwork. Starting salary: $1,425 a week or $245 a day plus overtime. Unlimited opportunity for breaks, refreshments and schmoozing with Hollywood VIPs. Paid vacations every three weeks during school year.

But first, the small print and Lesson No. 1, which says remember Hollywood's Golden Axiom: Things are never as they seem.

Carol Gans, a studio teacher on the set of NBC's "The Torkelsons," learned that lesson on her first assignment to teach what she thought would be a 10-year-old.

"I got to the job and I saw all these cribs lined up," says the former Los Angeles Unified School District teacher. "I said, 'Why are all these baby cribs here?' And they said, 'Well, there's going to be 10 1-year-olds.' "

Which brings us to Lesson No. 2: Studio teachers do more than teach. Under state law, they also are responsible "for caring and attending to the health, safety and morals of minors under 16 years of age." So in addition to passing or failing a student, they can shut down a set.

"Yes, we have a lot of power," says Lynn Raines Levy, who taught in Los Angeles schools for 21 years before moving to the studio in 1986. "Sometimes you wish you had more. Sometimes you wish you had less."

And Lesson No. 3: Although studio teachers are mandated by the state, they are paid by the producer. As such, they have about as much job security as the actors they teach.

"Here every job is from week to week," says Levy, who teaches on the set of "Roseanne."

"Any time, they could turn to me, if somebody disagreed with what I said, and say, 'Goodby, see you' and have a new teacher in here Monday morning."

Welcome to the world of the studio teacher.

In the Los Angeles area, there are about 200 studio teachers. Under state law, they provide instruction to children who work in the entertainment industry--in print, television and the big screen.

But they also act as "eyes and ears" of the state Labor Commission and make sure child actors are protected, says Candy Jennings, a management service technician for the state's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.

"I get calls from teachers every day trying to clarify what constitutes moral conduct on the set," says Jennings. And sometimes, teachers learn, it's a gray area--something that is personally offensive is not necessarily morally wrong under state law.

Levy recalls working on a set with 3-month-old blond twins whose hair was periodically dyed black for their roles.

"I felt it was appalling," Levy recalls, still angry. "I mean to take 3-month-old (babies) and dye their hair, not once but maybe once a week for two months."

However, there was nothing illegal because the "health, safety and morals" of the children were not in jeopardy.

Michael Jacobs, executive producer of "The Torkelsons," which features five children under 16, says he tries to hire teachers who are flexible. Very often in the creative process, he notes, a director might have to petition a teacher for a few extra minutes to wrap a scene. If the director loses the setup, the production company could miss its delivery date.

"Depending on the age and disposition of the child . . . sometimes we get it and sometimes we don't," says Jacobs, a father of two who stresses the importance of studio teachers.

"These kids are going to be taught not only how to act and how to do their jobs, but how to live their lives," Jacobs says, "and the studio teacher is going to play the critical part in that process."

Jacobs' emphasis on education has impressed Pam Burnett, mother and manager of Olivia Burnett, who plays 14-year-old Dorothy Lee on "The Torkelsons."

"The crew will sometimes wait two hours until the kids finish school because the kids' education is that important to them," she says.

Except in rare instances where low-budget production companies try to cut corners by providing one teacher for 10 students--the maximum allowed by law--teachers and producers usually work well together. Surprisingly, studio teachers more often complain about the parents of the child stars.

"I mean, it's heartbreaking, some of things you see," Levy says. "A family picks up, you know, from Podunk, Iowa, leaves the father and sisters and brothers at home, and mom will take this child to California to be a star and do almost anything. Parents want their kids to work. They don't ask questions. They don't even know enough to ask questions.

"So part of my job as a teacher/welfare worker is to make parents aware that their child doesn't have to do this or that."

Each month, Jennings says, she receives one or two complaints of child labor code violations in the entertainment field, half of which are anonymous. She speculates that many are from parents who don't want their children to lose their jobs or from teachers afraid to openly make waves on the set.

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