The radio spots for the Saturday talent search had suggested that the next Macaulay Culkin was maybe in your home.
On the big day, 500 hopefuls--most with mama or papa in tow--were jostling for position at the doors of the Hyatt Regency ballroom.
"Our first cattle call," said Dayna Schenker-Greene of Marina del Rey, smoothing a wayward blond strand on 4-year-old daughter Jordyn's head. "She's been wanting to do this for a very long time."
Onstage, a cheerleader warmed up the crowd: "How many actors do I have out here? Do I have some actresses out here?" The response was a roar.
This happening was running 45 minutes late and even Jim Lord, owner of host Beverly Hills Studios--a school for aspiring actors--was helping set up more chairs.
The real pitch was about to begin. Out trotted two alums: Austin St. John of "Power Rangers" and Bonnie "Saved by the Bell" Russavage.
"There's always going to be someone who's cuter, funnier, prettier, handsomer," offered Bonnie, to those flirting with fame. So, hey, just be yourself.
One by one, the kids paraded up and spoke into the camera. Name, age, assigned ID number. Some were barely audible. Others came on like Baby June. One spouted his number, then added, "and don't lose it!"
Maria Hijazi had brought her son, Salim, 6, from Montebello. "He's talking four languages," she volunteered--Armenian, Arabic, Spanish and English. And he's only in first grade.
Kimberly Taft, at 18 an older kid in this lineup, didn't seem quite sure why she'd come all the way from San Diego. The blond waitress/model, whose decolletage revealed a rose tattoo, said, "I don't plan on paying for any classes. I've been told if you have it, you don't need classes."
But others, responding to follow-up calls, were in class a week later. At Beverly Hills Studios they would be taught to act in commercials and/or TV and films and learn the business of show business: getting an agent, all about unions, reading the trades.
At one session, Nancy Sullivan, a veteran of commercials, was teaching beginners. First, a few words about shoulder pads--"You look like a truck on camera." Now, "Do we have any huge-fingernail people here?"
Giggling and cringing, students watched themselves on film. "Smile!" commanded Sullivan, razzing one boy about his "America's Most Wanted" look. Don't twitch. Don't scratch. And "Don't ask me what your name is. Tell me."
Down the hall, in an advanced class, perky teacher Victoria Hoffman was exhorting teen-age girls doing a fake take for Skittles to think perky. "If you feel like an idiot, you're probably doing it right."
A few evenings later, it was showcase time at Beverly Hills Studios. Ten talent agencies had come for the debuts of 48 students, ranging in age from 6 to 33. Each was armed with a list for checking those who interested them.
As students went through their choreographed pitches for shampoo, hamburgers, deodorant, the agents looked for energy . That's the buzzword.
Shana O'Neil of the Bobby Ball Agency scribbled "acty" by some names. The kiss of death. But she and just about everyone else fell for a 10-year-old charmer named Stefanie, an Orange County blonde, as they're known in the trade. "This little girl could sell you anything."
Later, teacher Bob Bancroft, an actor himself, flipped through the check lists, calculating that about 90 agent interviews would come out of tonight's showcase. Also-rans would be recirculated.
For a few, their training here would prove to be mainly what he termed "a growing and learning experience"--an experience that can cost a couple of thousand dollars.
It would be foolish, said Jim Lord, to turn anyone away on the basis of looks or talent: "People think if you're not a 10, you can't work in the industry. It's totally untrue." But the school, now six years old, does weed out kids--and parents--who don't seem committed. Job auditions are often last-minute calls; a parent must drop everything and play chauffeur.
A Saturday talent search that attracts 500 will, typically, bring in 60-70 new students. "Money becomes an issue," Lord said, as does the realization that acting is work. "One of the things we work on here is the difference between dreams and reality."
In an average year, 800 students will complete classes and, Lord estimated, 65-85% of them will get agents.
Are there enough gigs out there?
Bancroft talked about an "explosion" of kids' roles. But Larry Corsa of Epstein Wyckoff Lamanna agency said, "The supply has already exceeded the demand." Still, agencies keep coming back, looking for a few good kids.
Does one really need to go to school to pitch pizza? "Absolutely not," Corsa said. Some kids will be called from unsolicited photos sent by parents.
But Corsa has been very lucky with kids from Beverly Hills Studios. He's found them savvy, yet not robotized--in short, not "Shirley Templed out."