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WITH AN EYE ON . . . : When 'Clarissa' (a.k.a. Melissa) speaks, teens listen

July 03, 1994|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outfitted in a glamorous, slinky maroon dress, Melissa Joan Hart lounges on the carpeted back steps of Los Angeles' famed Pantages Theatre, where she's just made an appearance on Nickelodeon's "Kids' Choice Awards." Hart bares little resemblance to her alter-ego, the loquacious Clarissa who explains it all to 'tweeners throughout the nation.

But when Hart speaks, the ebullience she gives Clarissa shines through. When she proudly holds up her right hand, middle finger sparkling with a ruby-and-diamond ring, and proclaims it the only ring she's ever gotten from a boy, there's little doubt that she's every bit a teen as Clarissa.

By next fall, both are moving on, up and out. Nick's popular "Clarissa Explains It All," part of the Saturday-night "Snick" block, is heading to CBS, possibly as a prime-time midseason replacement. But that doesn't mean she's disappearing from Nick. This summer, new episodes shot as part of "Clarissa's" original 65 episodes for Nick will air on the cable channel, which will also strip in weekday repeats, beginning in October.

The show, which creator Mitchell Kriegman calls "a family sitcom from the inside out, with Clarissa talking to the camera about her family," will continue to run on Nickelodeon indefinitely.

"Clarissa's moving out of her parents' house," Hart explains of the revamped show, originally set in a small rural town, where the show focused on Clarissa, her family and her famed sibling rivalry with brother Ferguson (Jason Zimbler). "And into the city. She'll get a job at a big-city newspaper."

Clarissa, Kriegman says, is "one big empowerment fantasy. Both girls and boys watch this show, because here's a girl who's got it all together. She may have problems, but she's always got a plan. As a role model, that's excellent."

Meanwhile, the 18-year-old Hart has a plan of her own. Along with her parents, and her own five siblings--which include a new baby--she's moving out of bustling Manhattan and into a sprawling country home in upstate New York.

"With the new baby and everything, we weren't sure what we were going to do," Hart says. "We talked about getting a bigger town home in Manhattan, where I could live on the bottom floor, with a separate entrance and still go upstairs to eat and visit whenever I wanted to."

After much searching, the family settled on a home in a more rural area, where Hart has a separate residence on the same property. She's prepared, though, to live part-time in Los Angeles, where the CBS version of "Clarissa" will shoot.

In addition to an album, Hart's made two videos: "Take My Brother, Please!" (a look at sibling relationships) and "Dating."

Hart, whose high school education came via a tutor on the Nick "Clarissa" set in Florida, tries to live by Clarissa's code: "The big message is to not give in to peer pressure and not to let just anyone influence what you do and don't let them tell you what to do."

Hart's had significant influence on her own siblings, who all share acting aspirations (well, not the new baby--yet). All have appeared in commercials and a younger sister is currently in the Broadway production of "Tommy." Hart started acting at the age of 4 and worked in both television and theater before landing the role of Clarissa.

Hart acknowledges that while there's a lot going on right now, she's going to take things one at a time. Currently, the recent high school grad is with friends on a month-long biking tour of Paris. When fall rolls around, she's prepared to don some of Clarissa's trend-setting teen garb and start talking to the camera again.

"Clarissa Explains It All" airs 8-8:30 p.m. Saturdays during the "Snick" block on Nickelodeon.

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