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WORKING : The Busy Side of Show Biz : Personal assistants to the stars say they juggle the mundane details of life with the glamour of being linked to a celebrity.

June 30, 1995|SCOTT SHIBUYA BROWN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a veteran provider of the city's most quintessential service, Ron Holder is used to getting the best perks. He has flown the Concorde, trod the red carpet at film premieres and been up close and personal at the Oscars (third row center, right behind Tom Hanks).

He has lazed on movie sets, toured first class throughout Australia and New Zealand, and sat around a piano belting out show tunes with Liza Minnelli.

And although most days find him desk-bound, engaged in work as nondescript as any office grunt's--and occasionally putting in a 60-hour week--the former talent coordinator with the quick sense of humor acknowledges that he has yet to meet someone who has better fringe benefits.

Meet Ron Holder, celebrity personal assistant.

In a city where the anonymous clamor to become fitness trainers, veterinarians or aroma therapists to the stars, the job of personal assistant has long been the coveted celebrity service gig--the proverbial top of the schlep heap.

There are 2,000 to 3,000 assistants collecting the dry-cleaning and stockpiling the Sauvignon of the town's show biz folk. And as awareness of it as a legitimate career has spread, and as more and more publicity--both good and bad--has been accorded celebrity assistants, the number of people looking to become P.A.s has never been greater.

The vocation has become so visible that it boasts a member organization: the Studio City-based Assn. of Celebrity Personal Assistants.

Founded three years ago, the 150-member nonprofit organization is both a support group and information clearinghouse. It sponsors workshops and provides job referrals and legal assistance to its members.

Most important, said founder Jonathan Holiff, it puts celebrity personal assistants in touch with one another--not to gripe about their celebrity bosses but rather to better handle the intricacies of their job.

"It's a lonely profession," said Holiff, a former personal assistant to actor Alan Thicke. "The only ones who understand what you do are other personal assistants."

Olivia Barham, assistant to actor LeVar Burton, agrees: "This is not a regular job."

To most people, said Holiff, being a personal assistant to a star seems like a glamour gig, akin to being a celebrity's best friend and confidant. And some of that is real.

"Basically, the assistant is the star's shield," said Brooke Plantenga, assistant to "Cagney & Lacey" co-star Sharon Gless. "It's a very personal job. You know everything about the person."

Moreover, it also could mean entree into a glamorous lifestyle filled with rich and famous people. With the power and access provided by their employers' names, assistants can often skate across the landscape of the entertainment business in ways that few others can.

"As a personal assistant, your phone calls are returned because it's assumed you're calling on behalf of the celebrity," Holiff said. "It's not inconceivable that a personal assistant could get Mike Ovitz on the phone where a lot of producers and directors could not. It's an imagined power but it's one you hold while in the position."

But Plantenga and others say there is another side to the job, one that speaks to the dirty work involved in coordinating a celebrity's life. In addition to being extremely organized, said Holiff, a good personal assistant must be willing and able to do everything at a moment's notice ("You are not above or below doing anything") and has to be equal parts manager, errand person, publicist and psychologist. Though one day may involve rehearsing lines or trading input on a creative project, the next might easily be taken up with unclogging a stuck toilet.

Moreover, the hours are long and the pay relatively so-so. Holiff said that recent informal surveys done by his group found that members earned about $42,000 a year, with half receiving full benefits or health coverage from their employers. The average work week? About 58 hours, with most assistants saying it would be longer if it were up to their bosses. "They see you more than they see their wife," Barham joked.

Yet the lure of being in show business, even on a tangential basis, is enough to override most of the applicants' apprehension. One recent Learning Annex class on how to break into the field drew nearly 60 curious and mostly well-dressed P.A. "wanna-bes," ranging in age from the mid-20s to older than 50.

"I've always been fascinated by show business and I see myself as a support-type person," said James Tryheart of Studio City, one of only a handful of men in the class. "I like creating an environment for someone."

Donna Sitz of Whittier, who after the class said she "definitely wanted" to become an assistant, said: "I would like to be a part of the creative field, even though it's in the background. I want to do something that's important for somebody's life."

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