BURBANK — Around the Walt Disney Studios, Riley Ray Chiorando is one of the eager young faces looking to get a toehold in an industry that can be brutal, especially to someone with empty pockets.
Chiorando, a 23-year-old graduate of DePauw University in Indiana, got his foot in the door by winning a coveted internship from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Throughout the summer he has been toiling away--grunt work, mostly--on the set of "Home Improvement."
The two-month internship pays a meager $1,600, but it's worth its weight in gold to hungry college graduates vying for a shot at a full-time job working behind the scenes with actors, writers and directors.
While most of the interns are marked by a determination to succeed, supplemented by well-to-do parents who can subsidize the low pay, Chiorando stands alone in his iron-fisted determination to survive. Improbably, he has gotten this far after growing up homeless on the streets of New York City.
When both his parents became caught up in the world of drugs, he did not wait for them to abandon him; at 14, he abandoned them and charted a remarkable course on his own.
"He's not some poor, sad kid," said Barbara Campbell, a New York writer who became Chiorando's mentor when he was in high school. "He finds a spin that will help him through no matter what."
Chiorando's earliest memories are of living in a loft on the Lower East Side with a mother and father who sold drugs to support their habits and pay the rent. In the vagaries of the dope world, he and his two sisters were lavished with expensive toys while being nearly starved on a diet of rice and mashed potatoes. He was the boy with dazzling wit and charm who dressed in rags and wore galoshes on sunny days.
Even amid the ravages, he remembers tender moments: his father reading books to him, his mother singing songs and making beautiful Halloween costumes.
At 14, Chiorando, an inquisitive sponge, passed the competitive entrance exam to attend the city's prestigious public Stuyvesant High School for high-achieving students.
That same year, he left the house for good.
His father was living on the streets--selling dime bags of heroin from a stone bench on a grassy island in the middle of a busy street. His two sisters remained with their mother and her physically abusive boyfriend, who Chiorando said once locked him in the closet for several hours.
"My mother tried to stop me from going," he said. "She said: 'You're only 14. How are you going to live out there? Who are you going to stay with? What are you going to do?'
"I told her: 'I'll find a way to get by. I'll make it.' And I survived and she didn't."
His mother became infected with the AIDS virus and died last year. Years earlier, his father had died from a drug-related heart attack.
On the streets, the boy lived from friend to friend, moving out when he sensed he was wearing out his welcome. Sometimes there were no options and he had to spend the night in a teen shelter, a risky proposition.
"Once in the middle of the night, I was sleeping in a shelter and heard someone saying, 'He's got nice shoes. Get the shoes!' "
To earn money, he worked part time as a copy clerk at the New York Times and played the harmonica on the streets for tips. He would stand in line for free tickets to "Saturday Night Live" shows, then scalp them to tourists.
"John Belushi would have been proud," Chiorando said.
At school, he was seen as an eccentric who did not care about his appearance or grades, which plummeted because he had no place to study. He worked in the school's clothing drive, and he was a peer counselor helping classmates resolve personal problems.
"Secretly, he wished he had some of the problems that the students he was giving advice to had," said mentor Campbell.
By his senior year, Chiorando had run out of steam. He was short of credits to graduate from high school and losing hope. With the help of Campbell and others, he took and passed the high school equivalency exam. With some prodding, he sent out college applications, visited a number of campuses and talked his way into several full scholarships, including one at DePauw.
"I had to find a way to get to college so I could get a bed for four years," he said.
But DePauw, a preppy institution whose most famous graduate is former Vice President Dan Quayle, was a shock to the brash New Yorker who was used to getting his way on the streets.
"It was no question he was an outcast at first and maybe till the end," said Richard Roth, an English professor. "It was fair to say that he was made fun of by some of the other students, but he never lost his own esteem for anything."
Chiorando could subsist in ways that other students could not. Roth recalls that when he asked the student whether he had enough to eat, Chiorando showed him an industrial size can of pork and beans. "He was eating that for two or three days," the teacher said.