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Putting Humor to Work

Young actress will lead televised effort to encourage kids to volunteer locally.

October 15, 1998|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most kids know Ashley, Nickelodeon's darling little girl with the horrid temper, and they know what she'd say to get them to become community volunteers.

"We need your help, kids," she'd start off sweetly, then snarl, "So get out there and clean up your stinkin' park!"

Of course, Amanda Bynes, the spunky 12-year-old who plays Ashley on the comedy series "All That," will be nothing like that Saturday when she co-hosts Nickelodeon's "Big Help-a-Thon." The cable channel's annual live TV special features a cast of Hollywood stars who ask youngsters to pitch in and help improve their hometowns.

"The more people we get to help out, the better it will be for everybody," said the bubbly youngster, a lifelong Ventura County resident who in real life is nothing like the bratty Ashley.

Amanda seems to be a star on the ascent. She recently finished work on an untitled sitcom pilot that will give her a starring role if picked up next year, and she is about to start her third season on "All That," the No. 1-rated live-action children's show.

Meanwhile, she'll have a high-profile assignment on "Big Help-a-Thon," the centerpiece of Nick's $28-million nationwide Big Help campaign.

The eight-hour special, televised live on Nickelodeon from Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles, is aimed at getting young viewers to call a special phone number and vote for their hometowns to earn a Build-A-Park visit, a kind of make-over for a rundown playground.

Nick will send Big Help kits to callers' hometown officials to encourage volunteerism on such community projects as beautifying public land. The grand prize for the 10 communities with the most computer-tallied telephone votes will be a park make-over from Nickelodeon similar to the one volunteers and city workers will perform during Saturday's show.

"We're going to get a really nice, new playground," said Mary Braunwarth, Los Angeles Recreation and Parks director of corporate development.

Pan Pacific, in the city's Mid-Wilshire District, not far from the landmark La Brea tar pits, will be spruced up with $85,000 worth of slides, swings, sandboxes and jungle bars donated by Nickelodeon.

This year's daylong special has a new format. Previous Help-a-Thons asked young viewers simply to pledge volunteer hours. Kids last year placed 8 million calls, volunteering 85 million hours--but a lot of them didn't know what to do next. The new format is designed to facilitate volunteering.

"This is better for kids," said Amanda. "Before, I knew I wanted to help, but I didn't know how. Now you can call in and Nickelodeon will do the work for you."

"Our theme is kids helping out their parks--getting them to share, clean, fix, visit, care give, do" said the other "Big Help-a-Thon" co-host, Phil Moore, a physical, goofy-voiced comic who clowns his way through a stable of Nickelodeon game shows. The newest is "You're On," kind of a "Beat the Clock" meets "Candid Camera."

Moore and Amanda will introduce a parade of guest stars, including Rosie O'Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Allen.

Also on hand will be children's TV and film stars Larisa Oleynik ("Secret World of Alex Mack"), Steve Burns ("Blue's Clues"), Michelle Trachtenberg ("Harriet the Spy"), as well as Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell, key players on "All That."

"We love Amanda," Mitchell said during a lunch break while working on "Varsity Blues," a feature film. "She's our little sister."

Amanda is the youngest in a big, close-knit family. Her dad, Richard, is a gregarious bear of a dentist who has practiced in Thousand Oaks for 18 years.

He's apparently the young star's comic muse.

"We've been here so long, we came over with the Donner Party--we ate our first kids," he'll joke to a visitor to the family's sprawling ranch home not far from Mount Clef in east Ventura County.

He and his wife, Lynn, encouraged their older children, Tom, 24, and Jillian, 15, to participate in school productions and community theater, and Amanda tagged along. To their surprise, he said, Amanda took to reciting dialogue from memory when she was 7. So they enrolled her in comedy camp--kind of an acting school for stand-up comics.

"The first time I did it, I had such a good time, I said this is what I want to do when I grow up," Amanda recalls. "I just love making people laugh. I was playing for a live audience and it was so cool."

She later took a few turns on the community stage, earning laudatory notices from this newspaper for her portrayal of Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the lead in "The Secret Garden."

Then "All That" executive producer Brian Robbins plucked a 10-year-old Amanda from the crowded stage of a children's comedy showcase at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood.

"She jumped right out at us. She had great comedic timing and enormous charisma," Robbins said.

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