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Show Biz Disease

Kids and Their Parents May Not Be Prepared for What Comes With an Acting Career, Says One Who's Seen Some Sad Results

November 03, 2000|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Child actor advocate Paul Petersen has seen parents pay as much as $2,000 to "management consultants" offering services to prepare children for entering the world of show business.

Save your money, advises the former child actor, who will conduct a seminar, "Your Child in Show Business: Charting the Safest Course," on Saturday through Extended Education at Cal State Fullerton.

"Getting started in the entertainment business should cost no more than $250, period," Petersen said. That's enough to pay for professional head shots and the mailing costs associated with finding an agent, he said.

"But here's the problem," Petersen said. "We now have a new force at work on the fringes of the entertainment business called managers or management consultants," and these high-fee consultants do not possess any secrets.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 4, 2000 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Seminar--Child-actor advocate Paul Petersen's seminar, "Your Child in Show Business: Charting the Safest Course," which was scheduled to be held at Cal State Fullerton today, has been canceled. The university's Extended Education plans to offer the seminar next summer. For more information and to receive notification of the new date, call Amy Johnson at (714) 278-4351.

"They become what we call portfolio mills. They're selling a package that includes head shots, possible interview training, charm school--any manner of things which are, in the main, perfectly useless."

Managers, Petersen said, "are not registered with the state. They are not franchised by the theatrical unions, and yet at a minimum they charge 15% of any potential gross income. And here is the kicker: They are by law not allowed to solicit for employment or to negotiate for contracts. That's the theatrical agent's job.

"Now the net result if you sign with a manager at the beginning of your child's career is you've given away 15% for nothing."

That's not to say managers can't be an asset later on, Petersen said. "When a career is well underway and you have a crush of possibilities, a manager can really earn his keep. But for rookies--people just beginning--it is absolutely unnecessary."

Petersen, 55, who played Jeff on "The Donna Reed Show" (1958-66), is the founder and president of A Minor Consideration, a nonprofit support foundation created a decade ago to aid former child stars who were experiencing sometimes headline-generating emotional and financial difficulties.

But while Petersen's original goal was to intervene and provide rescue services for troubled former child actors, he quickly learned that "intervention is very time-consuming; prevention is much more cost-effective."

"There is no reason for people to make mistakes that the previous 80 years of kid actors and their parents have made."

As an educator on child-actor issues, Petersen has spoken nearly 50 times this year on such topics as the Child Labor Coalition and the International Department of Labor. His organization, whose core membership numbers 600 former child stars and about 1,200 associate members, has lobbied for--and helped draft--six state laws aimed at protecting the welfare of child actors.

Virtually every story of abuse and exploitation of children in the entertainment business is the result of naivete and inexperience, said Petersen, who fully supports children working in the arts. "Just like fine arts programs throughout the educational system, it's an enriching experience for the child when done safely and with some knowledge."

But a child's entry into show business is fraught with potential dangers and "an unreasonable threshold of expectations--that if your child gets one national commercial, for example, he will make $80,000. That's absurd." More realistic, Petersen said, is that the child might make $4,000 from a single commercial. And even more realistic "is that 99% of all the children that enter the entertainment business never work."

Among the areas Petersen will cover in his seminar are:

* How, as a parent wishing to support your child's show-business ambition, do you objectively weigh and measure your child's skill? And how do you go about safely entering the world of show business?

* What factors in a child's life will be put at risk by that kind of focus? Among the danger signs: slipping grades, alienation from longtime friends, obsessive attention to body image, falling in with odd and unusual people.

* What does a child working in show business really mean for a family? If both parents are working, who's going to take the kid to the job or the audition? And remember, Petersen said, at auditions "it is the child--and the child of very tender years--who walks into that inner office alone. Mommy doesn't walk in with that child."

New Protection Law

Petersen also will discuss the legal stature of children in the workplace. A California law, which Petersen's organization helped to pass last year requires up to 20% of a child performer's earnings to be put in trust until the performer reaches age 18.

Petersen said his seminar also will include a discussion of the importance of child actors having "an exit strategy, even when they begin the process of entering the entertainment business." Becoming a successful child actor is no guarantee that acting jobs will continue into adulthood. Parents, Petersen emphasized, should always be primarily focused on their child's education and character development.

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