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Who Wants to Be a $172 Host?

Theme parks: California Adventure is casting for its own 'Millionaire' emcees. The pay pales to Regis', but the gig could be an actor's big break.

July 17, 2001|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was the older gentleman from Lawndale who sang opera and tried to tap dance on the carpet, and a young woman in a midriff top who talked about seeing live butterflies pinned to her bedroom walls.

There was the Anaheim woman who listed face-painting as one of her best skills and grinned so hard it looked painful. One man, resplendent in a blazing bright suit with a pink-and-red tie, heartily declared that life "is like a game of Yahtzee!"

All had 60 seconds Monday to show their stuff, vying to be one of a dozen or so chosen to host the upcoming "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" game show at Disney's California Adventure theme park. And for the team of five judges gathered at a Century City hotel, a minute was all it took.

The butterfly lady? Cut. Opera-tap dance guy? Also a no-go. But grinning girl and Yahtzee man drew praise; they'll be back for a second audition today.

"You know it when you see it," said Megan Bywater, a casting director for Disney Entertainment Productions. "And you usually know it within the first few seconds."

The new game-show attraction, scheduled to open next month, is one of several attempts by Disney this summer to boost attendance at California Adventure. The game, which has been a hit at Walt Disney World in Orlando, is played on a replica of the high-tech ABC-TV set, replete with lighting, music and a "hot seat" for contestants. Instead of money, visitors play for points, winning prizes such as pins, hats and shirts. The prize for scoring 1 million points is a trip to New York City to view a taping of the real show.

Although few of the roughly 100 aspiring actors who auditioned Monday had ever visited the new park, most were regarding the Regis Philbin role as the break they've been waiting for. If chosen, they could host as many as six shows a day before an audience of 600--for $172.

"You don't take acting gigs like this for the money," said an impatient Jenifer Masters, 21, who is majoring in theater at UCLA. "You take them for where they will ultimately take you. Disney's big, right? Well, this could be huge."

As the actors gathered at the (appropriately chosen) St. Regis Hotel in Century City, the waiting area was transformed into a studio of fidgety performers. They jogged in place, practiced their one-minute monologues in front of lobby mirrors and nervously cracked their necks and knuckles--oblivious of each other.

Marty Lublin, 31, flipped quickly through a magazine while reciting his lines out loud. The aspiring actor moved to Hermosa Beach eight years ago from New Jersey, but so far he has only landed a spot as a game-show contestant on MTV.

"I'm looking for a California Adventure, and I think this is a perfect fit for me," he gushed. "I can feel it."

Bywater and the others must have agreed. Lublin was one of 22 finalists chosen for a callback, along with Mario Rocha, 27, whom judges referred to as "having the stuff." Rocha, already a California Adventure employee, wore a Winnie the Pooh tie and belted out the "Millionaire" script with ease, prompting unusual applause from two of the casting directors.

"Ooooh, he's good," producer Mike West said. "He's very commanding, and he projects control."

Others weren't so lucky. One Regis hopeful came out of the audition room in a huff, clearly surprised he wasn't asked to return.

"They give you a minute--one minute!" the 29-year-old said, using his finger for emphasis. "I was just getting warmed up and they cut me off. How can they just sum up my talent like that? I feel like asking for a do-over."

Instead, the North Hollywood man, who was recently laid off from his job at Starbuck's, slung a backpack over his shoulder and prepared to leave. He refused to give his name, worried it would affect future auditions.

"I will never admit not getting a callback from Disney," he said in disgust. "My career would be over. OK, well, it'd be over before it even started. But still."

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