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Wanted: High Hopes, Low Pay

Entertainment: With dreams of making contacts and becoming a star, would-be studio tour guides face grueling hurdles. Most fail.

June 18, 2001|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It may be the hardest-to-get minimum wage job in town. Steve Dawson found that out when he began reading his script under the intense gaze of two executives at Universal Studios Hollywood. Right away, his voice sputtered.

"Stop," the first executive interrupted. "A little more enthusiasm."

Dawson, 25, shifted, took a deep breath and tried again. This time, his voice soared an octave.

"Lose the DJ voice," the second executive said.

Dawson lost the voice. And like hundreds of Hollywood's wide-eyed hopefuls, he lost his chance to become a studio tour guide, one of the hottest entry-level gigs in show business. More than all the table waiting, car parking and coffee fetching stints that promise dreamers entree into the industry, the tour guide job demands a range of talent and depth of dedication that weeds out most applicants early on.

It is also as coveted as ever. Never mind the long odds against landing a spot behind the tour microphone in the first place--or the even longer ones that it will somehow open doors to acting, producing, directing or screenwriting careers.

With the economic downturn and the possibility of a summer actors' strike, studios such as Universal, Warner Bros. and Sony report being inundated with applications from would-be guides, many of whom believe that conducting tours will lead the way to fame and fortune, despite a starting salary as low as $6.25 an hour.

Southland studios employ roughly 300 guides, and consider up to 10 applicants for every opening. The prospects undergo rigorous interviews or auditions, ending for most with a withering "Thanks but no thanks."

"It doesn't feel great," Dawson said in a flat tone, the day after Universal rejected him. "I thought I'd get it."

For the aspiring actor--and many others--the beginning of the end came in a chilly office at Universal CityWalk.

In the tiny waiting room with the bright white walls, a handful of applicants paced, fidgeted and unleashed long, tortured sighs.

In a corner window office sat the scrutinizing Michael Sington and Julie Harders Mazer, the director and manager, respectively, for studio guide casting and development at Universal's studio and theme park, which employs 160 to 200 guides a year, the largest pool in the industry. From a group of 125 applicants, they will reject all but 12 to 15.

Between interviews, the pair acknowledged that they were looking only for star tour guides, those with a talent for entertaining, articulating, appeasing, educating and memorizing as well as a flair for drama, humor and improvisation. The guides lead scripted tram tours of back lots, sound stages and staged attractions involving an earthquake, Jaws and King Kong.

"We've had an embarrassment of riches in the people applying," Sington, a former Universal guide, said as he leaned on his desk, hands folded and smiling. "It's so selective. We only take the best."

The candidates being interviewed had already survived two rounds. They memorized movie trivia, waded through cold script readings, delivered extemporaneous speeches, bubbled with enthusiasm and charm, schmoozed with executives and turned in sparkling resumes, preferably with college degrees.

About 50 black and white head shots of Universal tour guides hung on Sington's office walls, as if to intimidate the wannabes. The photos greeted Marsha Henry, 28, an English-born actress who quit her job in Miami to follow her dreams of stardom.

Slim, with dark curls, Henry sat straight in the hard chair facing Sington and Mazer. Her right leg twitched. She stumbled on her words. And midway through, she stopped and rubbed her temples as if she had a migraine. With a nervous laugh, she said: "There's so much information swirling in my head."

Next . . .

Pursuing an Acting Career

Friendly, average sized, with brown hair that his agent recommends should be longer, Dawson, who recently moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, slouched in the hot seat. He bemoaned his failed attempts to find a job in such a "horrible" market. He mentioned to the interviewers that he loves to watch "Friends," a TV show filmed at nearby Warner Bros. They didn't appear impressed.

Next . . .

In sauntered Linda Keith Porter, a fit, dark-haired 55-year-old who looked years younger. A British mother from Encino, she glided into the chair as if she owned it and gave a riveting reading--dramatic pause and all--of how Universal's founder, Carl Laemmle, mortgaged the studio to finance the 1936 production of the musical "Showboat."

"She's got it," Sington said joyfully.

As for those rejected, they had better get used to it. "This is Hollywood," Sington said.

In years past, Universal deemed famed Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz, film director John Badham and actor Jack Wagner worthy enough to lead tours.

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