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Getting Kids' Attention in the Era of Britney Spears

Norman Foote and others have a few tricks up their sleeves for a series starting this week.

January 24, 2002|LESLIE GORNSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In an era of teen divas and boy bands, traditional children's performers have a hard enough time attracting an audience. But what's a kid's entertainer to do when even his own progeny prefer a Britney Spears CD to Dad performing live?

For Norman Foote, an award-winning singer, songwriter and puppeteer who has released five CDs, the trick is to let the audience pitch in. Booked to perform Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Foote prides himself on interactive stories and songs that both parents and kids love. Still, he knows what he'll be up against.

"Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync--that is what they really want to hear," says the Vancouver-based Foote, whose two youngest children are 6 and 8. "I know my kids do, but some of us have survived, and that is really lucky."

By us he means the kinds of performers who will be joining him during the Performing Arts Center's second-annual Family Saturdays series, which starts this weekend.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday January 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Music Center--A story in Thursday's Calendar Weekend about the Music Center of Los Angeles' Family Saturday series incorrectly identified the Music Center as the Performing Arts Center.

Foote, the first act, will sing songs from his latest album, "One Thousand Pennies," accompanied by a few giant puppets that he calls "props with attitude."

He'll be followed in the coming months by African and Mexican dancers and a comic/poet. There will be an acting troupe that will introduce kids to gender issues with a tale about a boy who wakes up one day to find himself a girl. There also will be musicians who play their own instruments. The performances, once or twice a month, run through June 1.

No pyrotechnic displays, backup vocalists, roadies or spandex. Just modest events at small prices--as little as $5--bolstered by creativity and a love for the living arts.

Series organizer Lynn Jenner said she created the series last year as a way for kids to learn about the performing arts in all of its rich traditions--not just through the bits and pieces heard on the radio or seen on TV.

Jenner is an Emmy Award-winning producer of PBS programming and a former fifth- and sixth-grade teacher and wanted something that could educate without feeling like a lecture.

"We wanted a program that appeals to the whole family," Jenner said. "We wanted it interactive, we wanted it fun and where they are also learning something.... It is entertainment, but it is not fluff."

Underwritten by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and United California Bank, the series was not planned as a profit-making venture, Jenner said. Instead, she hopes the series will help to advertise the Performing Arts Center and draw audiences to its other music programs, such as the L.A. Philharmonic or the L.A. Opera.

"We don't even begin to break even," Jenner said. "It is something we all felt strongly about, that this program could operate as outreach, as an investment in the community."

Jenner also took pains to make the shows accessible in other ways. The series is actually two sets of four performances, one aimed at children ages 3 to 6, the other for kids in elementary school.

The Pillow Theatre shows for younger tots have no raised stage. Instead, children in the audience sit on cushions on the floor while performers stand in their midst, encouraging interaction. The layout also allows everyone an unobstructed view of the action--a sensitive point among very young children, Jenner said.

"With the Pillow Theatre, the kids don't hold themselves back at all," Jenner said. "They just giggle and laugh, and when the performer asks a question, all these hands go up. They all want to answer."

Meanwhile, the Young Arts series is aimed at kids ages 5 to 9. Last year's Young Arts series invited kids as old as 12, but, Jenner soon found, "we were competing with soccer."

This will be Foote's first time performing for the series, and his act, titled "Step to It," will be part of Pillow Theatre. He plans to tell stories based on his own childhood, including a tale of a family cat dubbed "Mother" after she bore a litter.

In his decade as an entertainer, Foote says he's gotten the biggest laughs when he reaches into the more cringe-worthy moments of his own past.

"It was always embarrassing to say, 'Someone get mother off the table,' or 'Mother is standing on the counter again,'" Foote said.

Then again, Foote says, better to share such embarrassment than lose his audience to Spears.

"It's a healthy alternative," he says.

If the Family Saturdays concept goes well, Jenner hopes to take the series on the road in a few years.

"That would take the center's name out to the public," Jenner said. "It's one dream I have."

*

Norman Foote's "Step to It," Saturday at 11 a.m. in the Grand Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A. $7; all four programs, $20. (213) 202-2287.

Information: www.musiccenter. org/familysaturdays.html.

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