CARROLLTON, TEXAS — Barney the dinosaur, a beloved toddler's icon to some and a cultural punching bag to others, has taken on a new role: steppingstone.
"Barney & Friends," filmed in a nondescript office building in suburban Dallas, has lately become a launching pad for child stars shooting along the career path blazed by Miley Cyrus and a generation of Mouseketeers before her.
The 1990s version of "The Mickey Mouse Club" launched the careers of singers Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and actors Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling. In similar fashion, "Barney & Friends" for the last few years has been a training ground for several aspiring child actresses.
"Barney" ex Demi Lovato, a 16-year-old from Dallas, starred with the Jonas Brothers in a popular children's musical "Camp Rock." Selena Gomez, a 16-year-old from Grand Prairie, Texas, went on to the Disney program "Wizards of Waverly Place." Both girls have signed music contracts.
A third "Barney" alum, Madison Pettis, a 10-year-old from Arlington, Texas, has appeared in "Seven Pounds" with Will Smith and "The Game Plan" with Dwayne Johnson.
Their post-"Barney" successes have inspired current Barney cast member Victoria Lennox, an 11-year-old from Flower Mound, Texas, who is in her fourth season on the show.
"I look at them as my role model," Victoria said. "This is going to be a great little steppingstone for me. I want to follow in their footsteps."
Talent agents praised the show for providing a healthy environment for child actors and said it benefits from a deep pool of talented kids who have no other regular outlet for acting.
"Dallas has become a market that is very heavily scouted by the L.A. agents because we have turned out a number of good kids that are rising," said Lisa Dawson, owner of the Kim Dawson Agency.
"Barney" wasn't always a pit stop on the road to pop stardom. The show started in 1987 and has aired on PBS since 1992. During its early years, most cast members did not go on to fame and fortune in show business. Now in their 20s and early 30s, those original cast members became an attorney, a hair stylist, a cook, a dance instructor and a rapper.