By Ray Stern
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According to the results of an informal neighborhood poll, I am the only parent alive who has no desire to see his kids become professional models, star in their own breakfast cereal commercials or topline a weekly television sitcom.
Hell, it's hard enough to evolve into a normal human being under normal circumstances. In kiddie show biz, the best that can happen (your offspring becomes the next Gary Coleman) is the worst that can happen (your offspring becomes the next Gary Coleman). The streets of Hollywood are littered with the parent-suing, alcoholic, drug- addicted, hopelessly screwed-up and/or self-destructed remains of former six-year-old wunderkinds who had it all, lost their adorability quotient and never recovered.
Yet moms and dads everywhere would like nothing more than to push their children into that glittery swamp. Why?
That's what I asked Darlene Wyatt and Liz Romero, casting directors for the Phoenix-based Film Producer's Warehouse, which auditions more than 3,000 children a year for roles in commercials, television shows and motion pictures. Their response: "If the child wants to do it, why not?"
"I realize that the business eats people up," Wyatt says, "and that fame is hard for anybody to handle. But this industry isn't what destroys kids. It's their parents. The kids who don't make it are the ones without sensible guidance, who aren't grounded, who aren't told, `This is something that may not last long--and while it does, you aren't going to be treated any differently.'
"We've had kids through here who've become quite successful, and we've seen lots of negative changes . . . in the parents. They get obsessive, greedy. We just had a casting for a Power Wheels commercial--the little cars kids can actually climb into and drive. Well, this one little boy, about three, wouldn't get into the car, wouldn't say his name, he just didn't want any part of it. And his parents were furious: `You mean to tell me we drove all the way down here for you to not even get into the car?!?' "These are sick and very scary people. And that boy is going to have to deal with their problems no matter what he does--when he goes to school, when his dad wants him to play baseball and he can't hit the ball. He is never going to live up to their expectations."
The sad irony, Wyatt notes, is that parental expectations invariably have no connection to the casting director's needs. "The worst thing that can happen is when a child is drilled on the way to an audition, because ten times out of ten we're not doing anything near what the parent has instructed."
Romero remembers one young girl who'd been aggressively groomed for preschool beauty pageants. "She came in and said, `Hello! My name is so-and-so, and I'm from Tem-pee, Ar-i-zona!' She sounded like a wind-up doll. I worked with her and worked with her, telling her to just talk to me, like she talks to her friends. Well, as soon as the camera was turned on, she said, `Hello! My name is so-and-so, and I'm from Tem-pee, Ar-i-zona!'"
Wyatt and Romero agree that the kids who belong in the business are those who don't need drilling, grooming, prodding or verbal beatings. They need to be naturally outgoing-- like the nine-year-old boy who walked into his first audition and said, "Tell me what you want, I'll do it, and I'll get the job." Recalls Romero, "He did get the part. That kid should be in this business. It's the perfect combination: He's good, he loves it, and he gets healthy support from his folks."
For parents who think they're raising a budding Shirley Temple, Emmanuel Lewis or Rusty Hamer, Wyatt offers these tips: "Don't drag them here if they don't want to come. If a child doesn't like doing this, he's not going to perform. If he has a short attention span or hates strangers, forget it. Don't primp them, and don't put your little girl in a party dress. The kids that work the most are the kids who are absolutely real.
"And that have all their teeth," Romero adds, "with no braces. Years ago, we had a little freckle-faced boy who got lots of work because he was so cute. Then he got braces . . . and never worked again."
Now, really. How could any loving parents subject their cute, freckle-faced child to such a cold and heartless business?
"Let me tell you something," Wyatt says. "A while back we did a ten-second tag for a Froot Loops commercial, with five or six local kids. That tag was used in a half-dozen different spots. The last time I heard, each of those kids had made $25,000 apiece. They paid for their college educations in one day, and . . . "
I wanted to let Wyatt finish her thought. But I was suddenly overcome by the urge to rush home to drill, groom and prod my children. Maybe the Hollywood gutter isn't such a bad place to grow up after all.
"We had a little freckle-
faced boy who got lots of work because he was so cute. Then he got braces . . . and never worked again.