It's a scene right out of the movies. Director Martin Charnin comes round a corner of the Kennedy Center and sees ticket buyers lined up, up and away for his show. He grabs his beautiful star by the arm and tells her, a catch in his throat, "See that, my love, that's what it's all about."
Except, to grab this particular star by the arm, Charnin has to bend way down, because she's only 4-foot-7. And instead of responding with an appropriate bon mot, the star merely giggles and chomps down even harder on her Bubble Yum ("It makes the best bubbles") gum. This star, Andrea McArdle, is just 13 years old.
For someone who started acting at age eight because "first of all, I wanted to miss school," becoming an instant star by playing a spunky little comic book tyke can be disconcerting "It feels pretty good so far, I guess," she says, fiddling with some staples. "Yeah, it's exciting, but you feel funny saying it."
That uneasiness aside, though, Andrea is an extraordinarily self-posessed little person, and that goes double for the six girls, age seven-plus to 14, who play her fellow inmates at the New York municipal Orphange (Girls' Annex). This is a play with almost as many children in it as adults, and when they all break into some ferocious dancing in "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile" at the beginning of Act II, it is close to irresistible.
Dinning with the six orphans in a grown-up dining room with a lot of bemused grown-ups around can make you feel like the kind of helpless, hapless father Walt Disney used to specialize in. Yet if you close your eyes while they idly chat about agents, managers, auditions, acting schools even motivation for their parts - "You have to play it like you were in an orphanage, like you were really there," says 11-year-old Shelley Bruce with a terrible earnestness - you might be among the most sophisticated of grown-ups. But then the eyes open and you see these well-behaved girls dressed to the teeth in their little party dresses. The contrast is disconcerting.
Even more disconcerting is the enormous wealth of show biz experience that is packed into those small folks. Naively ask what they've been in and the credits tumble out of helter-skelter, everything from "Kojak" to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." And commercials, don't ask how many commercials. Even tiny Danielle Brisebois, age seven and a half, who says she likes to act because "people come see you when they're sad and you help them feel better," has done over 50.
Sometimes, the kids agree, those commercials can get awfully silly. Diana Bowers, an actress for ten of her eleven years, can't help giggling as she recites the plot of one particular shortening commercial: "My mom is frying chicken and I had to run in screaming that my brother fell out of a tree. She runs out and when we come back two hours later with his arm in a cast, the chicken still isn't greasy." Isn't life wonderful?
To get into "Annie," the girls had to go up against some 400 of their peers and survive an arduous auditioning experience which included hitting an F sharp in "Happy Birthday" and giving the director a raspberry. They were not quizzed about familiarity with the comic strip, because almost all of them, believe it or not, are too young to remember it. And despite occasional tiffs - "Sometimes they last for two minutes, sometimes for one minute, sometimes for one second, but we always make up afterward" - they enjoy being in the show together because it means there is always someone around to play jacks with between scenes.
In some ways, being a show-biz kid may seem like an odd life. There is a lot of kidding to be taken from earth-bound schoolmates - "They say, 'Hey actress, actress, there's the little actress" Danielle says - and there is sometimes the feeling that one is missing out on whatever it is kids do when left to their own devices.
But though the girls are all ensconsed in various Washington hotels under their mothers' protective eyes, with private tutors to come later, no one seems to have coerced them into the entertainment world. No coercion would be necessary, for they are mad about what they do, as a vigorous nodding of heads attests when they're asked if acting is what they want to do when they grow up (as if they weren't ridiculously grown up already).
"If you don't want to act," says little Danielle with fierce conviction, "you shouldn't let your mother push you. Tell her you don't want to do it."
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