They called it "Movie Madness" in the '30s. In the '40s it was "the post-war acting rage." It settled down in the '50s and '60s, when Hollywood became a place to go only if you had a lot of talent and the hide of an alligator.
But it's back now, and a better name for it is "television mania," as thousands of newcomers are flooding into Hollywood each year, reaching for the golden ring that could bring them millions overnight if they land a television series.
The latter-day Hollywood gold rush has become so serious a problem that the California attorney general and the Office of Consumer Affairs are calling it a disaster.
An estimated 5,000 new actors, singers, dancers and comedians are coming to Los Angeles every year, resulting not only in rampant unemployment, but in an exploitative explosion of acting schools and casting agencies.
There are 19,000 actors listed on the books of the Screen Actors Guild and other entertainment unions, but at least 69 percent of these are unemployed or under-employed. And only 19 percent make a full living in the entertainment business.
The number of actors getting unemployment checks has reached an all-time high: A weekly average of 2,500 actors collect about $100 a week. That's around $13 million a year at the Hollywood unemployment office alone, according to state estimates.
But of all these problems, none has been quite so controversial as the proliferation of talent schools.
The number of schools has jumped from 45 in 1972 to at least 250 now. and the California Superintendent of Education has established a task force just to find them and weed out the frauds. Of the 250 schools, only nine are registered with the state and only one is accredited with the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools.
Established acting teachers have become so outraged in the last few weeks that 20 of them -- all with at least 10 years of teaching experience -- have formed the Los Angeles Acting Teachers Association. "Something has to be done," said Ned Manderino, who was instrumental in organizing the association. "There are so many fads and trendy schools out there bilking actors that we are getting together for our own protection."
The average newcomer to the Los Angeles acting field now spends about $2,500 a year on lessons, photographic portfolio, makeup, hairstyling and casting wardrobe. (A survey of 50 young actors shows that it costs a minimum of $50 just to get ready for one open audition.) And a good deal of that money goes for talent schools.
Estelee Harmon, whose acting school is one of the oldest in town, said, "People are pouring out here on the strength of false promises, and they are getting ripped off -- robbed actually -- because there's no control over what is happening."
"If this were happening in any other field besides acting," said Michael Botwin, the California attorney general's expert on entertainment fraud, "the government would come down like a ton of bricks. But acting is such an elusive field to judge, and the madness seems a part of it."
Of course, there are scores of legitimate schools; and even the most controversial are praised by many professional and amateur actors. But to the outsider, it can seem like madness: An actor can learn to juggle; to master "actor's karate"; to talk with a Creole accent or issue commands like the queen of England; to learn scripts while meditating; to forget old scripts while meditating. There are clown workshops, operetta workshops, and there's even a center in the San Fernando valley where Debbie Reynolds gives pointers on tap-dancing.
George Blue, assistant state superintendent of public instruction, said last month "I have sent out 103 letters telling the schools to at least register their addresses with us -- or else. Very few of them answered. But we will go to court if we have to."
Hypnotism, primal scream and a whole new method called "the no-acting way to teach acting" are among the controversial disciplines in which students scramble for talent education.
"Oh God!" Beverly Nilner screamed as she threw herself onto the carpet and writhed on the floor. Tears streamed down her face and stained her silk dress. She shrieked again.
"Baby, that's great. Give out with some more of those tears," said Laurence Schwab, a Hollywood director and actor.
Milner, a secretary with visions of becoming a TV star, looked up at Schwab, her drama teacher for the night, and poured out another bucket of tears. "Great, baby, great!" yelled Schwab. "That's an automatic $10,000."
It was a Thursday night -- the night that Hollywood goes to school -- and she was winding up two hours of instruction recently in a process called "bio-psychic acting," for which she pays about $12 to Schwab's employer, a talent school, John Robert Powers of Hollywood -- at which the curriculum ranges from the active modeling of tennis outfits to a session called "Jumping for Joy."
On another night, at Eric Morris' primal moan laboratory, a similar scene ensued:
Actor Richard Hatch, the stalwart hero Apollo on "Battlestar Galactica," closed his eyes and moaned mournfully at the ceiling. His handsome face was creased with pain, and he shoved his hands into his jeans with pointed anger.
"Oh God, I want to be but I'm not. I want to do but I don't."
He raised his eyes again. This time he screamed in great, gasping sounds from his chest. From the depths of the room came an answer, "You're not what, Richard? You haven't done what?"
The answering voice had the tones of a medieval monk and it seemed to calm the TV star. Then the answering voice rose in anger, "Get off your own back, Richard. Stop being your own demon. Take yourself. Give yourself credit for what you can do. Stop fighting it, stop fighting it."
Hatch's face slowly relaxed: His eyes lost their anger, and a chorus of of comfort rose to praise him.
Behind all this is actor-teacher-confessor Morris, who has within five years become one of the most controversial voices in the world of acting seminars. The vast majority of his students, unlike Hatch, are complete unknowns -- drawn to "the primal moan" method, which Morris himself calls "The System of No Acting, Please."
Three nights a week, ever greater numbers of actors, writers, directors and producers are flocking to the veteran actor (100 Equity plays, 15 movies and guest-starring parts on 50 network TV shows) who is called a genius by many and a dramatic witch-doctor by some. One thing is certain -- his sessions are booked to standing room only, and he will expand to New York in November.
For their money, Morris' students experience a night of raw theater where dozens of people verbally strip themselves of social trappings to roar, groan, cry and even writhe across the floor in the fetal position.
"What we are really doing here," Morris said, "is producing a whole new school of realer acting."
But many veteran acting teachers believe that Morris is opening dangerous doors. "If people need therapy they should go to a psychiatrist," said Tracy Roberts, an acting teacher with 15 years experience. "If they want to learn to audition, to give cold readings, or to land a part, they should go to real acting coaches."
Not all schools are equally controversial. Across town from Morris' studio, the Film Industry Workshop is teaching actors to make love by the book. And no one denies that it works.
At one such session, Kevin Lee Miller made a last check of his handsome profile and then eased onto a seductively draped studio couch. His lips formed into a pout as he crawled on top of Joy Blackburn, a stunning brunet who had carefully let her fair fall across a lace pillow.
Kevin, 20, looked like the kind of guy who knew his way around the back seat of a car at the drive-in, and Joy's looks had probably drawn sighs since she was 15. (She's 19 now.)
Still, when veteran director Tony Miller moved his video camera in for the clinch, he slapped down his clipboard and said, "The first thing I want you to do is forget everything you think you know about a love scene and let's take it second by second." Miller and Blackburn were working on giant Sound Stage Five at CBS's San Fernando Valley studio, after production had shut down for the day.
Miller, a Hollywood character for two decades, had moved in a standard soap opera set -- blond wood couch, a mirror with a cherub or two in the corner, and satin sheets.
"You guys may be pros out on a date," said Miller. "But now you're going to share a kiss for the TV camera and the camera alone. You'll find you don't know the first thing about it."
By this time, Kevin had moved sensually up the couch until he was on top of Joy and their lips were inches apart. About a dozen other young aspiring actors crowded around the mock bedroom as the video cameras rolled.
Kevin's face suddenly mashed into Blackburn's. Her hair became an instant tangle, and double and triple chins caught the glare of the heavy CBS lights.
"See what I mean?" said Miller as he turned to the students at the non-profit workshop. "If you just settle down and smooch on the bed, it becomes a director's nightmare."
Then slowly and deliberately, Miller dissected the simple love scene. "Kevin, I want you to put one of your fingers inside Joy's lips. Her lips will flatten and the camera will see flattering shadows. If you purse up your lips those heavy smacking kisses will make you both look like guppies in an aquarium. The housewives at home will switch you off in favor of 'Dialing for Dollars.'"
Miller ran the two students through the 60-second love scene hour by hour until each move of an arm, each sigh, and each smile fit a scientific pattern -- a diagram that each student had in the black love-scene textbook. This precision -- whether in a love scene or a saloon fight -- has become the trademark for the Film Industry Workshop, which functions almost exclusively on the CBS sets during after-hours.
Blue, whose task force is expected to crack down soon on the talent school industry, said, "This type of school is easy for us to judge. But so many of the other schools and trends such as hypnosis are hard. We don't know how much they should charge, what results should be expected, or even how to find out if the methods really work.
"How can you judge a hypnosis session? I don't know if any government agency could ever regulate that."
Regulated or not, hypnosis has become one of the biggest teaching trends. There are four acting hypnosis schools, five psychologists specializing in it, and a workshop on the Sunset Strip that turns away hundreds of applicants three nights a week.
And a number of commercial directors are using hypnosis on child actors to create "instant emotions." "I like to think of it as a secret of ours," said one commercial director. "I had one case where we filmed a burger commercial in one-fourth the usual time simply by having a hypnotherapist on the set. We cut rehearsal time to almost nothing. The psychologists just worked with the kids, brought them out of a trance and they breezed through the commercial."
The basic question facing the State of California, the City of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry as a whole is: Do these new and expanded systems mean more and better jobs for actors?
The latest study of Screen Actors Guild membership shows that less than half of the 19,000 actors have agents, that more than 61 percent of them earn less than $1,000 a year from acting and that only about 9 percent earn more than $10,000 a year from screen work.
"It's not easy for these kids," said a case worker for the Hollywood branch of the California Department of Employment. "The actors work a couple of times a year. Most of them get other jobs parking cars and waiting tables and 80 percent end up in here some time during the year."
Ken Orsatti, Hollywood executive director of the Screen Actors Guild said recently: "There's plenty of talent here that walks by unseen every day. Some executives from the studios are so proud that they brag of seeing all the talent in regional theater here. But even that won't do it.
"If the talent people saw every person in every play in Los Angeles' 75 regional theaters, they would still only see about 750 actors -- a small part of the talent bank. And that is just not good enough."
This situation suggests that the new wave of talent schools are training thousands of actors for jobs that don't exist.
Michael Botwin, the California attorney general's specialist on drama schools and casting agencies, said, "If there is fraud in this field it comes in the subtle promise of work and money when the training is over. We have to watch the promises made by all these schools very carefully. The truth is that this is a highly depressed field.
"I would tell actors all over the country to stay where they are. No school or workshop is in a position to promise employment."