It is close to midnight. Six girls, ranging in age from 6 to 13, have been waiting for four hours to be called to the set to film a scene in the movie "Annie," a production that may have lured more children into show business than "The Sound of Music" and "The King and I" combined. They are waiting in the cafeteria of Monmouth College, which rented its administration building to the Columbia Pictures to use for Daddy Warbucks' Fifth Avenue mansion.

Outside, a crew of about 100, including director John Huston and actors Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Ann Reinking, and Aileen Quinn, who got the coveted role of "Annie" herself, are at work in the stop-and-go business that is moviemaking. Inside, the little girls are hanging around. Their mothers -- as required by law -- sit nearby, aimlessly chatting.

Four of the girls have found some packing material made of plastic puckers that pop when punctured, like little balloons. Lara Berk, nee Berkelhammer, who plays the part of Tessie in the orphan crew, has agreed to be interviewed first. She is 8 1/2, the daughter of a psychiatrist and a social worker, and lives in Short Hills, N.J. She likes being interviewed.

Q. When did you start performing?

Lara: That's a good question [pop, pop ]. Seven-and-a-half, I guess.

Q: Why do you want to be an actress?

Lara: I want to be rich and famous. [Someone starts playing "Fur Elise" on the rehearsal piano; three other orphans are popping noisily ]

Lara (to them): Stop it. She's trying to talk to me.

Q: What will you do with your money? Go to college?

Lara: College is a dumb thing to spend money on, when I could be getting gorgeous clothes and everything.

Q. What's the best thing about working?

Lara: Um, getting to know that I can do the things I didn't know I could do . . . Also I like to meet these stars.

Q. And the worst thing/

Lara: The worst thing is just sitting around. All there is to do is eat [In anguished tones] I must have gained half a pound .

Q: What do you think about staying up so late?

Lara: When you film until 5 a.m. it's really the next day. That's what's so interesting . . . I'll tell you something but don't put it in the paper. April loves Tim Curry.

Robin (who plays the part of Duffy): Put it in, put it in! [They all collapse into giggles .]

A stage-struck child is possessed as few others are. And a stage-struck child who, like the dozens of little girls who have been members of the various "Annie" stage companies, actually gets a professional role is rare. Caught between the fantasy world of drama and the gritty reality of work, they lead lives bound by obligation yet free of convention. In many ways their girlhoods are frozen, shielded from the temptations that confront their nonworking classmates even as they co-exsist with the sophisticates of show biz.

"The show kept her very young," said Judy Sorrentino of Linderhurst, L.I., mother of Roseanne, 13, who toured as Annie for 18 months before getting the part of Pepper in the movie. "I never had to worry where she was, like I would if she was saying 'I'm going to the bowling alley with my friends.'"

She and the other mothers echo each other in saying: 1) None of them pushed their child to perform, the child pushed them; 2) how could they deny them an opportunity to have the experience of working in show business; 3) "it was meant to be." Yet their lives are inexorably changed by their children's early entry into the working world; by law they must attend them at all times during the making of a movie or must travel with them in the theater. The mothers of the seven children in the movie "Annie" have given up jobs and home lives, been separated from their husbands and other children, all for the thrill of waiting around for hours to watch their child perform before a camera.

Last Feb. 24 when the producers of the Broadway production of "Annie." which has been running for five years, held open auditions, an unexpected 4,000 little girls showed up at the Alvin Theater, causing the police to close off 52nd Street. Some came from as far as California. The auditions started at 4 p.m. and by midnight there were still 2,000 girls waiting. The myth was kept alive: The Annie of the fourth national touring company was found among these 4,000.

For the movie, three of the gang of seven orphans, including the Annie, Aileen Quinn, were found at open auditions held around this country and in England, during which 8,000 little girls chirped or belted a few bars of "Tomorrow," Annie's big number. None of the seven is without previous experience, however -- even tiny ToniAnn Gisondi, who plays the littlest orphan, is at age 6 a veteran of variety shows in Atlantic City, near her home town of Scullville, N.J., and has been singing in public since she was 3.

"I love to work," said April Lerman, 12, who plays Kate. "Even when I was 3 or 5, I always had to be doing something. If I'm not working I get restless . . . I went to summer camp once and I hated it. Yuck. I'll never go back. I don't like sports that much. I like singing and acting. I just can't sit still . . ."

April, who got an understudy role in the New York production of "Annie" when she was 9, played Tessie on the road, had a role in the movie "The Blues Brothers," a production at the public theater, and several commercials, said she plans "to say employed. I also write and compose my own songs," she said solemnly.

"I told one of the girls, Robin [Ignico], that she had to study dancing every day before the movie started because she didn't have the technical knowledge the others had," said Arlene Phillips, the British choreographer of "Annie." "I've never seen anyone with that kind of determination. She worked hours every day and improved dramatically.

"Aileen's technique is way beyond a 9-year-old -- her knowledge and the way the muscles' work. She has an ability to pick up steps incredibly fast. The little one, Molly [ToniAnn], I find a bit hard to work with. She can barely read . . . They're children, but they're in an adult profession, and we expect them to do everything."

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Aileen's mother, Helenann Quinn of Yardley, Pa. "She may never do another film . . . She never complains, she's always full of energy, ready to go. She loves every minute of it. Only once after hours and hours did she say she was a little tired."

Roseanne remembers that "when I was 3 years old I would sit in the grocery cart and sing 'Happy Birthday.'" She knew before she auditioned for the road company of "Annie" that if she got the part it would mean leaving her father and sister and friends. "I said plese, Mom, please, if you let me do this I'll never ask for anything ever again." And what did she think about leaving family, et al.? "I said, oh, that's all right."

Lara Berk also got into a road show of Annie, but her parents were not enthusiastic about the travel so she turned it down. "I didn't want to go," maintained Lara, putting her arm around her little sister, Missy. "My sister here was very young and it wouldn't be fair to her. And Kansas City in the winter? No thanks."

"Sounds like you've been listening to us," said her father, Ed.

"I want to be an orphan," chirped Missy, age 6.

No one knows what propels some children to hide under the table when their parents ask them to sing for company and others to leap into the spotlitht with hammy abandon. The mothers of these "Annie" children say their offspring were remarkable gregarious babies, talked early, and mimicked songs from musical comedies.

"She amazes me sometimes," said Linda Gisondi, ToniAnn's mother. "We all think our own children are great, but when you look around and see other people being knocked out by your kid singing, it amazes you . . . I think these kids are a breed apart. That's why they picked them."

"All my life I've wanted to be an actress," said Lucie Stewart, 9.

"I love to hear applause," said Roseanne. "I love to sing."

"When I was in 'Really Rosie' I had my own number," said April. "For once in my life I had lots of attention."

"When they hear me sing, they get to like me," said ToniAnn.

The popping packing material has been completely flattened. Robin and Lucie, whose mothers are close pals, have argued briefly over who was first runner-up to Aileen Quinn. "I didn't have enough freckles," says Lucie. "And don't say Aileen has a snub nose," Robin warns Lucie. The children and their mothers have eaten dinner, noting that the broccoli is pretty good and deciding to eat the cake even though it's fattening. The kids eat at one table and are warned several times not to spill their milk or ignore their veggies .

The children drift back to a rehearsal space off the cafeteria and make up a show for the benefit of their mothers and a visitor. The show opens with heavy chords on the piano and Lara and ToniAnn sleeping in chairs pushed together to make a bed. Lara jumps out of bed and wakes up ToniAnn with the following dialogue :

"Wake up! You sillyhead -- wake up before I squash your brain!"

They run to a back wall and look out a "window" and exclaim: "See, there's no clouds in the sky!" And then they break into a song with choreography that involves outstretched hands, bended knees, step combinations and lots of bows at the end. After several tries, they achieve a perfect run-through.

For the next act, "Lucie Stewart will do her mime," a rather complicated story that has several false endings. Roseanne sings "New York New York" with gestures, Robin sings "Have You Ever Seen the Rain," and Lara sings "My Buddy." Then it's ToniAnn's turn.

At 6, ToniAnn has a round tummy and shaggy long bangs framing enormous brown eyes. She announces she is going to sing "Tommorrow."

"Oh no!" chrous the others, who are thoroughly sick of "Annie's" hit song. "Sing something else." Her big brown eyes liquify momentarily, but soon they have come up with another song from her repertoire: "A Good Man's Hard to Find."

So there at midnight in a dingy rehearsal room off a college cafeteria in New Jersey is a small child belting out a vamp song for all she's worth. The voice is loud, clear, and on pitch, and she's emorized a set of gestures including winks, hands on hips, and wagging finger.

" . . . so take my advice, kiss him in the morning and hug him at night!" she sings. "A good man's hard to find."

The "audience" applauds loudly and ToniAnn is smothered with kisses from the older orphans, who pick her up and carry her around like a triumphant hero.

"Boy," says Robin. "You should sing that for Carol Burnett!"

"Annie" is a big-budget (estimated $35 million) movie that Columbia hopes will be next year's blockbuster musical. Columbia paid a record-setting $9.5 million just for the rights to the show, and seems to have spared no expense in filming on location in three cities, at a cost of roughly $40,000 an hour. Filming is expected to be completed in Hollywood studios by September.

Five large vans trucked in crates of valuable antiques from Hollywood to the 130-room mansion at Monmouth College, an extraordinary structure completed in 1928 at a cost of $10.5 million. There are 17 architectural styles included in the mansion, which is loosely described as "Renaissance."

It was found by a member of the location team who had attended the college. Evidently the crew had some trouble locating a suitable mansion, because most of the remaining monoliths have either been turned into museums or are unsuited to the demands of an enormous film crew, a publicist said.

As it is, the company had to truck in its own generators from Los Angeles to fuel the equipment, including an airconditioning system. Valuable period Dusenberg autombiles and other vintage cars were brought in from a museum in Nevada. The pool in a lower gallery of the mansion, which had been housing old college files, was cleaned out and filled, and a new scene was written in order to use it.

When it was discovered that a clause in the New Jersey child labor laws prevented the children from working at night, the legislative obligingly changed the law and Gov. Brendan Byrne signed it the day before filming was due to begin. Now the children are allowed to work their five consecutive hours at any point in the day. In California, where interior studios can provide day or night as required, they are not permitted to work much later than 10:30 p.m. without special exemptions.

The children are working or the Screen Actor's Guild minimum, which is about $1,000 a week. By law their salaries are placed in trust funds.

"Let me put it this way," said Helenann Quinn. "If Aileen wants to go to college, and graduate school, and get a PhD, she won't have any problem."

Judy Sorrentino is sitting at a table in the cafeteria with April Lerman's guardian. She seems depressed. Earlier, when asked how the 18 months of travel with the road company of "Annie" had affected her marriage, she said she'd rather not talk about it. She said that before Roseanne got the part she had never really been away from Long Island and was afraid of flying. But she enjoyed the travel, she said, she met a lot of people she would never have known otherwise -- including President Jimmy Carter -- and now it was in her blood. But the filming is different. All the mothers do is wait and do laundry. "That's my big treat," she jokes.

They don't have cars, so they are more or less imprisoned in the bleak Hilton Hotel where they have all been staying. Tonight Sorrentino got someone else to watch Roseanne for a few hours (that's permissible) and went out and had two drinks. "That's what I've learned from show business," she says wryly. "How to drink."

Although the children have been on the set since 5:30 p.m. and it is now after midnight, the crew is just breaking for dinner. As the actors file into the cafeteria, a pretty young assistant director suggests to the mothers that "it might be better" if the little girls went back to the rehearsal room while the other people eat. They dutifully comply.

A few minutes later Roseanne comes up to her mother. She is upset.

"I'm tired of being yelled at," she says, tears forcing their way to the surface. "Why can't I walk around? That man said I can't walk around. Everything's for the stars! We're just nobodies ."

"You can walk around if you want," says Sorrentino. "You're my daughter and I say you can walk around. You want me to make a scene? Is that what you want?"

"No," whimpers Roseanne.

"This isn't like the theater, is it?" adds her mother. "It isn't a big family, it isn't all people who know you."

The makeup room is in the mansion. One by one the little girls come in to get made up for their roles as dirty street urchins. First a middle-aged woman greases their hair with a combination of K-Y Jelly and Alberto VO-5, and then douses it with talcum powder.

"This is how I do the [hair-care product] commercial," she tells Roseanne as she gunks up her dark brown bob. "The one where one side has to look dull?"

Roseanne looks up at her in wonderment. "You mean," she says slowly, "You mean that commercial is a lie ?"

"Honey, everything in show business is a lie," says the makeup lady. "And if someone tells you it isn't they're lying."

Roseanne sits quietly for the rest of her makeup session.

Finally, at 2:20 a.m., the girls are called to the set.The scene to be filmed is outlside the gate of the mansion. The band of orphans is to tear up the street, rush up to the gates, tell the gatekeeper they are friends of Annie's, be let in and run up the driveway. The whole thing takes about 10 seconds.

The street is wet, hosed down by the Volunteer Fire Department of West Long Branch (to whom producer Ray Stark has made a sizeable donation) to make it look shiny. There are a few gawkers even at this hour, and an occasional teen-age couple in formal dress strolls by on the way back from a prom. Director John Uston sits in his chair reading a newspaper while the camera crew and gaffers quickly construct a wooden ramp for the camera to roll on as the children run to the gate.

"Remember kids, you should be really tired," an assistant director tells them. "By this time you've been running 40 or 50 blocks."

They have two rehearsals. "Run up to the gate, darlings," Houston says, his only comment. They film it once, and then again.

It's a take.Print. It is 3 a.m. and the workday is over.