While you've been watching summer reruns of "Punky Brewster," Soleil Moon Frye was at summer camp. After all, that's what kids do when school is out and television series -- even one's own -- are on hiatus.
She went swimming and horseback riding and worked on arts and crafts, pretty much the same things she's done all the four years she's attended camp with her best friend, who is not in show biz. She wasn't in show biz either, at first. But now life for the freckle-faced 8-year-old has become awfully busy.
For Soleil Moon Frye, aka "Punky Brewster," camp is one of the few breaks in what is rapidly becoming a fast-lane life. She's just finished doing picture layouts for four national magazines; she resumes taping "Punky Brewster" next week (she's been supplying the voice for the cartoon version of the series all summer); she's scheduled to appear at Wolf Trap Farm Park's International Children's Festival over the Labor Day weekend, and in the fall she'll dash off to Finland with the kids from "The Cosby Show" and Ricky Schroder to film a winter special.
What's more, 32 companies have contracted to begin producing an abundance of Punky products, from greeting cards and dolls to neon jewelry that lights up -- all aimed at children from 2 to 11. And as the heroine of the young set, little Soleil has been named honorary chairman of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and will make a television appeal to children to "Just Say No" to drugs.
Can a little girl who's so mobbed at personal appearances that she needs police protection, and who received 7,000 to 10,000 letters a week during the 1984-85 TV season, grow up normally?
Her mother seems to believe she can, at least as normal as a child-phenomenon is able. Sondra Peluce Frye describes her daughter as "bright, but she's real -- she's not affected . . . we live in a very low-key, family neighborhood, chock-full of kids" fairly near the NBC studios in Burbank. "The majority of her friends are not in the business." Even the folks in their new neighborhood seem to have adjusted to life with a celebrity and no longer come calling with cameras in hand.
Soleil talked briefly about her role in combating the growing drug problem among children. "I want to tell them to just say no," she said, echoing the campaign endorsed by Nancy Reagan, who may show up on a future episode of "Punky Brewster."
Do you know any little kids who use drugs? "No, but I know that some do," she declared earnestly. And then, friends having arrived, she excused herself to dash off for a dip in the backyard pool.
Soleil, who will be 9 on Aug. 6, has been acting a little more than two years. Her mother said she didn't push Soleil into becoming a tot star -- in fact, she said, her daughter was shy and didn't begin talking until she was 3. But acting was in the family: Soleil's dad, Virgil Frye -- now divorced from her mother -- is a veteran character actor who appeared in "The Burning Bed," an NBC made-for-TV movie that drew raves for its star, Farrah Fawcett. Her half-brother, Sean Frye, 19, played the best friend of Elliott Taylor's older brother in "E.T." and will appear in "Tough Love" with Bruce Dern. Another half-brother, Meeno Peluce, 15, appeared in "Starsky and Hutch," "Bad News Bears," "Best of the West" and the short- lived "Detective in the House," and is probably best known for his role in the "Voyagers" series.
Soleil grew up watching her brothers and her dad practicing their craft. She snagged small roles in three made-for-TV movies, including the part of the Ann- Margret's youngest child in "Who Will Love My Children?" At 7, she auditioned for -- and got -- the title role in "Punky Brewster."
NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff had told the world that "we're looking for the most wonderful girl in the world, someone who's smart, with a good sense of comedy and fun about herself. Someone you'd want to eat up with a spoon when you find her. When we find her, we'll know, and the series will be tailor-made to fit her talents." Joel Thurm, NBC vice president, talent, said, "We're looking for someone with something special -- a sparkle, a vitality. Something that catches the eye and makes you look twice."
From more than 1,000 girls between 6 and 12, they settled on Soleil, a 4-foot-tall, 45-pound child with straight brown hair and brown eyes, freckles, a slightly raspy voice and a bubbling personality. (And a peculiar name: Soleil's mother said her daughter was scheduled for a July birthday. When she showed up in August, Frye said she picked "Soleil" (French for "sun") because "August was the month of the sun" and "Moon" because she liked the lyrics from a song in "Annie Get Your Gun": "I've got the sun in the morning and the moon at night.")
So if Soleil Moon Frye seems a lot like Punky Brewster, that's not surprising. For as long as the series runs, Punky will probably age along with the star, who begins fourth grade this fall. And like Punky, who dotes on her dog, Brandon, Soleil is also an animal-lover. She counts among her home menagerie two dogs (a pit bull terrier and a Shih Tzu), rabbits and a chicken that lays eggs.
But life with a phenomenon like Soleil Moon Frye is not all pets and publicity photos. In fact, her mother, Sondra Peluce Frye, juggles many balls. For 10 years she has run a catering business for show-biz parties, formerly called "Mother Moon's" but now operating under her own name ("it's word-of-mouth -- I've never advertised and my number isn't even listed.") Her most recent party, for 125, was attended by "the biggest names in the business -- Barbra Streisand, Cher ..," and a party she catered last year was mentioned in a Hollywood gossip column as a "Lucullan buffet."
Still, the party business, however glamorous and lucrative, takes a back seat to the kids' careers. Much of her time Frye spends carting Meeno to his school and acting jobs and Soleil to hers. Sometimes the two work in studios near one another -- NBC's "Punky Brewster" and ABC's short-lived "Detective in the House" were filmed only a couple of miles apart. The year before Soleil won the "Punky Brewster" role, she made three TV movies. Once, Frye said, the children were working at far-flung locations, "so I leased a sports car -- a Camaro -- and zipped from one side of Southern California to the other so neither one would feel neglected."
During the school year, Soleil and Meeno are up between 6 and 7 a.m. Their mother drops Meeno at school and picks up Soleil's homework assignments and takes Soleil to the set, where a tutor teaches her from 9 a.m. to noon Mondays through Wednesdays. She is required to keep up with pupils in the private school she attends during filming breaks. After lunch, Soleil turns to acting for the rest of the day. On Thursdays and Fridays, studies are put on hold while Soleil tapes the shows before a live audience. In March, when the season's filming is done, she goes back to her private school -- except for personal appearances, and there are many.
Some of them, Frye says, have been "East Coast mob experiences, when thousands of people are shoving and screaming" to get a look at the child. In Pittsburgh, she said, when Soleil appeared in the city's Heritage Day Parade, she began by riding a Model T, then was moved to limousine and finally was forced to ride in a squad car with police both inside and out to protect her from crowds. Even the last year's egg roll on the White House lawn drew so many fans, Frye said, that the Secret Service whisked Soleil inside the residence for safety. Her mother says she was also mobbed when she appeared at "Night of 100 Stars" for ABC in New York and in the Macy's Day parade last Thanksgiving. Frye's boyfriend of three years, stunt man Sean Kennedy, sometimes comes along "to help us out."
Does all that frantic adoration faze our spunky Punky? Of course not. "She has her head on right," says her mother. Besides, "Punky Brewster" may not last forever. The show's final season Nielsen standing was a lowly 64, tied with "Partners in Crime" and "Dreams," both defunct. And "Silver Spoons," the show with which it shared the network's hour-long battle against venerable "60 Minutes," has not been renewed.
But that's okay. Soleil Moon Frye is a girl of the '80s -- no, the '90s. She may not devote her life to acting after all. When you're only 8 years old and already a star, anything seems possible. Besides, what she really wants is to be an astronaut.