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Big Time on a Small Scale : Show-Biz Guru in Newport Helps Guide Children’s Screen Careers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The walls of Phyllis Henson’s office are plastered with photographs of smiling Hollywood hopefuls, from infants to 15-year-olds. “There are a lot of kids on this wall that are making between $30,000 to $50,000 a year,” Henson said. “A lot of them are making a lot more money than I am.”

For the past seven years, Henson, owner of the Kids Hollywood Connection, has made it her business to recognize pint-size star quality. A show-biz guru for the Romper Room set, Henson has helped more than 1,000 children take their first step into the acting world.

Many of the faces on her wall have garnered national visibility. Seven-year-old Rand Takeuchi of Laguna Niguel was recently featured in two made-for-television movies, “The Bourne Identity” and “Hiroshima.” Eight-year-old Scotty Williams of Corona is a popular face in numerous L.A. Gear, Mattel and Miller’s Outpost ads. Nine-year-old Sheridan Gayr of Santa Ana has appeared in several Disney movies, and 8-year-old Jodie Sweeten of Cypress is well known to “Full House” TV fans as Stephanie.

So how long does it take to recognize the next Fred Savage?

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Less than a minute, said Henson. “They have that charisma about them. They sparkle.”

As part of her consultation service, Henson initially spends an hour with parents and their stage-struck youngsters. “I evaluate the child and give an honest evaluation. I then go over the ins and outs of the business.”

Henson covers the nitty-gritty underlying Hollywood’s glamour, from agents and labor laws to career commitments and audition know-how. Tools of the trade such as work permits, photographs, composites and workshops are also covered.

If a child has potential but needs some training, Henson will recommend a workshop and then later re-evaluate the child. “There are a lot of 6-year-olds out there who are dynamite. But they’re not ready yet. They don’t know what to do in front of the camera. I try to prepare and package the child to get them ready for the parents to submit them to the agent.”

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When the time for agents and auditions comes, Henson works with parents, advising them on what to do, say and how to dress the child. “I prepare them for what happens at an interview or on the set,” she said. “I tell them what it’s really like.”

Every so often, Henson will get a stage mom dragging in a less-than-starry-eyed youngster. “You can sense them,” Henson said. “The first question coming out of their mouths is usually, “How much money can I make?’ ”

Often Henson will stop an interview with a parent if she sees the child is not interested. “I ask the parents why they came in. Was it for their child or for themselves?”

For her ongoing consultation with a child and his or her parents, Henson charges a flat fee for a four-month period. In addition to six to 15 calls a day from interested parents, she also gets calls from child-seeking agents, she said. “Casting agents often send people to me,” she added. “They know when parents leave here they have a better knowledge of what the business is about.”

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Henson said that calls from hopeful show parents come in from as far away as Utah, Texas and Ohio but that more than 70% of her clients are Orange County kids.

The Kids Hollywood Connection is based on Henson’s personal experience. For the last 16 years, her three children--Wendy, Kelly and Erin--have appeared in hundreds of commercials for Kool Aid, Toys R Us, Eggo Waffles and other advertisers.

“There’s thousands of parents out there, and they’re making the same mistakes I did,” she said. “They’re getting taken advantage of financially. They’re going to the wrong agents. They’re going to the wrong photographers. I wasted my kids’ first year in the business because there was no one there to guide me.”

Out of the 10 to 15 families that she consults weekly, Henson finds that at least two have “paid $200 to $5,000 to the wrong people,” she said.

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A perfect example is a recent client with a 9-month-old baby, said Henson. “She had gone to two different companies and paid $600, and both of the companies talked her into getting composites of her baby. The photos are outdated now. There’s no way they would have used those for more than a month.”

Expenses incurred on the road to stardom depend on the child’s age and experience, said Henson. “A toddler or infant needs nothing more than the expense of the parents driving back and forth, and maybe some snapshots. However, an older child, such as a 3- or 4-year-old, may need workshops, and most all of them need professional pictures and composites.”

Although her “top kids” usually get one job out of every six auditions, that is not typical of most child actors, Henson said. “The top kids have what the industry calls ‘star quality.’ The average kid in the business will get approximately one job out of every 28 auditions.”

However, those jobs can prove to be lucrative, she said. “The average kid is capable of doing one or two or three commercials a year, and that’s a lot of money.”

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A baby that Henson helped place on a Bayer aspirin commercial is just one example. “That baby made around $48,000, and she was only 16 days old.”

With most toddlers, it’s the parents who want to give Hollywood a try, said Henson. However, she often gets calls from preteens as well. “Most of the time the older child will personally approach me and show the drive. They’re usually very, very successful in the business because they have that self-motivation.”

However, even the younger set has its own group of driven performers. At 18 months, Rand Takeuchi was running around the house singing commercial jingles. At age 3, he went to his first acting audition and landed the role. “He begs to do it,” said his mother, Anne.

“I really like it,” Rand added, launching into a story about working with his idol Pat Morita in “Hiroshima.”

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Still, Rand seems unaffected by his screen success. “To him it’s just another activity to do like soccer or swimming,” Anne said. “Of course, I’m not starry-eyed or excited about meeting stars, and I think that helps.”

Show business doesn’t mean that your child can’t be well-adjusted, Henson agreed. “If you look at the kids who are affected by the business, it’s the parent who does it, not the business. If the parents are OK, the kids are OK.”

Part of being in the business means long days fighting the traffic to and from Los Angeles and eating fast food on the run, said Henson. “I don’t think any parent realizes the extent of the commitment that has to be made. The kids who are successful out there are the ones whose parents have given 100% commitment. There are days when you don’t want to go and you have to go.”

The commitment “is very, very draining,” Anne Takeuchi said. “You’re only there maybe 10 minutes, but the round-trip drive can take four to five hours.”

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Yet there are pluses to the business, she said. “It really has improved Rand’s confidence, verbal skills and memorization skills.” In addition, Rand’s income, which is being handled by a financial investor, has helped secure him the funding for a college education when he graduates from high school in 2001.

Still, the show-biz routine can be so grueling that eventually the child or parent wants to quit, said Henson. “Sometimes the parents can’t take the rejection.”

However, no matter whether the child is a star or a flash in the pan, a good parent will come away unscathed and wiser after a dose of show biz reality, said Henson. “They realize that their child doesn’t have to be on television to be successful or win a beauty pageant in order to be a star.”


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