The Fine Art of Fame : High School Teaches Young Talents Nuts and Bolts of Show Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Students at the Orange County High School of the Arts dream of stardom, adulation, big-money film deals. But while their youthful hearts hover in the clouds, their teachers keep their feet planted firmly on the ground.

This school of 400 students is one of only a handful of arts schools within California's public school system.

Like any arts school, it seeks to create polished artists. But it is unique in its zeal to teach these starry-eyed optimists how to survive the staggering competition in a field that forces most musicians, dancers and actors to cling to their day jobs while they seek their fame and fortune in the evenings.

Here, students concentrating in musical theater sweat in their acting classes, but they also study strategies for top-notch auditioning, landing an agent and winning union membership.

Visual-arts students strive to perfect their painting, drawing and sculpting skills, but they also learn how to pull off a successful showing, from designing compelling invitations to lure the right attendees to installing their work on the gallery walls and ensuring it gets the right lighting.

"The whole idea here is to provide a practical, hands-on preparation," said Ralph Opacic, 32, the school's charismatic director and co-founder. "You might be a great actor, but if you don't know this is not just an art, but a business, you might not succeed."

That nuts-and-bolts approach has had its success stories. Now in its sixth year, this little school cheers as its students are snapped up for TV, film and stage roles. Its teachers, all well-connected members of their professions, help promising students land jobs or agents. When Hollywood needs youngsters, it looks here.

"We scout talent down there on a regular basis," said Julie McDonald, director of the dance division at Joseph, Heldfond & Rix in Hollywood, one of the biggest commercial talent agencies in the country.

McDonald signed Mark Meismer and Wes Veldink after spotting them in a dance class at OCHSA. Meismer, 19, now counts among his credits a touring musical review in Europe and a dancing role on the MTV awards show, and Veldink, 19, just returned from six months of dancing in a theme park in Japan.

Hundreds of the school's students appeared as extras in the Disney feature film, "Newsies," starring Robert Duvall. Bill Bonnel, who hires extras and stand-ins in the 18-to-25-year-old age group for Central Casting, said he calls Opacic when he needs fresh, young faces.

"They're very professional kids," Bonnel said. "We really enjoy working with them."

Begun in the fall of 1987 on a special three-year grant from the California Department of Education, OCHSA now gets about two-thirds of its $840,000 annual operating budget from per-pupil state education funds and one-third from its own foundation, which raises money in the private sector.

Sharing a campus with Los Alamitos High School, OCHSA draws students mostly from Orange and southern Los Angeles counties, but also from as far away as Norco and Temecula. Most win transfers into the district, where they study their academic subjects at Los Alamitos High in the morning and attend arts classes until close to dinner time. A minority remain in their home districts until noon and then commute to Los Alamitos.

Students can concentrate in one of six areas: instrumental music, musical theater, technical theater, visual arts, classical dance (ballet and modern) or commercial dance (jazz geared toward stage, screen, television or video).

Students compete hard to get in. Only 25% of those who audition are admitted. They span the socioeconomic spectrum. About 88% go on to college and the rest pursue arts careers straight out of high school, Opacic said. Instruction is free, and the school pays for supplies if a student cannot afford them.

A walk around OCHSA's corner of campus provides scenes that could have been clipped from the movie, "Fame," about the kids at New York's legendary High School for the Performing Arts.

In one room, about 20 students in black leotards spin to throbbing funk music, while in another, teen-agers in headsets simultaneously play 16 pianos--in total silence. The donated high-tech equipment plugs the teacher's headset into all the pianos, letting him switch back and forth, listening to and instructing each individually.

A mile away, in what used to be a junior high school, other OCHSA students paint dramatic designs on their faces in a technical-theater class. Others practice monologues, while a few doors away, eight slender girls in pink tights trace and retrace a ballet combination.

Over all this creativity presides Opacic, an intensely friendly, high-energy guy whose dark hair stands straight up at the forehead. By age 16, the Virginia native was a sought-after club singer and came to California with dreams of a recording career. But he couldn't crack the success code, and he found himself teaching music and choir in Los Alamitos. Remembering his own frustration, Opacic was instrumental in designing OCHSA's how-to curriculum.

Now, to stroll the campus with Opacic is to spend time with someone who is nuts about his job. He shares a jovial, back-slapping relationship with the students. On most campuses, principals are "Mr." or "Mrs." Here, where there is a director , they call him "Ralph."

Even brief conversations with these kids reveal sparks of distinction. They have a vivid energy, and when they begin talking one feels as if a curtain has just risen. They clearly relish the chance to talk about their dreams and what OCHSA has done for them.

Stephanie Block, 20, a 1990 graduate, said that before she came to OCHSA, her talent made her "a big fish in a little pond." But once she mingled with her arts-school peers, she realized how much harder she had to work to succeed in a big world of gifted people.

An aspiring Broadway star, Block has sung in TV commercials for toys and cereal. An agent who spotted her in a campus production of "Gypsy" got her a speaking role in the TV series "Life Goes On." Opacic loves to tell people about her current job: playing Belle in Disneyland's six-times-a-day production of "Beauty and The Beast."

David Sidoni, 22, who graduated in 1988, said his time at OCHSA taught him "the biggest thing in show business: how to survive auditions." As a result, Sidoni's resume now includes dancing with Michael Jackson in his "Black and White" music video and a regular role in the new Nickelodeon comedy/variety series, "Roundhouse."

Dante Basco, 17, is now in his second year at OCHSA but has already acted alongside Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams in the feature film, "Hook." Basco played Rufio, leader of the Lost Boys. But even before he can legally vote or drink, Basco is learning an important lesson of his trade.

"I'm collecting unemployment," he says with a smile. "I'm in a lull right now. I've auditioned for two pilots, but I haven't gotten word yet."

Kamilah Martin, 18, is also drawing a state paycheck while looking for work. She recently returned from a six-month national tour in the AIDS benefit, "Heartstrings," in which she had featured roles singing and rapping. She auditioned for a sequel to the Whoopi Goldberg film, "Sister Act" and is hoping for the best.

With OCHSA graduation less than a year behind her, Martin already talks nostalgically about her time here. Without mentors like Opacic and David Green, director of the musical theater department, she said she never would have had the nerve to compete against older, more established actors in big-league auditions.

"When I'm rich and famous and sitting on the couch on 'The Arsenio Hall Show,' I'm going to mention OCHSA and Ralph and David," she said. "They taught me everything. And they taught me I could do it."

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