NEWBURY PARK : TV Writer Works on Play for Alma Mater

Sixth-grader Jon Halsell was pretty cocky going into rehearsals for the annual talent show at Manzanita Elementary School in Newbury Park.

An old hand at school performances, Jon figured he'd just memorize his lines, strut on stage and steal the show. But he soon discovered that this year's talent show was different--he had to work to become a star. The reason: Tom Nance, a Manzanita alum who returned from Hollywood to write and direct the '93 talent show for his alma mater.

Nance, who has written scripts for the TV sitcom "Perfect Strangers," dreamed up a framework for the 60 performers, structuring the show around a telethon to raise money for the fictional National Assn. for the Advancement of Junior Adults.

He then roped a few friends into helping out behind the scenes, and set out to instill some professionalism into the hyperactive cast of baton-twirlers, gymnasts, singers and hula dancers.

"I was a little reluctant to do it at first because of the time commitment," Nance said. But the students' pleas proved hard to resist. "I got this whole envelope full of letters written in fourth-grade scrawl--that's pretty hard to turn down."

After hours of rehearsal, Nance and third-grade teacher Jane Boettger have put together what may be Manzanita's slickest talent show ever. Many of the jokes are aimed at parents in the audience, but even though they don't get the punch lines, the students gamely repeat them.

"I thought it would be like last year, where I just memorized my lines and that's it," said Jon, 12, who plays the charismatic telethon host. "But working with professionals made me understand how to project my energy, make eye contact and move around the stage. I can't believe they did all this for one little school."

Both the seasoned Hollywood writer and the untested pint-sized actors confess to pre-performance butterflies. The students will give three free performances, Wednesday at 8:45 a.m. and Thursday at 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m.

As opening morning approaches, "other kids are making fun of us" for the loony acts, said fourth-grader Ashley Davies, who's part of a trio called the Cheese Cutters. "We're kind of embarrassed," agreed Salvador Rodriguez, a third-grade baton twirler.

Yet despite their nerves, the students gave Nance high marks. Praising him with the ultimate elementary-school accolade, Joel Samudio said, "He's pretty cool."

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