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Groomed to Be All That

For Lisa Foiles, a dance recital isn’t just a dance recital anymore.

While waiting for her cue in the wings of a hall near her Riverside home one recent evening, the freckled 15-year-old was taken by surprise: The youngsters she was following skipped offstage--and did a double-take. “You’re the girl on ‘All That’!” one shrieked.

“They waited for me to finish, and then there were 30 or 40 little girls around me [with] pieces of paper for me to autograph,” Lisa said. “They asked me all kinds of things--they wanted to know if I have a limousine.”

This is Lisa’s life since she debuted last January as a cast member on “All That,” the Nickelodeon cable network’s prime-time sketch comedy series. Thanks to television’s efficient and pervasive child-star system, she’s already a bona fide superstar--at least in the eyes of the show’s target demographic, 6- to 12-year-olds.

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Every Saturday night, about 3.3 million viewers tune in to “All That” to watch Lisa’s characters--the coffee-wired talk-show host Kaffy and the funereally gothic Claudia--cavort in an ensemble of child comics along with guest stars such as Britney Spears and Frankie Muniz. Lisa is a product of one of television’s two big child-star factories. Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, which supply a major share of programming for the up-to-12 demographic, also nurture, package and deliver young stars to your home in a process that hums with efficiency.

And so Lisa has not only taken countless hours of singing, dancing and acting lessons, she’s even taken a course on how to be a child star--a series of workshops and classes on how to act professionally, deal with production crews, talk to the press and handle crowds of her eager young fans when she’s spotted in public.

Nick and Disney Channel executives say they have only a few dozen full-fledged child stars each, sifted from about 35,000 child members of the Screen Actors Guild. So when young performers are plucked from crowded casting rooms for plum jobs, little is left to chance.

Lisa’s big break came a year ago from writer-producer Dan Schneider. Round-faced and multitalented--he broke in as a teenage actor on the 1986 ABC series “Head of the Class"--Schneider was picking a new cast for season seven of “All That.” The show, which he co-created, has become something of a talent incubator at Nickelodeon, making stars out of Amanda Bynes, Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell, among others.

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Schneider said he believed that “All That,” which debuted in 1994, had grown tired in recent seasons, so he and network executives agreed to start fresh with an all-new cast and new sketches for the season, which was launched in January. Nick executives were pleased by the result and ordered an eighth season, which went into production Monday, thanks to a double-digit rebound in ratings for the new format.

“We have a great cast, but Lisa’s one that a lot of people are talking about,” says Schneider, who also works on features films (“Big Fat Liar”). Lisa stood out among several hundred youngsters who auditioned for the new cast. Stuffing her cheeks with marshmallows, she did an impression of diminutive comic Buddy Hackett.

“Not many kids her age even know who Buddy Hackett is,” Schneider said.

The new cast started with a two-week comedy boot camp that Schneider held with help of a team that included the show’s dialogue coach, Brian Peck.

“Lisa has tremendous enthusiasm. She’s a natural,” said Peck, who is also an actor and voice-over artist. And, true to the aphorism that no detail is too small for a successful production, Nick brought in veteran Hollywood wardrobe stylist Janet Planet to costume the cast for some “Kids Choice” promotional segments. She immediately picked up on Lisa’s on-camera appeal, dressing her in an elegant pink crocheted sweater.

The way that producers and executives lavish attention on Lisa is typical of the way Nick and Disney treat their top-drawer talent, said longtime Hollywood child-talent manager T.J. Stein. But more important, he says, the young performers on the two major kids’ networks also get better roles.

Stein, who has clients on network and cable shows, and in feature films, said he finds that prime-time network shows commonly use young actors as “furniture"--that is, story lines don’t go through them very often. “I tell kids, ‘Do you want to be part of the furniture? You’re not going to Disney Channel or Nickelodeon for the money,’ ” Stein said. “You add it up, the experience you’re going to get and the exposure” on the cable channels is superior.

Nick trains its young performers with an orientation course titled Nick Talent 101, said Paula Kaplan, Nick’s senior vice president of talent. The course is made up of workshops, meetings and class-like sessions supplemented with a workbook that the freshly minted stars carry around for the first couple of weeks after they start work.

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“When we pick up a show, the first couple of weeks we sit down with each kid and their parents,” said Kaplan. “We go through the definition of terms, the language of production, like, ‘What’s a grip?'--and also we say here’s what’s going to happen to you being a star, out in public.”

Child stars and their older counterparts in show business live in two different worlds. “If adults see a celebrity they know,” Kaplan said, “they’ll look, they’ll stare, they’ll comment on how they look or who they’re with, but only about one in five will go up and say something, like, ‘I love your work.’ But being a star is different for kids; that filter is gone. They see celebrities, other kid stars, they feel that they know them or think they’re their friend. So they’ll all go right up to them, touch them and ask for things,” Kaplan said. “It’s hard to prepare a kid for that.”

Nick 101, which Kaplan designed, gets the young stars thinking about answers to the questions they’ll be asked by fans and reporters. The book poses a list of such questions they can expect to hear. There’s always the limousine question (Lisa, as an example, doesn’t have one). Also, “what’s your favorite movie?” (Lisa’s is “Big Fat Liar.”) “Do you have a boyfriend?” (Lisa doesn’t.) “Where do you go to school?” (Lisa is home-schooled.)

The book offers advice. “You may not want to give your exact home address,” it suggests sagely. As for the girl or boyfriend question, the book suggests, “Some people like to keep that information private.” And Nick 101 urges the young stars not to let their guard down. “It’s very important to remember that you represent both Nickelodeon and your project to the public at all times,” the workbook advises. “Please do not say negative things about your fellow cast members, the crew, the producers or other shows.” Most kid performers say contact with the public is usually enjoyable, only rarely wearying--and occasionally comes in handy.

In the upper floors of the Disney Channel’s high-rise in Burbank, Gary Marsh, executive vice president of original programming and production, is eager to find the next big kid star. But newcomers find that the bar has been raised. Marsh said that 14-year-old Hilary Duff, for one, is accessible, mature and terrifically talented. She has already parlayed her success on the Disney series “Lizzie McGuire” into two starring roles in feature film projects. She is due to begin production later in the summer on the MGM film “Agent Cody Bank,” and she has signed for a role in a New Line Cinema movie in development titled “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen.” In addition, Disney is developing a “Lizzie McGuire” feature.

“The kids who make it through to here are the Navy SEALs of the kid talent,” Marsh said. “They are thoroughly trained, ferociously talented and tenacious. It’s not by accident they rise to the top.” Another Disney executive, Adam Bonnett, vice president of original programming, said he’s continually on the lookout for new talent.

“We do quarterly showcases, internal showcases, we work with casting directors ... we’re always looking,” Bonnett said. “I’ll see kids in guest star roles, we’ll tell our in-house talent exec to track that kid down, let’s meet with them, bring them in and cast them.”

Once kids are stars, they’ll venture out in the normal world like Lisa at the dance recital--encountering an often too-eager public.

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Of course, for every Lisa or Hilary, there are thousands of kids who can’t break into a steady role in Hollywood. Take 14-year-old Sara Paxton. She’s had a number of good parts that have attracted attention--a supporting role in a Disney made-for-TV movie titled “Hounded” and another as a sexually exploited child in a recent episode of CBS’s “CSI.” She’s starred in two pilots that weren’t picked up--one in a role opposite Debbie Reynolds--and she stars opposite Christopher Lloyd in a 3-D attraction movie that will be shown starting next year at Sea World in San Diego and at other Busch Entertainment Corp. theme parks. But she hasn’t landed a big break like the one that came to Lisa.

“I’ve auditioned about 20 times for all these different Disney Channel things ... but I don’t get discouraged,” Sara said determinedly. “There’s always going to be another chance. You’ve got to keep trying for the next one.” She gamely works on despite casting directors who don’t call her back, and another antagonistic force: getting older.

Take Jeremy Foley, who broke in as Linda Hamilton’s son in the 1997 feature film “Dante’s Peak” and later earned a leading role on “Caitlin’s Way,” a dramatic series that ran for two years on Nick. Now 19, he’s struggling to forge a career as a young adult. “Everybody was saying our show was getting good reviews, good reviews, I thought it was awesome,” Foley recalls. Now, though, it’s back to square one. He gets as many readings as he can, he takes acting classes, occasionally lands a guest spot--he was recently on “Boston Public"--but life now seems far from certain. No big break has come his way, so he is planning to attend film school.

At Disney, 18-year-old Christy Carlson Romano, a star of the series “Even Stevens,” said she’s gotten used to young girls chanting “Ren! Ren!"--the name of her character. But she was in a video store recently, she said, and had forgotten her membership card. When a clerk seemed uncertain about her identity, Romano turned to a group of young girls in line behind her.

“Who am I, kids?” Romano asked them.

She got her videos.

Michael P. Lucas is a Times staff writer.


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