The troubled past and questionable benefits of Hollywood’s oldest awards show for kids

Young Artists Awards
(Jay L. Clendinin / Los Angeles Times)

Actors and actresses strolled in tuxedos and sequined gowns along the red carpet. Cameras flashed as photographers scrambled to get the best angles. Autograph seekers lingered and film producers jostled for position, hoping to sign up talent for their next movie.

Inside, broadcast cameras waited to begin filming the annual awards ceremony.

But this wasn’t the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes or even the Independent Spirit Awards. And it wasn’t the Hollywood most people know, but an unvarnished version, a place that exists in the industry’s shadows.

It was the 37th Young Artist Awards, a gathering of the ambitious, the naive and the opportunistic on the fringes of the film and TV industry. The event was held not in Hollywood, but at the aging Sportsmen’s Lodge hotel that sits next to the Los Angeles River several miles away in Studio City.


Many of the dozens of young, mostly little-known actors show up every spring in hopes of winning an award that might bring them to the attention of a director or casting agent. But major studio executives, even junior ones — anyone of importance or influence in the entertainment industry, for that matter — were conspicuously absent.

Instead, milling among the nominees, who ranged in age from 5 to 21, was a Fellini-esque assortment of showbiz hangers-on. One independent movie producer said he was seeking a younger actor who could perform a rape scene in a jail. “Obviously, it has to be very tastefully done,” said Nunzio Fazio, who last produced the short film “Millie and Jerry” in 2013.

An Atlanta woman, Nicole Herring, said she came to the show to meet a child actor who she said resembles “a minor Brad Pitt.” She said she was there to scout for talent for her management firm, Herring & Herring, though she declined to provide records for such a company and The Times could find none.

A group of mostly middle-aged men busily solicited signatures from the child actors; the autograph collectors, some of whom were professionals, appeared skittish — and most wouldn’t give their names. A man who would identify himself only as “Gil” was reluctant to speak, saying, “A lot of times people … throw us on the negative side.”

A visitor might have the feeling of stumbling on a B-movie parody of a Hollywood extravaganza – where the players follow the script written for them, some vaguely aware but many oblivious to the distance from this red carpet to the real ones.

But if the event resembles a harmless and burlesque version of the better-known award shows, there also has been a darker side to it at times. A handful of people who were actively involved with the show or attended it have been found by authorities to have troubling backgrounds with minors, including two men who were convicted of committing sex crimes against children.


Convicted pedophile Christopher Miller is alleged to have used his claimed ties to the Young Artist Awards to gain the trust of a boy he accompanied to the show and later took advantage of, according to an interview with the boy’s father and his court testimony in a 2013 child molestation case. Miller disputed the father’s account of the matter.

Some child welfare advocates have questioned the lack of safeguards for minors who attend.

“Besides being very unorganized and very low-level, they either unknowingly or knowingly attract an element that is not beneficial to their nominees and could be harmful to children,” said Paula Dorn, co-founder of BizParentz Foundation, an advocacy group for child actors and their parents.

Daniel Kitchel, who has been involved with the show for three decades and serves as its executive producer, acknowledged the involvement of “a few sour apples” over the years.

“We try to do the best we can, but sometimes things slip through the cracks,” he said. “We try to vet everybody, but we don’t have a big enough staff. We’ve had people where we realized we couldn’t invite them back.”

Kitchel did not respond to questions about the peripheral nature of the YAA, but he said the goal of the ceremony is to honor “so many fantastic kids.”

At the banquet center, nominees passed along a press line featuring small media outlets such as faith-based Web channel Stauros Entertainment. Their parents, who traveled here from around the U.S. and Canada and paid as much as $250 a ticket, expressed hope that an award could lead to bigger roles and brighter lights.


But several said they didn’t know much about the YAA and the golden statuettes it hands out.

“I don’t know, we are just here,” said Rhodema Cargill, a Texan whose son Ryan was nominated for his performance on a Nickelodeon show. “I hope it does good things.”

Yet some established child actors, even when nominated, have stayed away at the direction of their representatives, according to performers. And studios including Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment said they do not participate.

“I’ve never hired somebody or even brought somebody in to audition based on the fact that they’ve won a Young Artist Award,” said veteran casting director Billy DaMota, who has never attended the show. “I don’t think most legitimate casting directors even know that the Young Artist Awards exists.”

Who runs the awards?

The Young Artist Awards is Hollywood’s oldest awards show for kids. And for years, the event’s organizers dreamed of getting the ceremony televised, just like the big awards programs. This year it finally was, on the local PBS affiliate, KLCS.


But unlike the major awards shows, the YAA wasn’t paid for broadcast rights. Instead, to get the show on the air, the YAA had to pay independent TV producer Marcus Flye to put together a telecast, he said. Flye said he couldn’t reveal his compensation and YAA representatives would not discuss the arrangement.

KLCS said the evening broadcast was watched by about 2,600 households, compared to 4.4 million viewers nationwide for the 2016 Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards.

The Young Artist Awards was founded in 1978 by Maureen Dragone, who was a longtime member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the group behind the Golden Globes. At first, Dragone’s event was known as the Youth in Film Awards, but she changed the name in 1996.

Dragone, who died in 2013 at age 93, aimed to produce a show that would promote “wholesome family entertainment,” according to the YAA website.

Since the beginning, the event and the nonprofit that manages it have been run by volunteers with mostly tangential ties to Hollywood.

Kitchel, the longtime treasurer of the Young Artist Awards nonprofit, is a plumber and electrician by trade and has no film or TV credits to his name, according to entertainment database IMDB Pro. The boyfriend of Dragone for more than two decades, Kitchel has been convicted in three DUI cases, the most recent in 2014, according to court records. Kitchel, who records show is 57, declined to comment on the matter.


He runs the YAA with George Tangalos, 64, the nonprofit’s president since 2013. Tangalos, who teaches math at East Los Angeles College, said he’s had various roles at the YAA since the 1980s but has not otherwise been involved in the entertainment industry. His grown daughter was a child performer.

The other board members are Jack Tewksbury, 90, who was previously a movie columnist for a small newspaper in Quebec and is a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press; Paul LeClair, 73, who has worked as a background actor, most recently appearing as “Cortex Neuron #1” in the 2016 short film “Synapse”; and Kathleen Malpede, 74, whose son is a former child actor.

LeClair conceded that some board members were not active in the entertainment industry but said he didn’t believe this adversely affects the body’s credibility. Discussing some board members’ credentials, he said that they “watch TV consistently and watch movies consistently.”

Early on, the Young Artist Awards seized on a strategy of giving nominations or awards to stars like Michael Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio — whether they attended or not. This had the effect of tethering the show to sometimes unwitting celebrities, burnishing its reputation and establishing a veneer of credibility. Representatives of DiCaprio and other well-known YAA nominees, including Scarlett Johansson, did not respond to questions about whether the performers ever attended the event.

A-list nominees including Jacob Tremblay of the Oscar-winning film “Room” did not attend this year’s show, held March 13. Among the highest-profile child actors to participate were Steele Stebbins, who starred in Warner Bros.’ 2015 “Vacation” reboot, and Trevor Larcom, who appeared on HBO’s “True Detective.” The most recognizable actor on hand wasn’t even a child: Jason Priestley, the 47-year-old star of the 1990s TV hit “Beverly Hills, 90210,” attended with his daughter, who won an award.

“Someone should tell these people it is not necessary,” said Lauren Collins, 30, a star of the TV show “DeGrassi: The Next Generation,” who, unbeknownst to her, was nominated three times in the 2000s and never attended. “It seems like it is sort of preying on the uninformed or the impressionable.”


Tangalos said he regretted that some major studios do not participate in the event, which attracted about 550 people this year. “And perhaps we can all strive to do better,” he said. “Hopefully with many successful shows we may disabuse these naysayers of their opinions.”

Although some parents complained about the high price of tickets to the show, the YAA nonprofit’s finances appear modest. In 2015, the group reported revenue of $47,435 and expenses of $49,485, according to tax records.

Among the children who do attend, many are Canadian.

At this year’ ceremony, about half of the roughly 250 nominees were from Canada, said Adam Nicholson, a Toronto-based actor who is the group’s Canadian ambassador and for years has promoted the show to his countrymen. Excluding special awards, actors with representation in Canada or an affiliation with a Canadian guild won eight of the 46 categories, according to IMDB Pro. At the 2015 ceremony, 17 of the 41 categories were won by actors with such ties to Canada.

Canadian child actors and their representatives say that they believe recognition at the Young Artist Awards could help them secure an O-1B work visa, which is designated for people with extraordinary ability in the arts or entertainment arena. But the visas are very hard to come by: In 2015, Canadians received 22 visas in the O-1 category, according to U.S. State Department data.

The Times interviewed more than a dozen Canadian child actors and parents who’ve participated in the Young Artist Awards, and only two performers had obtained visas. Some award-winners were hard-pressed to say whether the recognition had advanced their careers. “I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that was concrete,” said Vancouver native Alex Ferris, a two-time winner.

Former YAA technical director R.J. Lynn, who left the organization in 2014 following a dispute with its leaders, said he believes the outsize number of Canadian nominees and winners is meant to “just put butts in the seats.”


More paying attendees could help the YAA “pad the pocketbook as much as possible,” said Lynn, who is now on the advisory board of a competing awards show for child performers.

Kitchel dismissed Lynn’s claims. “We want to market to the Germans, the Mexicans, the Canadians, the Americans and people from Brazil — whoever wants to come,” he said.

He and Nicholson said that the large Canadian contingent reflects the country’s growing entertainment industry.

“We are just better than everybody else,” Nicholson quipped.

Dark entanglements

The Young Artist Awards is part of a fringe of Hollywood catering to dreamers and, in some cases, the people who take advantage of them. Over the years, a handful of men who have been involved with the show or attended it have had dark entanglements with children.

The sexual abuse of children has long been a sensitive subject in Hollywood. In recent years, former teen idols Corey Feldman and Todd Bridges, both of whom have said they were assaulted by men with show business connections, have raised questions about whether the industry protects its most vulnerable.


The Young Artist Awards is now confronting its own troubled past, which includes a history of men who attended the show with children they were later discovered to have sexually victimized.

Sex offender Christopher Miller is claimed by the father of a then-11-year-old aspiring actor to have used the Young Artist Awards to develop a relationship with the child in 2006. Three years later, Miller acquired, edited and distributed pornographic videos of the boy, according to Miller’s testimony in a 2013 molestation case involving another child.

That case, brought by prosecutors in Contra Costa County, Calif., levied more than 30 sex abuse-related charges against Miller, 45, who previously had been convicted of possessing child pornography. Prosecutors had called on the father of the 11-year-old boy to testify during the trial to show Miller’s grim history with children. He was convicted of 29 counts of committing lewd acts on a child and was sentenced to 69 years in prison.

In his testimony, the father of the 11-year-old boy claimed that Miller said he “knew the producers” of the Young Artist Awards and was purported to be able to get the child into the event. In an interview, the father said Miller trumpeted his supposed ties to the show and used it to gain the trust of the parents, and that Miller attended the 2006 ceremony with the boy and his family.

Miller said in letters written from prison that he went to the Young Artist Awards twice but was not involved with the organization that puts on the show. He said he gave the 11-year-old boy’s name “as a favor to a producer” who worked on the event, but declined to name this person. YAA board members did not respond to questions about Miller’s claim.

Miller said he did not bring the boy to the 2006 show, but saw him there and sat with him and his family “for a while,” later going to get sushi with them after the ceremony ended. Miller said he disputed the father’s testimony.


Child talent manager Martin Weiss was photographed at the 2006 ceremony with an underage male client who was named as a victim of the manager when he was later prosecuted on sex crime charges stemming from alleged incidents occurring from 2005 to 2008. Weiss was charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office in 2011 with eight felony counts related to sexually abusing the boy, an aspiring singer and actor. Weiss pleaded no contest in 2012 to two counts of committing lewd acts on a child. He spent about six months in jail and registered as a sex offender.

Weiss, 52, did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney declined to comment.

Also, two men who worked at the Young Artist Awards about a decade ago had controversial associations with kids.

Robert Jamieson, a Hollywood publicist, was listed as the show’s press coordinator in its 1998 program and seen at the event in later years. Prior to his stint with the YAA, Jamieson had been a police officer in Seabrook, Texas, but was sued in civil court for allegedly performing illegal strip searches of children. The case was settled, but Jamieson lost his job. He died in 2007 at age 48.

Another man, Michael “Max” Grassi Jr., attended the YAA a handful of times and served as the official photographer in 2004, according to people who saw him there and an archived version of his photography firm’s website. Around this time, he was accused by a mother of surreptitiously photographing her son’s crotch at another kids awards show, the CARE Awards, according to emails provided by that event’s organizer, Dorn of BizParentz. Grassi denied in an email to Dorn that he took the photos but was banned from the 2006 CARE Awards, according to emails and an interview with Dorn. In November 2006 — about eight months after the ban — Grassi, then 47, committed suicide.

According to a police report, when firefighters responded to a blaze at Grassi’s Duluth, Ga., town home, they found his body and several videos that investigators believed to be child pornography. Grassi appeared to have doused the video cassettes and DVDs in “gasoline/kerosene,” the report said. Duluth Police Department Det. Teria Russell investigated the matter and determined the material wasn’t child porn, but had lingering suspicions.

“It was obvious that … maybe he committed suicide because he’d done something he was ashamed of with a child,” Russell said. “But we went in and we found nothing to corroborate that.”


Kitchel recalled Jamieson’s and Grassi’s YAA participation but said he was unaware of the controversies involving them. “With these people, I really do not socialize with any of them,” he said. Kitchel said that he did not know Miller, but recalled Weiss’ attendance at the event. Kitchel said he “knew Marty pretty well,” and was “so surprised” to learn of his legal troubles. Tangalos said he knew none of the men.

“I thoroughly regret and thoroughly condemn that these people of questionable character and inappropriate behavior were at one time associated with the show,” said Tangalos, adding that “appropriate action would be taken” if he learned that similar activity is ongoing.

When asked if the Young Artist Awards had enough safeguards for kids, Kitchel said, “We’re definitely working on that.”

“We make it as safe as we can, and we are hiring more security,” he said.

But the group doesn’t perform formal background checks on potential volunteers. Tangalos said the YAA is led by a “circle of friends,” and volunteers are vetted by people they know in the organization.

Tangalos said that he could not “categorically and positively” say that among the show’s workers there was not “a convicted felon or something like that, or a drug addict or something like that, or a child molester, God forbid.”

At the awards show


More than 100 children snaked their way down the worn YAA red carpet, spilling out into the overcrowded foyer of the banquet center.

Camera-phone-wielding parents hollered for the kids’ attention so they could snap a few pictures. The children and their families were ushered into the ballroom, where dance music blared and waiters served chicken lunches.

The ceremony got off to a halting start when teen singer Dalton Cyr’s opening performance was marred by technical glitches. Soon, it was time for the awards to be handed out.

Child actors presented the statuettes to their peers, announcing winners with squeaky-voiced glee. Recipients collected their trophies on an elevated stage and offered up short speeches. Afterward, each winner posed for an official photograph at the back of the ballroom. But as the show entered its third hour, some kids left to hang out in the lobby.

They were joined by parents — some of whom asked this reporter to interview their children — along with industry professionals and YAA board members. It made for an unconventional collection of those who were faking it, others who were making it, and some who seemed too inexperienced to know the difference.

Drawn in by the kids, autograph seekers began to work the room. One bedraggled man, Michael Bergan of Glendale, said that he didn’t buy a ticket — he just showed up.


The Times did not see any uniformed security guards on site at the Sportsmen’s Lodge. Kitchel said “plainclothes people” were providing security, but he declined to name them. “I want to keep them a secret,” he said.

Kitchel and Tangalos said that they were unaware of the autograph solicitors — even as a handful of the men stood a few feet away in the foyer.

With a hint of impatience rising in his voice, Kitchel dismissed the men as “paparazzi.” It was one of a handful of topics related to the Young Artist Awards that the 30-year veteran of the show didn’t seem eager to discuss.

“I don’t know anything about that,” he said.

Onstage, another child collected an award.

Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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