ON THE TOWN:Benji and friend raise funds for library

With some of the world's most legendary film studios within its borders, just about every star that has ever graced the screen, large or small, has spent time here in Burbank.

As a part of the ongoing 2007 Burbank READS program, the city on Saturday welcomed one of the planet's most beloved stars, one that has been seen by more than 73 million worldwide theatergoers and more than a billion people on television. Benji, along with his owner, Joe Camp, who created the franchise based on America's most huggable hero, were the special guests of the Burbank Public Library.

Back in late September of 2001, the little dog that starred in the 2004 feature film, "Benji Off the Leash," was just about as far from the life of a Hollywood star as a dog could be.

An abandoned stray wandering the back streets of Pass Christian, Miss., she ultimately found shelter at the Humane Society of South Mississippi in Gulfport.

It was there, after a three-month nationwide search by Camp, that her life dramatically changed.

"The original Benji, whose real name was Higgins, was rescued from the Burbank Animal Shelter," Camp said at Saturday's event.

"The American Humane Assn. reported that the adoption of the original Benji from the Burbank Shelter was directly responsible for the adoption of more than 1 million dogs nationwide. That's why I wanted to find the new Benji in a shelter."

Introduced by Joan Cappocchi, Camp, with Benji at his side and his wife, Kathleen, in the front row, greeted the assemblage of young people, as well as those who were young at heart, by expounding on the virtues of reading. Then, taking his own advice, he read a chapter from his book, "Benji & Me" (Mulberry Square Productions Inc., 2000). Selecting a chapter titled "Raison D'etre," Camp twice had to regain his composure as he relayed the story of being on a promotional tour with Benji and meeting a shy Parisian boy who reminded him of himself as a young boy growing up in Little Rock, Ark.

Over the following hour, Camp held his audience captive as he spoke of the four dogs that have played the role of Benji since 1973.

Saying that all of his Benji films have been about three things — love, hope and the constant pursuit of a goal, Camp also spoke of the man who trained the first three Benjis, Frank Inn, and demonstrated some of the training techniques he learned from Inn based on a system of vocabulary and compassion.

Following a question-and- answer session, Camp took his place behind a table to sign books and DVDs for fans, who then moved on to have their photos taken with Benji.

Four-year old Grace Poole and her mother, Lisa Poole, were among the first on line to get Joe's autograph and then snuggle with Benji. Among other local residents who came to meet Camp and Benji were Katerina Nale, Stormy Bookhard, Kristen and Riley Pickenpaugh, Lucy and Greg Maltby, Lex Perinion, Camille Gengania and Ferrie Adab.

Todd Jensen made a point to be there with his two young sons, Adian and Julian.

"I was 4 years old when the first Benji film came out," said Todd.

"Now I am giving my boys the chance to enjoy these films just like I did."

Camp, who graciously took time to visit with each person and pose for pictures, turned over the entire proceeds of the merchandise sold on Saturday to benefit the Friends of the Burbank Library.

The Burbank Reads Program is designed to build community by encouraging residents to read the same book. This year's selection, "Marley & Me," is John Grogan's heartwarming story of life and love with the world's worst dog.

"We have already checked out the book to over 500 and we're extremely excited about the feedback we have received," Cappocchi said.

  • DAVID LAURELL can be reached at dlaurellaol.com or 563-1007.
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