Oh the excitement and prestige of being a child actor!; not to mention all its presented opportunities and privileges. Had you been one last decade into the present you might very likely be on the cutting edge between “reality” and repugnancy as nearly every new genre from horror to real housewives emerged and continue to do so (sometimes wherein the twain were indistinguishable from each other).
In the 90s you most likely could have snapped your fingers and met MC Hammer anywhere within the tri-state area (just because of who you were!)– to speak nothing of making a visit to Arsenio Hall and checking out that newly studded earring reviled so heartily by his mother (particularly in those teasers before the earliest episodes of the then hip, newfangled chat show).
The 80s might have found you discovering the inner, outer, and downright–up-the-posterior—hand/face (face palm?) gestures of Alf whilst saving as many on-set, and off-set cats alike from his homicidal maw as was humanly and anti-alienly possible! (Did that extraterrestrial ever meet a cat it didn’t connivingly conceive of consuming?!?)
The 70s? Need I say any less than” Keith Partridge” and “Greg Brady” and who wouldn’t want to not have had a shot at guest starring on anything revolving ‘round them—and their hair. The Partridge boy alone invented the shag precursor to any and all sideways mullets and the eldest Brady child was merely the first in a catalyst of dandy bell bottom-clad chaps to make the non-froed Afro cool!
The late 60s would have had you wishing The Beatles were able to make a cameo on your sitcom only to have you succumb to the appearance of Tiny Tim while you tiptoed back to your trailer never completely to be sure whether he was friend, foe, or alien of some sort… (Really, he always did look a trifle like the aforementioned Alf didn’t he? Or would that be the other way around?)
In the late 1950s to mid 60s you might have gotten a guest starring gig on The Donna Reed show whilst stumbling across none other than Paul Petersen aka Jeff Stone. As a result, your life might very well have been changed forever for the better in future-forward-looking past tense–looking forward in particular to the year 1990 when Petersen founded his non-profit, 501 C3 organization he calls A Minor Consideration!
Fun to trivial aspects aside, often times, the liberties one relinquishes (and bestows unto others) when one makes this transition to adult-child entertainer can be staid to scary. It is in these instances that child actors necessitate a group of watchdogs looking out for them. And in so doing Petersen has achieved just that! Since its inception, A Minor Consideration has been a growing force to be reckoned with, hell bent on assisting and improving the lives of any and every child actor that ever was concerning everything from the personal to professional. From notably enforcing the Coogan Law, concerning young actors’ finances, to assuring on set parity in line with children’s working requirements, to basic guidance and ancillary parenting when it is sorely lacking, A Minor Consideration has accomplished all this and so much more. So in both celebration of said success and in a solid course to move steadily ahead, the first in a hopefully exceedingly long line of Bowling Parties/fundraisers was held in its honor on the last day of August at Hollywood’s interminably hippest of modish bowling alleys, Lucky Strike at Hollywood and Highland!
Welcoming former and current child stars alike, fans, and reporters, the establishment was jam packed and abundantly a bustle with bowling, snacking, all manner of animated and vociferous conversing, and silent auctioneering to the aft of the lanes featuring everything from signed photographs of relative antiquity to actual set pieces, and Hollywood novelty items!
Some of the participants’ bowling shirts even fit said bill of vintage antiquity as an animated and endearing Alison Arngrim aka 70’s TV’s original bad girl Nelly Olsen of Little House on the Prairie expounded excitedly about her and her husband Bob’s old/new acquisitions for the afternoon’s proceedings:
“[It’s a store called Junk for Joy] and it always has the best vintage clothes… So we walked in and the store owner said, ‘Apparently…you’re all coming here. Everyone’s been buying bowling shirts this week!’ But we’re like, ‘Whaddaya got?’ And she’s like ‘Oh my God I think these are the only two left!’”
Costumed in a bright yellow bowling shirt with the logo “Old Gold” on her above pocket lapel, in conjunction with her husband Bob, brandishing the name ‘Tim’ on his bosom, (the likes of which–when it comes to Tims the world over–I could only imagine being sported by “Tim…Tim the Enchanter” from Monty Python’s Holy Grail) traveling ‘round to the back, comprising a banshee bowler-from-beyond reaching out of its coffin in a perpetual hankerin’ to play, it hardly seems credible that these classic chemises were culled from such slim pickens!
“Oh and it was the right store too because [the owner] was the mother of a child actor who grew up to be a director…. She was talking about her daughter and saying, ‘We made an agreement when she was 7. I pointed to a woman who was acting like a crazy stage mom and said, “If I ever act like her or you ever act like her,” pointing to the spoiled child—“this is over. We’re not doing this anymore,” and we shook hands! And every penny went into the bank. My husband’s involved in investments. He invested it. So she has tons of money to this day.’ She said, ‘She (my daughter) went to school, she went to college… She had to baby sit to get extra cash. We paid for everything she needed…we both kept our jobs.’ And she said, ‘She did one commercial that made so much, she made more than I made as a teacher! She acted but she continued to go to school and she continued to work and then she got some money at 18, and more at 20, and more at 25, and she still has a savings account she can dip into because so much money was invested. Now she’s graduating college, directing and doing all these film projects with women and doing all these things about positive role models!’”
To this Arngrim could only exclaim, “I have friends who…left home at 18 with all the clothes on their back, and a broken station wagon. [The shop owner’s] like, ‘Yeah we didn’t do that. We skipped that part where we steal the money!’
Someone who admitted she could have used such help as A Minor Consideration could provide, irrespective of her age, is Geri Jewell. Best known for her groundbreaking portrayal of Geri Tyler (a minor in her own right), on the popular 1979-1988 sitcom The Facts of Life and the first actress/character with cerebral palsy to appear as a regular on prime time, she had this to say:
“Technically I was an adult—I turned 21 when I started doing stand up. But because I spent so much of my life in special ed, I was chronologically my age but emotionally younger so…I had a lot of the same experiences in the industry that a child actor without the protection [might have had]. ‘Cause I was legally an adult [but potentially] a sitting duck to be taken advantage of… My first manager ended up going to prison; not for what he did to me because I was the low man on the totem pole if you will…but all the money he stole from other people. But [what he stole from me] was a lot of money…it was all I had… In fact, [after that] an attorney that I had in those days came to a birthday party and he bought me a stuffed animal that was a wolf in sheepskin!”
But of course, someone who’s understood both the glory and the pitfalls of child stardom first and foremost, was the man of the hour himself: Paul Petersen. His story pertaining to how he got started in showbiz as a catalyst for the founding of A Minor Consideration was all together fascinating, frustrating, and inspiring:
“My mother was bigger than me. I mean that’s the truth. Kids don’t drive themselves to auditions. They can’t sign contracts to get an agent. I was taking a lot of lessons. I was a very good singer and dancer and there were open auditions at Disney. This was back in 1955 for a new creature called a ‘Mouseketeer’ and I went on an open audition along with 5,000 other kids; they hired 20 of us and I was one of ‘em. So that’s how I got started. [But] 7 weeks later after Disneyland opened, I was fired. I had no idea I was supposed to be disciplined and all the rest… But once I got started, having been fired, every audition thereafter, I took very seriously. I wanted the job. I wanted to bring home the bacon if you will. And while I was nine and ten years old, I quickly earned a reputation in delivering. I was a good little actor and the jobs started getting bigger: National commercials, then Lux Video Theatre, then Ford Theatre, Playhouse 90…and the movie roles got bigger until I was doing a movie with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren called Houseboat. That lead directly to an audition at Screen Gems for the Donna Reed Show and, as Tony Dow will tell you, ‘You accept a job like that and POOF there goes your life!’ Because when I said ‘yes’ to that job, I was in jail for the next eight years—from age 12 to 20… It becomes your total life. We worked 39 weeks a year, so we had 13 weeks off which was time to do personal appearances and vacations if you could fit ‘em in, but then you’re always known as your character. Where do you go? What do you do? And because the money is so great, pretty soon the family begins to follow your schedule instead of following their schedule. And then the friends drop away because they’re in regular school. You don’t get to see them except on weekends and you become this different creature…”
Pertaining to present day on the axis of A Minor Consideration, Petersen continued:
“There is hard work to be done. This isn’t just a social club, although we’re awfully good friends. The truth of the matter is, there are elements of being a young professional that actually act against the child who’s doing the work. Among them: Who owns the money? In most places, in every state except California, the parents own the money. Well that’s kind of ludicrous ‘cause the person who does the work should own the money. But children have been exempt from federal child labor laws since 1938. So if you live in a great state like California, you’re covered ‘cause we have good laws. But if you’re in North Carolina or if you’re the Goslin children in Pennsylvania which had laws and didn’t enforce them, you need help. Well who are you going to get help? The only place kid actors get consistent and solid advice is from other kid actors because we’ve been down this road and that’s why this fellowship is so much more than just a bunch of former kid stars getting together!”
“So interesting! Things like that, I never thought of, or never knew,” I could only muse.
“People don’t think about them,” Petersen continued. “They see the surface and they accept the stereotypes of the aggressive stage mom or the dad who’s acting as a manager but there’s also much more. What happens with education? Who helps young performers plan for the future? And if you have a difficult job, say you’re a cartoon character, or like Alison Arngrim, play a really nasty person on a series, how do you cope with that? Because people tend to think that’s you and it’s not. There are lots of wrinkles… Celebrity doesn’t fit well on children. It really doesn’t. Children need secrets and they need silences and they need to observe life so they can figure out where they fit, and it’s hard to do when you’re on a television show. So those are some of the reasons we get together…”
“[My proudest moment involving A Minor Consideration was] going to Pennsylvania with Paul and fighting for the child labor laws,” passionately added Alison Arngrim. “Paul assisted me the first time we went to Sacramento…it was Paul who said, ‘I’m driving. Get in the car,’ and grabbed a bunch of people and we went up there. And then we went to Pennsylvania…when we were fighting for child labor laws… Pennsylvania hadn’t changed its child labor laws since 1905. Hence people like the Goslins: The whole John and Kate Plus 8 and the Goslin Family [along with] all these other reality shows, were taking advantage of the fact that there were no child labor laws and setting up shop in Pennsylvania… So…a whole gaggle of us…[along with]…Jon Provost, [from] Lassie…went [there] with Paul…and one of the things we talked about was [how thick the rule book is] for animals to be used in film [compared to the short] list of rules for children… [You know how] you see, ‘No Animals were harmed in this production’ at the end of a film? You never see, ‘No children were harmed in this production,’ because the book of rules is like two pages. …So we talked to them in Pennsylvania… “
“Work permits? You’re absolutely supposed to issue work permits,” Arngrim continued. “No work permits were ever pulled for any children on The Duggars . It’s [also] illegal nationwide to film newborns before the age of 15 days… On The Duggars two seconds after they’re out [of the womb] they’re putting them on camera. Reality TV is [seriously] breaking laws—felonies—and no one will enforce them!”
Specifying and enumerating the felonies Arngrim continued:
“Not pulling the work permit: I’m not sure of the penalty. There are fines and possible jail time for [not following the laws regarding] newborns, and then of course on The Duggars you have the felony: Failure to report sexual abuse of a child! They knew that, at that point, they’re aiding and abetting and they failed to report it! That absolutely is a very serious offense. Also remember the one guy they took [the eldest son] to was a state trooper. [He] is now serving 56 years [himself] for child pornography violations, so that’s who they hang out with… Their best friend…the guy they take their son to when he starts molesting his sisters is now serving 56 years for child porn! So what was his advice? [And it] made the papers. In fact, he got interviewed in prison after it all broke with Josh Duggar and he even said ‘Yes I talked to them once but then later I found out they weren’t doing anything. They didn’t take him to therapy,’ and…he walked away because he thought they were too skeevy. He who later was arrested for felony child pornography… The state trooper is in prison now and even he said he didn’t trust the Duggars! So that’s what’s going on. You have people who are mandated reporters who are not reporting sexual and physical abuse of children. That’s a felony in some states. There are people who are not pulling work permits. It’s absolutely the law in the sates to get a work permit. There are reality shows where no children are paid. There’s no medic on the set. There’s no teacher on the set and you know the Coogan Law only exists in four states. So they don’t have to open a trust fund, but Arkansas absolutely had child labor laws for kids in entertainment and they obeyed none of them—none of them. And no one busted them!”
“My favorite thing about A Minor Consideration is that frankly it’s a no questions asked safety net,” declared Actor/Writer/Producer, and actor on HBO’s OZ Steven Wishnoff. “Everyone in the entertainment industry has known people who have crashed and burned at one point or another, or had trouble, or reached a dark spot, and it’s an amazing group of people who will, without question, reach out and help their own. All you have to do is say, ‘I need the help.’ I know that in the past, they’ve helped people with rent, find medical care or get them into rehab or counseling…plus it’s a great network of people, many of whom are still in the industry… So over all, it’s the support system that I think is the best… The most important thing for A Minor Consideration is that it has successfully lobbied to update some of the laws on the books, to protect child performers and I think the next hurdle is going to be getting what is the Coogan law in California to be national and from there making sure it’s extended to cover reality [TV], because babies in reality television are being taken advantage of and that’s not right!”
“My favorite thing about A Minor Consideration is that they were there when my son needed help,” Tammy Locke, formerly Amy on The Monroes informed me. “So Minor Consideration doesn’t only take care of the children in the entertainment business, it also takes care of the children’s children as well. And they were there for my son, the whole way.”
“If someone needs a ride to recovery, or someone needs intervention, or someone needs a roof over their head, or they need a job…[anything, we’re there. But fortunately] it’s the kind of group where I don’t see a lot of need because everyone looks out for each other…,” declared child actor Keith Coogan, and grandson of Jackie Coogan after which the Coogan law was named. “And we have a little private board on facebook, the ex child stars association, and we can talk honestly because we don’t even let spouses into it!”
“Like a secret society?” I could only muse.
“It is a secret society,” he continued. “But we can openly vent with each other… The greatest thing about A Minor Consideration: There’s no other better group of people for a young performer to come and talk to and we all have a completely different experience but there is a shared experience about what the industry is–not as an adult, but as a child, working as an adult and earning real money as a child…”
“[A Minor Consideration’s] done a tremendous amount of good work over the years,” proclaimed Tony Dow, best known as Leave it to Beaver’s Wally Cleaver. “Paul started out when kids were sort of being taken advantage of, much more so than they are now, although, you know it’s a hard thing because the business has gotten less kid friendly. You know it’s more exploitive but I think he did a great job in going to various…states and getting legislation changed…it’s been sensational!”
“I’ve been involved with A Minor Consideration for probably 20 years,” Erin Murphy best known as Tabitha from Bewitched proudly declared. “I’m always there to help when needed. We got together a large group of us about a year ago and started talking about what we could do to do some fundraising because it’s not anything that had been done in the past. So we brainstormed a couple of ideas and came up with this. So we’re kind of all here supporting and former child actors [and to] to support current child actors so that’s why we’re here!”
“I’ve just got a memory of twenty years of nonstop meeting new people, helping pass laws for child actors, traveling as a tribe together,” admitted chiropractor extraordinaire, Dr. Jeannie Russell, aka Margaret on TV’s original Dennis the Menace. “It’s just one big memory and it keeps going and I’m so thrilled to see all these young, current working actors, ‘cause this type of thing just didn’t happen back in our day.”
“Well I was kind of on the ground floor of this with Paul so, to me it’s not like a get together, it’s more like one long [journey]…” mused Stan Livingston aka Chip of My Three Sons fame. Since the early 80s Paul was kind of doing this before it was formally anything and he was just doing it because he was a good guy—meeting with people and spending money out of his own pocket to really help actors that were in trouble… He stepped in for a lot of people of my ilk that were in the original 1950s/1960s shows when there wasn’t anybody to turn to [in terms] of having that commonality of that experience and Paul, for whatever reason, picked up the slack and sort of became the self-appointed father of us messed up kid actors [though] I don’t include myself in that statement.”
And anybody who knows Stan and his brother Barry alike (aka Ernie of My Three Sons) can testify that not all child actors are or got screwed up!
“This is the first annual [fundraiser],” continued Keith Coogan. “And hopefully we can continue to raise awareness and raise money…so that we can continue to be available and reach out to any kid, any adult anybody who has a question, needs help, needs support…”
Jeremy Miller, aka Ben Seaver from many an 80s child’s favorite sitcoms, Growing Pains could only add, “Well I’ve participated in [A Minor Consideration] a little especially since Scotty [Schwartz] has been…in more of a leadership role where he is working on more of the projects. He and I go back many, many many more years than I like to remember so…we’ve been batting around some things that we’d like to see… I mean everything they do is incredible. We’re just looking for ways to…add a few more options and maybe be able to do some mentoring program and different things like that. So maybe we’ll be able to work getting to know [up-and-comers]. Maybe we’ll make it better for kids who followed after us, that’d be cool!”
Future words and aspirations to live by!
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