Noel Coward said it... in song. "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington." But nobody seems to be taking Mr. Coward's advice very seriously — especially this season when Broadway is in the white heat of what could be called a "kiddie boom."
While most New York youngsters are either finishing up their homework or are being tucked safely away to bed, 23 junior Equity members between the ages of seven and 15 are nightly listening for their cues. Eighteen of these pint-sized troupers perform in such naturals as Annie and The King and I; two in Shenandoah; and one apiece in Hair, A Chorus Line and The Shadow Box.
Though they are probably more poised, articulate and disciplined than ordinary children, today's Broadway kids seem less precocious and more concerned with their offstage lives than child prodigies of the past. Backstage their talk centers around skateboards, school, KISS and future careers as doctors, airline pilots or big-time movie stars.
"What I like best about them," says Reid Shelton ("Daddy" Warbucks in Annie), "is that they really are kids." Possibly he's remembering the time his co-star, 13-year-old Andrea McArdle, was caught riding her skateboard through the lobby of the Howard Johnson Motel on Eighth Avenue or dropping water balloons out the window with her best friend Janine Ruane. Reid's sentiments are certainly a departure from the old saw that actors hate working with children because, as one veteran actress put it — "They steal scenes, learn everyone else's lines and have lurking mothers." It's the last — that dire and bodeful tribe of stage mothers, (including the quintessential Madam Rose of Gypsy) — that is probably most responsible for giving stage kids a bad name. During the Depression many women, their own theatrical careers down the drain with the demise of vaudeville, headed to Hollywood with high hopes that their bright children might bring the parents a gold mine. The only catch was that the kids soon grew up, and we all know what nightmare adult lives child stars like Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Jackie Coogan had.
These days there are no gold mines to be made from Broadway babies, a single sobering reality that may have contributed to the humanization of contemporary stage mothers and their broods who are generally middle class, suburban and conservative folk. With a few exceptions, like Annie's star Andrea McArdle, who receives a hefty salary which she won't reveal, most kids on Broadway are paid between $290 and $325 a week, out of which 10% goes to an agent, 15% to managers and about 50% to Uncle Sam, leaving just about enough for car fare and an occasional meal at a restaurant. If the child is from out-of-town like four of the kids in Annie, there's the added expense of keeping two residences.
"Everyone is getting rich on this show except the kids," says Beverly Finn, who "uprooted" her family from Malden, MA, so that her daughter, Robyn, could play the oldest orphan in Annie. Mrs. Finn does concede that being connected to Annie has been "an experience of a lifetime and was probably worth it. If nothing else comes out of it at least Robyn has wonderful memories. I mean what other kid has been to the White House twice, met President Carter, Amy, and Kissinger and has been on the Mike Douglas show and the Tony Awards, too!"
"You know I once wanted to do this," continues Mrs. Finn, who like many of the stage mothers has had theatrical ambitions. "But I got married instead. Now Robyn is doing it and I can't believe it. I just pray she gets a TV commercial so I can get out of this financial hole."
Most of the kids on Broadway broke into the business through commercials, which seem to have become the proving ground which vaudeville once served.
Twelve-year-old Christopher Blount who did a stint in Shenandoah, has made 30 or 40 TV commercials, doing everything from eating Fig Newtons to faking a Dristan headache. A Chorus Line's 15-year-old Cynthia Onrubia's first job at age 4, was with her mother, an actress-singer, in a mother-daughter Lux soap commercial. Twelve-year-old Vincent Stewart, who plays the gentle but confused son whose father is dying in The Shadow Box, has also made several commercials playing "heavies and tough guys." And Diana Barrows, now age 11, and the "Oh my Goodness" orphan in Annie started out at age one. "I was walking on West 72nd Street with Diana in the baby carriage," says her mother, "and some agent just handed me a card. So I started taking her to commercial calls." Mrs. Barrows, whose husband is a wealthy business investor and diamond dealer, found it all "much more interesting than changing diapers all the time."
Several families have more than one child in show business. Steve Grober, 13, playing Robert in Shenandoah, has two brothers, Bob, 14, and Douglas, 11. Douglas was in Pippin and both boys frequently serve as supernumeraries at the Met. The revival of The King and I has several family members too, like the Woo sisters, aged seven and ten, and Kevan and Kym Webber, who act with their mother Patricia Webber (she's the angel in the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet). Mary and Julie Woo were discovered by the show's casting director while she was scouting the lower East Side's P.S. 2 for Chinese children. Mrs. Webber, who was in the movie version of the show, trekked cross country with her two children, leaving her husband back in California to "hold down the fort."
A half-hour before each performance the children are dropped off at their theatres by their parents or an older brother or sister. Once the show has begun, the adults wait downstairs in a lounge, rushing upstairs at crucial moments to catch their children's performances.
Backstage, it is the stage manager who is normally in charge of the striplings. At The King and I, a show that employs 12 children, things can get hectic. "It's a helluva job to get them together and prepare them," says Ed Preston, production stage manager (he's also school principal to Miss Anna's royal students). "'Look, kids,' I say, 'this is no playground,' but they don't seem to listen. We've bought them a color TV and set aside a special room for them to study in, but it hasn't helped. All they want to do is run around the halls and hide in the costume room."
While they're on stage Mr. Preston doesn't have to worry. "Oh, Mr. Brynner takes care of them there," he says, smiling wryly. "He just stops the show and corrects them. He even did it one night during his death bed scene." One gathers from Mr. Preston's tone, when Brynner speaks, everyone behaves.
The transitory nature of the theatre is probably why both parents and kids all seem very concerned about schooling.
"My daughter's going to college whether she wants to or not," says one stage mother. Most go to their local schools, some go to professional schools that cater to show biz children, while a few like the out-of-owners in Annie rely solely on tutors. Last spring Susan Wind tutored Andrea McArdle and Janine Ruane four days a week (at $15 an hour plus expenses) so they could graduate 8th grade in June at their hometown Philadelphia parochial schools. In order to keep their jobs all the young actors must attain good grades and attendance records in school. Quite a few bring their homework to the theatre and do it between acts and when they're not onstage. If they start missing school and fall behind in their studies they could lose their acting permits which are given to juvenile performers (ages 7-16) by the Mayor's office on the recommendation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. "We regularly check up on the children to see if they're keeping up their school work" notes Hortense R. Landau, executive director of the non-profit private agency. "We are not any rubber stamp organization."
What are the pros and cons of letting your child go on stage even if your name isn't Mrs. Worthington?
The opinions differ. First Mildred Newman (co-author with Bernard Berkowitz of "How to be Your Own Best Friend" and their new "How to Take Charge of Your Life") who has counseled lots of famous theatre and movie people many of whom worked as children. She thinks the idea is fine. "I mean it's so natural," she says. Children are constantly playing different roles—mom, dad, doctor, big sister. As long as parents don't feel guilty and the child is comfortable, I think it's great. Also I've noticed anyone who's acted as a child has been enormously intelligent and inquisitive and they seem to get an identity early in life." Jerome Eskow, head of the acting department at the High School of Performing Arts, disagrees. "Our school is not a professional children's school," points out Mr. Eskow. "We don't allow any of our youngsters to perform professionally, because we don't believe you can develop a way of working while performing."
No matter. Parents with children on the stage still tend to worry. "Sometimes when I get into bed at night I worry about the effect of all this on Andrea," says Annie's mother, Phyllis McArdle. "Andrea is a sensible girl but she is missing the normal girlhood I had—high school, dances, picnics, boyfriends. When it's all over will she try to make up too quick for all she's missed?" She stopped for a moment. "You know," she said, "when this is all over it must be very hard to get back to normal living."
The youngest child on Broadway is seven-year-old Danielle Brisebois who plays the scene stealing orphan with the toothless grin in Annie. Danielle comes from Brooklyn, where her father works for ITT. "Her drive towards the stage started very, very early," says her mother, Mary. By the time she was five Danielle was polished enough to do a 40-minute night club act at Gypsy's on the Upper East Side — the youngest child ever to perform solo in a NYC club. . . . She was one of the first orphans hired by Annie's director Martin Charnin. For her audition, she sang "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "Happy Birthday." . . . Mrs. Brisebois wears a lot of medals around her neck and pins a medal of the Blessed Virgin on her daughter's underwear every night for good luck. "If you're in the theatre very long you start getting superstitious."
Vincent Stewart is the only child in The Shadow Box and it sometimes gets rather lonely. "I joke around with the adults," he says. "Once in awhile I go over and flirt with the girls in Annie. At the Tonys I got all of their autographs. Backstage at The Shadow Box Patricia Elliot is teaching me to meditate so I can get to sleep faster at night. And when Laurence Luckinbill was in the show he sort of took the place of my father. [Vincent's parents are divorced.] He's the person I'd most like to be when I grow up." The serious aspects of The Shadow Box require intense concentration. "Doing this play," says Vincent, "you can't be thinking of what you ate for breakfast. Sometimes I have to give myself a lecture — 'Come on, Vinnie!' Then I concentrate on something very sad and very personal so when I go on-stage I'll be able to make it seem real."
"Let me see. I've been stabbed to death more than once, had a sword put through my belly, and been thrown off a cliff," says Diane Lane, who for seven of her 13 years has been a member of Andre Serban's company, which specializes in presenting iconoclastic productions of the classics (e.g. this seasons's Agamemnon and The Cherry Orchard at the Beaumont)... Diane, whose parents are divorced, lives in a residential hotel with her father Burt Lane, a former acting teacher who now drives a cab. She attends Hunter High School. . . . Diane got into the business by replying to an ad for children six and up at the off-off Broadway La Mama theatre. "I remember coming out of the audition and saying, 'Daddy, they're all hippies!'" Anyway they hired her and since then she has travelled all over the U.S. and Europe with the troupe. Diane hopes to continue acting — "hopefully with Andre's company. I've done so much already that Dad's worried I might get jaded."
Cynthia Onrubia, 15, plays one of the dancers rejected during the first few minutes of A Chorus Line. (She also understudies the roles of Connie, Bebee and Diana.) Cynthia likes doing an adult role — "I've always felt overqualified for children's parts I've done." Even so when she auditioned for A Chorus Line she was worried they'd ask her age. "I guess I would have lied and told them I was 17." ...Cynthia's passions are clothes and shopping. She drinks wine on special occasions and likes Champagne "or a good Beaujolais or white." Like the majority of Broadway kids, she was raised Catholic "though I don't go to Mass regularly anymore." She has boy friends, but not a steady and "I'm not sleeping with anyone or anything like that yet."
This article originally appeared in the September 1977 Playbill.