I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.
In 1939, California passed a law to keep unscrupulous adults from stealing the earnings of child actors. But no one ever got around to crafting legislation that would shield these kids from the psychic damage they’d suffer under the cruel lights of fame.
And yes, I am talking about Michael Jackson that monumentally talented child turned monumentally tragic adult. Like so many kids before and after him, show business stole his childhood and sent him careening down a too predictable path…a path that, as we all know, ended abruptly last week.
It’s strange. Parents are so careful with their kids these days…I mean, I never had to wear a helmet when I rode my bike. And yet, so many stage moms and dads continue to be eager to put their kids in harm’s way.
Even if they don’t know the tragic stories of child stars like Mike Hammet, Carl Switzer, Frankie Lymon or Anissa Jones, they should have heard about James Dean, Dana Plato, Todd Bridges, Carrie Fisher, Tatum O’neal, Danny Bonaduce, Corey Feldman, River Phoenix, Judy Garland, Leif Garrett and Robert Blake. Anyone who watches Letterman knows that Drew Barrymore was in rehab at age 13, and we’ve all watched the meltdown of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears firsthand.
And don’t forget the many more stories of kids we’ve never heard of, kids who weren’t famous enough to make the news and kids who were devastated not by the harshness of life in show business but by the repeated disappointments of a futile pursuit of that life.
And what is that life for a kid, anyway? Well, it’s being taken in and out of school and trying to stay up on homework with a teacher on the set. It’s trading Nintendo with your friends for poker with the crew. It’s the head tweaking reality of so much attention at such a young age, and learning too soon that people don’t always mean what they say. More generally speaking, it’s being put under the very adult pressures of time and money and competition when your biggest concern should be zits.
You could say that even if parents have heard the horror stories of child stars gone bad, they still really don’t get it. Britney Spears is from the hamlet of Kentwood, Louisiana, population 2,025, and what did her parents know of the ways of big city folks? But if they didn’t know, they soon found out: mom, dad or another guardian had to be with her on the set of The New Mickey Mouse Club at all times.
Of course, by the time they’re on set, parents may developed a taste for fame and all that goes with it – ahem, Dina Lohan – and then God help the children. In Sacha Baron Cohen’s new farce, his character Bruno holds auditions for a kids’ fashion shoot. "How would your daughter handle being dropped four-stories?" he asks one mom, to which she reportedly replies, "I think she'd be a little scared at first, but she can do it."
but even the best stage parents are put under extreme pressures. Giving their kid a shot at the big time means a lot of sacrifice – leaving friends and family at home for a living out of a suitcase in L.A. motels, navigating sleazy managers, agents, lawyers and casting directors, throwing money at a game with odds way worse than the lotto and all the while, wondering if what you’re doing is really in your child’s best interests.
But what is a parent to do with a kid who demands to share their talent with the world? Is it right to deny them the extraordinary life afforded someone like Michael Jackson…to be beloved by millions, to travel the world and hobnob with kings, to have a monkey if they want.
I say, give a video camera and tell them to direct.
I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today’s thoughts or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I’m Matt Holzman.
Banner image: Michael Jackson (C) seen with his brothers in The Jackson Five, (Top L-R) Marlon and Jackie (Bottom L-R) Tito and Jermaine