Neil Goes to Hollywood

After our fun weekend, it was time to get on with the purpose for which we’d come down to LA. We checked in to the luxurious Sheraton Universal, where the auditions were to be held, and after dinner and his algebra test, Neil finished working on his drumming robot, which was what he’d brought for his audition show and tell.

I grew up in Southern California, but I’d never been to a television or movie audition before. What I do know of Southern California is that a n awful lot of people–even seemingly ordinary ones–have cinematic ambitions. For an open audition like this, all I could imagine was a gigantic line with stuck-up child actors and their overbearing stage mothers. It filled me with fear and trepidation, but all we wanted of Neil was for him to be his ownself, and I promised myself that if it was a dreadful scene, we could always bail out.

The auditions were scheduled to open at 8 am, so shortly before 7 am, Neil and Peter went downstairs to check out the line. It was long enough that Peter decided to take a place in it. It actually wasn’t too long at all: there were maybe 30 families in line. And for the most part, they were normal people, with parents like me exclaiming “I’ve never done anything like this before” and bright-looking children clutching science projects and trophies. For the most part the sentiment was exactly as this mother portrays it:


“I’m not smarter than my fifth grader.”

The audition process was tedious, as we’d expected it’d be, but all the waiting and the (happily) normalcy of the families there, gave me more the sense of it being a big, goofy party. After registering, Peter and Neil waited in Holding Room A. I finally brought a cold breakfast from a faraway Starbucks. When the room was full, the production crew came through to film a few scenes for the auditions show: one of the entire room cheering, and a quick walkthrough with all the children and their families waving (or otherwise gesturing) to the camera. I loved taking pictures of the costumed children.

The only worthwhile “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” costume was dressing up as Jeff Foxworthy, and I saw quite a few of those:



including a mother who dressed up as Jeff Foxworthy while her child auditioned in a Squid costume:


I took a picture of a young Benjamin Franklin, but my pictures, regrettably, didn’t come out. His mother told me her son’s school had done a living history museum, and when people touched her son, dressed as Franklin, he told them all about him. Both she and her son were very nice (again, like most people, absolute newcomers to Hollywood auditions) and she told me she’d run into another family from San Jose while waiting in line. I wondered if they were possibly from Neil’s school: San Jose is a big city, but his school does have a lot of smart kids who love to ham it up. I found the other San Joseans behind Spongebob Squarepants, and to our pleasant surprise, we found a boy Neil’s known since kindergarten there, Shaheen. In fact, in third grade, Shaheen and Neil had an informal competition on who could get the farthest in the computerized accelerated math program. Neil won, but barely.

Overall, I was impressed by how extraordinarily bright and talented most of the children I encountered were, and it wasn’t in a Hollywood thespian way. Young Benjamin Franklin knew his history; one boy was showing off a great painting he’d done; and I comiserated with another parent (not Shaheen’s) about the difficulty of helping your child when the child understands contemporary algebra better than you do yourself.

After about an hour and a half, we were ushered into Holding Room B, which had seats. A production assistant was either entertaining the children or taping something for the show by having the children get up and sing the theme song for Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? and having them dance around the room. It was all too much for Kelly, and Peter was worried we might miss our check out time, so I took her back to our hotel room and checked out.

In the meantime, Neil had his first audition together with several other children. A few of those, including Neil, were asked to go to a specific audition room, for the next round. This was happening around lunch time, and it was by far the longest wait we had. We were sent away several times for various breaks, so in all we ended up cooling our heels for about 2 hours. It was an interesting group that had made it to this audition room. We had the girl who’d dressed up like Carmen Miranda, whom everyone with a camera loved for the outrageousness of her get-up:


We had both an accomplished guitarist and a flautist, and several historical figures. The young Benjamin Franklin from the Redlands had made it, as did a 19th-century gentleman:




And Julius Caesar (and friend):


Neil, who’d been shy of talking to the other children, found an intellectual soul mate. A blond boy in this second round of auditions, named Christopher, approached Neil and quizzed him: “Do you know what a gluon is?”

Neil was pleased to answer: “It’s a subatomic particle that binds protons and neutrons together.”

Christopher then quizzed Neil on the Theory of Relativity, and Neil had all the answers, complete with examples. After that, the two boys happily hung out and showed off their gadgets to one another:


Christopher’s a boy inventor who’s consistently won invention competitions. I don’t know if either boy will end up on Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? but I wouldn’t be surprised if Neil and Christopher encounter each other again later in life, like on a college campus.

I suppose the bigger surprise was how much production assistants look like, well, production assistants the way you see them portrayed on TV. I guess that’s one case in which case, if you made a mistake, you’d have the correction right at hand. Not surprisingly, the auditions had a small army of production assistants at hand. Here are two of the friendlier ones at the registration table after the morning rush had died down:


They did everything not specifically assigned to the filming crew, from keeping the auditioning children corralled in an area and making sure there was always a parent on hand, to reviewing papers, lining people up for their auditions, and directing the many people away from where they shouldn’t be to where they should be.

At last, around 2 or so, Neil had his moment in the spotlight. He showed off drumbot, and things went slightly awry, but in a funny way. He didn’t lose his cool, and best of all, he was totally himself, which was all we’d hoped he’d be. I’d be surprised if they called us back–I was surprised enough by the first call, after all. But we had a fun time being part of a real Hollywood audition.

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