Show Biz: The Hard Knocks of Getting a Foot into the Door
Acting * Writing * Dance * Magic and More
Plus an exclusive interview with dancer, dance teacher & choreographer
By: J. Marlando
Years and years…and years ago, I was like a lot of young people far more lost than found. Nevertheless, I was open to just about anything since I was a type of person who truly lived in the now—I never looked back at any negatives but I never did any real planning either. I just coasted along and wondered what was coming next.
I had done a few magic shows before and during my Army days, a few comedy shows and even a touch of drama so I was no stranger to the entertainment field. At the time I had never had any training so I was, as said, faking it. While in the Army I ended up in a play on post making my debut as an actor. I played Captain Fisby not very well I suspect but I got through it without too many blunders. After my stint in the military, I went to the Pasadena Playhouse, quite a famous acting school at the time and studied acting. I had a great time in the first year because every student thought he was going to be the next Richard Burton or Paul Newman and I was one of them. However, the only one who “made it” out of our class was Sally Stuthers
I can hardly believe that this photo was nearly a half century ago
Lake Chalan: 1965
The deal was made and as soon as school was out we boarded a train and headed to Washington State. If you recall, I said I lived in the moment so I never rehearsed the stunt before the day I was to “pull it off.” There were lots that I hadn’t anticipated—the trunk was extremely hot, it spun in the air. And, once in the water it filled up in seconds. I came very close to drowning that day. But...I had my food in the door of show biz and that's what counted...right?
In my second year at the Playhouse I took less interest in acting and more in writing which began my career, such as it is. After graduation I wrote plays but I also wrote acts for people. I wrote anything to make a buck or two but mostly the rejections poured in. If you're new or long experienced in show business, being rejected--often--is part of the road to superstardom or the endless path of sruggling survival.
The one thing you never want to do is confuse the heart of "show" with heartlessness of business. Always remember that show business is two words.
I have shared all this with you to let you know that I am well qualified to write this article. If you will, I have been there and done that.
I don’t have all the answers but what follows is what I do know.
Let’s Talk Acting
Show business is enticing to a lot of people. There are singers wanting to be singers, dancers wanting to be dancers, actors wanting to be actors and so forth. If you’re reading this article you probably have some show biz ambitions too.
In a term, I was exceedingly green when I first started out. I did what thousands before and after me did—I happened into a magic shop and started buying tricks. I practiced and practiced until I was quite confident and then booked myself (as Marlando the Magician) at local churches and other local organizations. My rate back then was $50.00 a show but I was always willing to work for free too. Working for free is something just about every talented person does with hope that the more he or she performs, the better his or her performance will be and the greater the odds of being seen by someone who may recognize their talent and give them a break.
In Hollywood, Actors, singers and dancers do a ton of non-Equity (non-union) theatrical work with hope of being discovered by some agent or talent scout or…well, somebody! The movies are extremely difficult to break into because of the old dilemma: you can’t act in a movie unless you’re a member of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and you can’t be a member of SAG unless you’ve worked or are cast in a movie. And so, nearly all hopefuls work for free in what are called Equity Waver Houses or on non-union films. Actually there has been some great movie-making by non-union film makers but…mostly, non-union films are extremely low budget, no one is paid and, a lot of the time, the films or videos are simply “porn” with a story wrapped around them.
When I thought about being an actor I began making the rounds of Show-Case-Theaters and, back then, auditioning at the studios. I think it was Universal Studios that had what was known as the “Fish Bowl.” It was a pretty big deal to be accepted for auditioning there but these days it is even more difficult to get into the studios and it wasn’t easy then!
You can act your heart out in one production after another but changes are even if you’re super talented there are no scouts, by any other name, in the audience. And anyway, there are books and lists of out-of-work actors, some with known names, in every casting director’s file. This isn’t the real problem, however. The real problem is show-businesses’ nepotism. Hollywood, even more than Broadway, is as cliquish as government and the congress. And yes, in most instances it’s, as I say, who you know and who you…don’t know that makes the difference.
In my ten years of writing, directing and producing I saw more unrewarded talent than ticket stubs and I’m not talking run-of-the-mill talent but truly some wonderful talent that fell by the wayside in spite of their outstanding abilities to perform. And speaking of this I used to room with Bill Holden’s son, Wes. Wes was one of the finest young actors I’ve ever seen and he had name value. That’s right, he was a natural and yet Hollywood never gave him a break. Sure, they missed the mark with Wes but they are crowded with stars, semi-stars, character actors and even extras. For nearly everyone, the only way to get in is to know someone who knows someone that’s doing a film, or a new TV series. After you’ve opened that door, things can change and get better…sometimes. Wes knew people and truly deserved a break...it never came at least in Hollywood.
The real answer is work as hard at getting a reputable agent as you do on perfecting your talent. An agent can change the “ballgame” in your favor…sometimes. But guess what, just because you’re the greatest actor in the world doesn’t mean some agent will even talk to you much less sign you. The best way to get an agent is to get an acting job and then ask an agent to sign you and negotiate the job for you. But here’s the next dilemma—typically you can’t get a job acting unless you are represented by an agent and you can’t get an agent unless you have a job. Is that crazy-making or what?
One thing actors can do today that they couldn’t in my day is put the computer to work for them—send your photo and profile to theatrical road companies…colleges…Equity houses and whoever else is paying for talent and hope for the best. If you really want to act, don’t get yourself stuck in or on the Hollywood scene…or your hometown theater. Be ready to travel, do off-Broadway if you can land parts and in the meantime keep acting and keep polishing your craft. And yes, a list of credits can help in some instances. Oh, and by the way, every now and then, someone actually does get a break.
Let’s Talk Writing
I gave up my acting ambitions when I seriously began to write. Indeed, I was in my mid-twenties and actually in my last year of school when I turned to my old manual typewriter to earn my fame and fortune. I did not change to an electric typewriter until the later 1960s and I never used a computer until around 1995!
As soon as school was out I devoted nearly all my time to writing and being the “poor artist.” I literally wrote for seven or eight hours a day, seven days a week living primarily on beer, coffee and peanuts because I wasn’t making a dime. Well, I did get one break during those early years. My acting teacher from the Playhouse, Buddy Youngreen, was producing shows in Jackson Hole, Wyoming at a theater named The Diamond Lil. He called me and asked if I could push out a fast musical based on the old tale of Sabine Women. I said sure and he gave me my first payday for writing. That not only bought some real food but gave me a great incentive to keep writing. However, I wrote for another five years without making another sale. Then, I sold the Mod Squad script, mentioned earlier.
Did I sell it because Aaron thought it was the best script he had ever read? Did I sell it because he couldn’t resist my work…no, as I said folks, I sold it because I knew someone who got my foot into the door. That’s Hollywood behind all the neon and sparkle
A friend of mine, Tom Carota, introduced me to Tiger Andrews, the actor who played the police detective on the series and Tiger took the script into the studio for me. The good news was that I got to go onto the lot with Tiger after that…it didn’t do me any good but it certainly made me feel important and I met a lot of people like Sammy Davis
A personal problem that I had was that I didn’t network; I didn’t attempt to use any of those contacts to push my career. In short, I was green and stupid. I let those great opportunities slip through my fingers.
The first thing you have to acknowledge is that as a writer or an actor, you are first of all in sales! If you are like me and like being in the background, a recluse with a typewriter so to speak, the chances are you will never make it...big. Well, unless you get an agent to front for you but, as in acting, agents do not come easily and, like publishers, the chances of them ever reading your submission are just a tiny notch above none. Here’s a helpful hint though—call agents on the phone to pitch them as opposed to writing them—they are phone-addicts by trade and are used to phone negotiations.
And by the way—just because an agent has a license on his wall doesn’t mean that he’s not a flake or a phony. I recall my first acting agent. He told me that I needed to give him $200.00 for PR photos and I did. I got eight lousy photographs and that was it. Hollywood is packed with schemers and scammers no doubt about that and I’ve met a slew of them over the years—so will you if you stay in so-called show biz long enough.
And it’s not just the little guys in scabby offices. A major studio once gave me a contract for a film I wrote. The small print said that if they didn’t produce it within six months my script became solely theirs. Yes, you read right. When I asked them about it they simply shined me on, if they couldn’t “steal” my script for free they weren’t interested. Why would a major, wealthy studio want to scam a little, nobody writer knocking at their door? Your guess is as good as mine but that goes to show you, you’ve got to have an agent in many instances as you’re making your way toward your creative goals.
The truth, however, is even in spite of the dark side of a writing career, you have to keep pouring out work and submitting to legitimate publishers and producers. The first book I ever got published had the title of “Tomorrows to Come.” My wife mailed it out to 21 publishers before Abbey Press finally said yes. So that’s another thing—if you can’t stand rejection stay out of the writing business. (I’m going to share my greatest rejection story with you later on but for now it can wait).
Just getting a (big) sale does not necessarily mean a big break either. I sold a movie some years ago with the producer so excited he swore it was going to become a classic. When the movie was completed there was very little of the original script that had been shot…indeed, the movie was so ruined by the producer and director who rewrote to save costs and time that it ended up being a classic bomb. When I went to the premier, I was outraged. They had taken my script and turned it into a cartoon-of -sorts. This too is in the realm of the hard knocks of showbiz, folks!
Anyway, I ended up writing for a living and still am but for me to make a living at it I’ve had to diversify and take whatever writing jobs that comes along. As a result I have written for all media—TV…Movies…Radio and Print. Well, now “net” writing is added to the list but actually I’ve made most of my dollars from ghosting. You have to be a special type to be a ghost, however. If you want or need the limelight, part of your ghosting job is to stay invisible. I actually prefer it so I’ve done pretty well ghosting and I’m still in the game. The problem with working as a “hired” writer is that mostly you do NOT get to write what you want to write. You have to write what you are hired to write. And so, when you are able to put your heart and mind into another person’s story or idea, you’ve earned your stripes as a pro and you’ll probably do just fine as I have.
We would all like to be a John Grisham
Keep submitting even though the chances are that when you submit your work, as said earlier, your book, screenplay or TV show won’t be read anyway. Some gum-chewing secretary simply slips a stock rejection letter into an envelope and mails it to you. Those kinds of rejections all read about the same— your work really has merit but it’s not for us at this time. Good luck…I’ve had enough of those letters to wallpaper my bedroom with them!
Nevertheless, you have to keep trying and keep pushing or…yep…or know someone in the industry. That’s right the nepotism is thick in the writing business too. I once wrote treatments for New World Pictures—how’d I get the job? A producer/director friend of mine knew somebody in the department. Without him I would probably still be knocking at their door.
There is more of a reason for all this than professional callousness. Agents, publishers and producers have scripts stacks ten foot high in their offices and most of them, in a term, suck. Not everyone can write can at least to professional standards. Thus, they represent and hire writers they know they can depend on and who will, in the backstretch, make them profit. It isn’t fair, I’ll grant you that but it is what it is and so it’s the struggling writer’s work to…well, keep struggling. Every now and then it will pays off!
Let’s Talk Dancing
Interview in this section
At the Pasadena Playhouse it was mandatory for students to take Ballet and Dance Class, I conformed but when it comes to dancing, I was a bull in a china shop. In fact, I still get ribbed by friends every now and then. Nevertheless, I love watching dance and love the art form. I have been around a lot of dance and dancers too because I once directed and produced musicals. Nevertheless, I know least about the life of dancers than other art forms. Because this is true, I interviewed the very talented Ann Devaney.
Ann was extremely busy so I am booth grateful and appreciative of her time.
Q: How does a dancer begin?
ANN: The first thing, as you may have guessed, is to fall in love with dance!
A dancer may have the DNA for it, the natural ability or just the love for it. Regardless, you have to have the mental and physical strength of a Gladiator. The second thing is to train. Hard! Finding a great teacher, or if you’re as lucky as I was, not just finding one mentor but two, one on each coast! Live in a location where there are great teachers. Then get out and get an agent!
Q: How much off stage work is involved—practice, classes etc.
ANN: Dance, Dance, Dance and Dance some more! Take classes, do workshops, and choreograph. Support your friends that want to choreograph. Work out. Be conditioned in functional movement, do lots of cardio, as dancing is an anaerobic activity. You want to train your body aerobically as well. Have a healthy diet. You’re a dancer! You need to be fit and fabulous but not malnourished. Take acting classes, improvisational classes and singing classes. You want all your tools sharpened and ready to go.
Q: Do dancers like actors do much free work to sharpen their skills?
ANN: Yes, dancers, like actors do that for many reasons. Yes you’ll get exposure, hopefully work with or be seen by a future employer. Also, your strength may be Jazz, but a small modern dance company asks you to perform in some concerts, if you’re free, do it! If you work on your weaknesses your strengths get stronger. Also, concert work tends to be a different kind of fun than a TV or film job, it’s usually more challenging choreographically and it’s a venue where the choreographer is choreographing for themselves, they aren’t working for producers, writers, or a director so the creativity is infinite!
Q: Where do dancers generally audition?
ANN: Like acting auditions a call will go out through a casting director to agents and auditions will be held usually at a studio large enough to host a large call, sometimes a call will go out for video submissions. However, unlike actors, acting coaches are seldom in the position to recommend an actor for a job and less in a position to hire. Whereas most, if not all choreographers teach. It is more likely, that when a choreographer trusts you as a dancer and as a professional, you’ll work with that choreographer multiple times.
Q: What are the odds of getting a paying job?
ANN: My mom told me if I was going to be a dancer all I needed to be able to do was count to 8. So I’m not even going to throw you a made up quote.
Q: How difficult is it to land movie or TV work for a dancer
ANN: I’m not sure how to answer that. I think it is completely possible for any driven, talented, hard-working, diligent person in Los Angeles to find themselves dancing on television these days. Fortunately, it is ‘in’ to watch dance! If you live outside LA, you’re chances are greater to dance in local theater, amusement parks, a local commercial and dancing in a film when they are shooting on location, in your hometown.
Q: How do some dancers earn money from dance on their own
ANN: Teaching is the most common way for a dancer to earn money from dance. Also, over the decades dancers have worked for party companies (or open their own). The dancer will get people dancing and may perform a couple of pieces during a big celebration or corporate party.
Q: Anything else that reveals the difficulty of a dancers pro life
ANN: You have to be a self-driven person to be a dancer. You must stay fit, healthy, and current. You must be flexible in schedule and be willing to go on tour for weeks sometimes years.
As we would guess, when it comes to opening doors leading into the professional world of entertainment, dancers face many of the same problems as other talented people. You will note that Ann makes getting an agent essential to the dancer. This is because good agents know how to open doors that otherwise remain closed to talent. While dancers like actors can be “discovered” while performing in non-professional environments, the odds are certainly very much against it. On the other hand, I also believe that one must hold on to his or her dream in order to overcome the hurtles and obstacles that most talented hopefuls endure along their way.
Let’s Talk Magic
If you have a yearning to break into showbiz but don’t have a particular talent to push, magic is probably your best choice. Today there are those incredible illusions of vanishing lions and making elephants appear but old time prestidigitators are still working. Doing “magic” tricks gave me entrance into performing.
The greatest of tricks can usually be purchased at or ordered through your local magic shop. And, that’s exactly how I started, I bought some tricks and practiced doing them, went out and booked myself as a magician playing church assembly halls, schools, business meetings and a lot of freebies at children’s hospitals and other special events. Eventually, I became a card manipulator and added doves to my act. Doves and other live animals are typically difficult to work with, taking a ton of patience and training. Indeed, you can bet the lady magician in the photograph has paid her dues with a ton of time and training.
I was doing okay on a local level, the place where most magicians get their starts but then I saw the comedian Jack E. Leonard
One of the mistakes I made has been made by most new magicians. I bought tricks, I practiced tricks, and I went on stage and performed tricks. What I am getting at is that if you want to turn pro, you can’t just spoof your way up, you need an act; you need an act that is so well polished that it doesn’t look like an act.
I used to write acts and dialogue for magicians years ago and when I was performing I used to write for myself too. Anyway, if you can create a really polished act you’re not going to be playing your home town forever. One problem is that there’s not a gallery of places open to magicians like there used to be. When I was getting started they still had variety shows on both local and national TV. I played a half dozen TV shows back then. You can compete in Las Vegas but the competition is leviathan not to mention you’d better know somebody that knows somebody there too. And anyway, if you’re a magician, most typically you’d better be darned funny for the professional stage because your magic won’t hold up with the illusions the “big boys” are giving their audiences these days.
Recognize any of these faces?
When you feel ready for the magical leap from the amateur stage to the professional stage you can contact agencies like Gig Masters or Headline Entertainment (Google them) but please don’t even attempt to get representation until you are, in a term, sharp as a tack. Like in all showbiz, the competition is fierce in variety and you never want to blow an opportunity because you weren’t truly ready for it.
That happened to me way back when: I was just breaking in a new act when I was accepted to audition for a big agency that was seeking magicians in Hollywood. At that juncture of my career I was using a lot of animals in my act—a spider monkey…doves…a skunk and a rabbit. I was nervous when I walked out on stage because I really wanted to get signed. Murphy’s Law went into action: When I pulled the skunk out of the hat instead of a rabbit, the skunk was dead…Don’t ask me why, he just died. When I released my doves they flew frantically all over the theater. There was some other stuff that went sour too but you get the idea. I wasn’t ready and not only did I fail to get booked that day, I was never invited back to audition either.
Do not think that having a great, polished act assures success by the way—once again, you generally need to know someone who knows someone to get passed the receptionist at agencies and again, the odds are that you will run into all sorts of nepotisms in variety as well. Well, as I keep saying, that’s showbiz, folks!
With all this in mind, however, people beat the odds and, in a term, make it into the professional spotlight. Perhaps you will too?
Talking Showbiz Success
I do not want to get into the semantics of “success” since we all know that it means different things to different people. I feel like a success but there would be a world of others who would argue against the validity of that ‘feeling.” Okay, there are some mornings I wake up agreeing with the skeptics but, mostly, I like the guy I see in the mirror regardless of all the really stupid mistakes he’s made.
The truth is showbiz demands that you maintain a positive attitude at least most of the time because you are, all but certainly, going to get kicked around and rejected—a lot—before you make your mark…if you ever make your mark. Of course there are exceptions but, by and large, most people who start out to do well in show business have a hard and rocky road before them.
On the other hand, in general, the most talented seem to work and some become super stars. Indeed, I was talking about this very thing to a friend of mine who is a musician, climbing his own ladder of success. During our conversation I began recalling my start in show business as a magician. My friend said, yes but, there’s no money in magic shows today, times have changed and Vaudeville has been gone for a very long time. I reminded him of David Copperfield
Here’s a David Copperfield illusion to figure out
There are always exceptions to the rule but those exceptions are typically those who work the hardest and want it the most who—and here is that term again—make it. When I used to teach a course in acting, I always used professional ice skaters as an example for my students: They work exceedingly hard and practice diligently for years to perfect their performances and yet, once on the ice they make it look so easy that anyone could “easily” do what they do. David Copperfield, incidentally, was used to doing 500 shows a year. That’s work!
Well we’re all not David Copperfields. John Grishams or Elizabeth Taylors or Lady Gaga’s either. Who we are is what we’ve got and we need to make the best of it no matter what we do for a living. If its showbiz, the first thing to remember that its two words: Show and business. Far too many talented people, like me, get so wrapped up in the “show” part that they neglect the business end. That of course is why we artists need an agent but I will not repeat the dilemma and difficulty of obtaining an agent for a new comer in the arts no matter if it is writing or dancing or juggling.
One of the things that will optimize your chances of working in the business is versatility. That is, if you want to be an actor learn how to dance and/or sing and/or play and instrument. Take the superstar Judy Garland—she could do it all and brilliantly and you would be surprised at the “other” talented skills most actors have beyond acting. And yes, I am fully aware that this is not always the case, I am only saying if you have an aptitude for other talents than your major showbiz interest, grow your versatility. You’ll be glad that you did!
Also know that there is no such thing as The Starving Artist and never has been. If you are “suffering” for your art, you are choosing to “suffer,” and you are choosing your art over making a living in some other field; you are NOT sacrificing for your art, you are self-gratifying which is fine, as long as you realize it. Hollywood, after all, is packed with waiters and waitresses who have dreams of making it in some art form. I know because over all my years I have seen some grim times when I’ve been out of work. Grim times that I could have actually avoided had I’d made more practical decision before they rolled around. And so yes, I’ve been that starving artist in my own life at least from time to time, but that makes me far more stupid than bravely devoted to my art.
Indeed, in this light I wish that I would have read a woeful tale like this one before I dove into the arts. Not that I would have chosen some other field but I would have been more prepared and smarter along my way; I would have been more educated in the actuality of it all.
With few exceptions we have talked about the difficulties of getting our foot in the doorway of show business as a performer or writer. And it is tough at least for most people no matter how talented they are. There is an upside of course. If performing or writing is what makes you happy, then the basic reward is already gained without what we might term “traditional success.” On the other hand, there is a wonderful saying that was given us by Marsha Sinetar: “Do what you love, the money will follow.”
I believe this at least to some extent. Our love of dance, of writing, of acting, playing music or performing of any kind certainly reveals itself in our work. I remember when I was teaching acting and having a student ask me why is it that there might be ten young women in a chorus line, all costumed the same, all doing the same steps and yet, one will sometimes stand out to the audience, how can that be?
This question brings us to a paradox because the answer is this. While the nine other dancers are dancing, the dancer who is noticed is not merely dancing but instead she is the dance.
The above is well worth giving lots of thought to no matter what your talent.
Persistence, as in any other trade or profession, is essential as well. You not only want to stay busy at your art form but consistently work at opening doors and so opportunities to show case yourself to professionals. For example, acting in some small local theater may keep you polished but if you are not also busy sending out your picture and resume to professional companies and agents, you’re not really doing your job.
Never permit yourself to lose confidence. In regard to this, here’s my favorite rejection story I referred to earlier: To make a long story short, some years ago I wrote a play with title, “The Thirst and the Thorn.” Every director and producer I showed it to said “No. One producer actually tossed the script in his wastebasket to demonstrate how he felt about it. In the face of all that negativity, I kept pursuing a production of the play and finally, when it was produced the audiences loved it and it became intrinsic in my wining America’s NEA Award for playwriting. So never get discouraged or permit others to discourage you. This article, incidentally, is not about discouraging the talented person but only to inform him or her of the real challenges that most people face attempting to break into professional life…which, at root level, merely means getting paid.
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