'Barney & Friends' becoming launching pad for child stars

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    CARROLLTON, Texas — Barney the dinosaur, a beloved toddler's icon to some and a cultural punching bag to others, has taken on a new role: steppingstone.

    "Barney & Friends," filmed in a nondescript office building in suburban Dallas, has lately become a launching pad for child stars shooting along the career path blazed by Miley Cyrus and a generation of Mouseketeers before her.

    Alums of the show are starring in movies with Will Smith and The Rock, appearing in Disney Channel programs with the Jonas Brothers and signing solo music deals that could put them in the same rarefied air as Cyrus' alter ego, Hannah Montana.

    Talent agents praised the show for providing a healthy environment for child actors and said it benefits from a deep pool of Dallas-area talent who have no other regular outlet for acting.

    "Dallas has become a market that is very heavily scouted by the L.A. agents because we have turned out a number of good kids that are rising," said Lisa Dawson, owner of the Kim Dawson Agency. "We are on the radar for L.A. And kids in Dallas who are good actors end up on Barney."

    The 1990s version of "The Mickey Mouse Club" launched the careers of singers Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and actors Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling. In similar fashion, "Barney & Friends" for the last few years has been a training ground for several aspiring child actresses.

    Barney-ex Demi Lovato, a 16-year-old from Dallas, starred with the Jonas Brothers in a popular children's musical "Camp Rock" and is expected to be the lead in a series that debuts next month. Selena Gomez, a 16-year-old from Grand Prairie, went on to the Disney program "Wizards of Waverly Place. Both girls have signed music contracts.

    A third Barney alum, Madison Pettis, a 10-year-old from Arlington, has appeared in "Seven Pounds" with Will Smith and "The Game Plan" with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

    Their post-Barney successes have inspired current Barney cast member Victoria Lennox, an 11-year-old from Flower Mound already in her fourth season on the show.

    "I look at them as my role model," Victoria said. "This is going to be a great little steppingstone for me. I want to follow in their footsteps."

    Victoria's mother, Robyn Lennox, praised the show's production company, HIT Entertainment, for providing an on-set teacher and reasonable shooting schedules. The nurturing atmosphere, she said, makes it easier to envision an acting career beyond Barney.

    "There are crazy things out there that can happen in Hollywood," Robyn Lennox said. "But Barney has been so positive. It makes me comfortable to step out and progress in this acting career."

    Diane Swart, whose son and daughter have both appeared on "Barney & Friends," called the show "a training ground ... where kids are going to learn how to behave and take direction from adults."

    Over the years, child actors in the Dallas area have had other acting outlets: the toy maker Hasbro Inc. and department store J.C. Penney Co. film commercials in the area, and TV shows including "Prison Break" and "Walker, Texas Ranger" used to film there. The state is doing more to attract feature films, and nearby Shreveport, La., has offered additional movie shoots.

    But neither the commercials, TV programs nor movies offer regular, recurring roles for children. That leaves "Barney & Friends" as the best resume builder in the region.

    "Barney is going to seek out the best actors in the market," Dawson said. "Barney certainly helps these kids hone their crafts. Rather than just taking acting classes and working with their coaches, they are actually working on a series. There's no better way to learn the craft than to do it."

    Barney wasn't always a pit stop to pop stardom. The show started in 1987 and has aired on PBS since 1992. During its early years, most cast members did not go on to fame and fortune in show business. Now in their 20s and early 30s, those original cast members became an attorney, a hair stylist, a cook, a dance instructor and - in one unusual case - a Dallas rapper who was shot and temporarily paralyzed.

    Some things haven't changed from those days. Barney is still a purple, potbellied dino about the size of an NBA centre. He aims to teach lessons about sharing, respect and love. And, of course, he still sings the "I love you ..." song. But Barney's critics say the show lacks production values and offers kids watered-down entertainment.

    Still, Barney's audience has multiplied, increasing the exposure for child actors who land a regular spot on the show. "Barney & Friends" is seen worldwide, sales of DVDs remain steady and the show has maintained a regular presence on PBS.

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