Churning out young talent Acting: Bobbi Smith turned a routine talent show 10 years ago into a permanent organization -- Talent Machine -- in which star-struck youngsters can hone their acting skills on everything from summer stage to Christmas brunches.


On a recent Saturday morning at Buddy's Late Night in Parole, five little elves went through their paces, singing and dancing for an audience of families stuffing themselves on scrambled eggs, french toast fingers, sausage, juice, cereal, fruit and pastries.

When the music stopped and the adults carried away their offspring to the mall for Christmas shopping, the elves -- as well as the reindeer, the mouse, the bear, Raggedy Ann and Frosty the Snowman -- turned into the cleanup crew.

They bused tables, stacked chairs and gathered colored streamers from the stage floor. Having been told that acting is about expressing one's feelings, they expressed theirs. "E-e-e-ew," chorused two elf busboys when they got to a tablecloth soaked in spilled orange juice.

Being an elf is not all it's cracked up to be. But the children in the Talent Machine are at home on both sides of show biz: the nitty-gritty as well as the tinsel sparkles.

"It's not so bad, except today is my birthday," said Rikki Gimelstob, 10, who changed out of her mouse costume to become a bus girl.

"I had three shows on my birthday last year," responds Amy Sonntag, 13, still dressed as Raggedy Ann as she bundled tablecloths and threw paper plates and cups into a trash sack.

The Talent Machine is well-named. It churns out children with stage presence on an assembly-line basis.

But, somehow, founder-choreographer-director Bobbi Smith never loses touch with the young performers, nor with the even younger audience that comes to see them.

A small, square woman in a T-shirt and sweat pants, with hair pinned up in a ponytail on the top of her head, Smith clearly loves the children. As the show ends, she gives child after child in the departing audience a goodbye hug.

Her deft touch is apparent when she places a tiny child in the arms of a large reindeer whose battery-operated nose flashes red. It's a situation with the potential to become a screaming disaster. But Smith is so comfortable and motherly that the little girl accepts the reindeer as a buddy, instead of a monster with horns.

"Santa's Breakfast Party" is possible because Michael Blonder, the son of the owner of Buddy's Late Night, is married to Smith's daughter, Leah. But the arrangement wouldn't last long if Talent Machine didn't take responsibility for the setup, including the holiday decorations, and the cleanup.

The brunch, offered Saturdays before Christmas, raises money for the Talent Machine. The entertainment features excerpts from the company's holiday revue, "Santa's Frosty Follies," which plays at Francis Scott Key Auditorium, St. John's College, Annapolis, tomorrow through Dec. 21.

The follies and the brunch are the tip of the iceberg that is Talent Machine, which has turned Smith from a local show-biz drone to a celebrity.

A native of Edgewater, Smith recognized early that she didn't have the body for classical ballet, so she switched course as a teen-ager and went into musical theater. She taught tap and jazz dance classes, worked in semiprofessional shows and dinner theaters, taught in the public schools, and was a director and choreographer at Burn Brae Dinner Theater in Burtonsville.

Ten years ago, while working on the Annapolis Summer Garden Theater production of "Hello, Dolly," she put together a talent show of the teens working on the musical and called it "Talent Machine." Many of the young performers wanted to keep going, so Smith enrolled them in her classes at the new Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, where she still teaches.

Today, Talent Machine goes all year long, with after-school and evening classes at Maryland Hall and rehearsals for a children's company and a teen company on weekends. Its membership is about 100 young people, 47 of whom are in the holiday show. The members are paid a stipend, from $5 to $14 per show, depending on their age.

The company's major productions are in the summer, but the holiday show, the brunch (there's a similar one featuring the Easter bunny in the spring) and the activities of Talent Machine members keep the company in the public eye year-round.

This month, for instance, Talent Machine children will sing with the Navy Band at its Christmas concert next weekend in Washington and perform for patients of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center on a simulated "flight to the North Pole" on Saturday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

"Santa's Frosty Follies" is a secular holiday show with music ranging from country to pop, carols and standards. It has all the trappings of the season, from a fireplace hung with stockings to a Christmas tree, and it finishes with a snowfall.

"But forget the show. The best thing about Talent Machine is that it's a family," says Leah Smith Blonder, who with her sister, Lisa, grew up in the company. Now their children -- Samantha Blonder, 3, and Jessica and Justin Rodgers, 6 and 3 -- are learning to put a song across.

"A lot of these kids have been together so long that their moms and dads are everybody's mom and dad," says Blonder. "The parents run the tech and the box office, and they do it all together -- not isolated, thinking about their own kids. The kids come up to anybody there when they're getting on their costumes and say: 'Can you tie this?' "

Talent Machine

'Santa's Frosty Follies'

When: 7: 30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Dec. 19 and 20; 2 p.m. and 6: 30 p.m. Sunday and Dec. 21; 2 p.m. and 7: 30 p.m. Dec. 20

Where: Francis Scott Key Auditorium, St. John's College, 60 College Ave., Annapolis

Tickets: $10, $5 children

Call: 410-956-0512

'Santa's Breakfast Party'

When: 9 a.m. to 10: 30 a.m. Saturday and Dec. 20

Where: Buddy's Late Night, 30 Hudson St., Annapolis

Tickets: $8.95

Call: 410-956-0512

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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