Jumping for JTT
At a Teen Idol's "Fan Event," It's Every Mom for Herself
By Marilyn W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 25 1997; Page G01
The Washington Post
We are waiting near the corner of 68th and Broadway -- waiting and waiting for JTT.
JTT, as America's foremost juvenile heartthrob is known to his fans, is Jonathan Taylor Thomas, teen star of television's "Home Improvement," and on this sleepy Saturday, he is 30 minutes late for an early morning "fan event" in the packed lobby of Manhattan's Sony Imax Theatre. My son Cory, 8, and his best friend are among the throng of kids snaking through the theater entrance, some patiently holding their mothers' hands, others clutching color pinups of the 15- year-old sensation from glossy teen magazines.
Andrew, my 6-year-old, and I are stationed outside for JTT's belated grand entrance. Andrew wants a hot dog for breakfast but none can be had on this final morning of the Hollywood for Children film festival, a week-long charitable event that has brought together dozens of child stars to raise money for the Audrey Hepburn Foundation. Within this young galaxy of talent, none compares with the headline attraction, the absolutely sizzling JTT.
Already rated one of Hollywood's hottest young stars, Thomas stars in a new action-packed movie, "Wild America," that premiered to raves before the friendly crowd at the festival's grand finale. JTT had beamed from the VIP seats as girls jockeyed for autographs. This morning, even the street vendor has abandoned his hot dog cart -- leaving Andrew and others waiting -- while he scrambled to get JTT's signature on his daughter's slightly mauled copy of Teen Beat magazine.
Not that JTT exactly relishes the attention, particularly from magazines with names like Bop and 16 that sell thousands of extra copies a month just by plastering his mug all over every issue. In a snit, his mother has evicted all press from this event, and the juvenile paparazzi have sulked onto the sidewalk. A theater flack frets that JTT`s mom will cancel EVERYTHING because of an unfortunate "scene" the night before. JTT showed up -- late, of course -- for a party in his honor at the Explorers' Club, and overeager kids swarmed him.
Now, security guards shrug their shoulders, impatiently checking their watches. It is 10:15 a.m. -- JTT's anticipated departure time from the "fan event" -- and his long black limo has yet to show up. His time will be brief, the guards explain, since JTT is to appear at a children's celebrity fashion show at 11.
Finally, a limo approaches. Squeals erupt from the theater lobby, where a poster advertises a chance to "Win a Date" with JTT or one of his "Wild America" co-stars. Cameras snap. "Jonathan, Jonathan . . . this way, Jonathan," the exiled press corps demands.
The gloriously tanned teenager, just back from a jungle adventure with his mom in Costa Rica, climbs slowly out of the limo, tugs at his thick open-necked sweater, brushes fingers through shaggy sun- bleached hair. Then he turns to face the cameras while his forbidding mother and beefy bodyguards wait in the background.
But the face is not that of the adorable Randy on "Home Improvement," not the warm, inviting kid who created young Simba's voice in the Disney hit "The Lion King." Not even the face of huggable JTT, pint-size magazine pinup.
The face that stares back is sour and filled with attitude, like a 15-year- old just ordered to take out the garbage. Even an admiring wave from little Andrew does nothing to charm him.
And all of it leaves me wondering -- what would possess a 44-year-old mother of reasonable intelligence to plunk down $20 per kid for this ugly celebrity spectacle? And who does this JTT think he is, anyway?
JTT mania started in our Takoma Park home in February when I noticed a brief mention of the upcoming second annual Hollywood for Children festival in my American Express billing. Cory is a film maniac who reads movie listings obsessively and has committed to memory the ratings and running times of almost every recent feature film. This April festival -- which was to include several premieres and screenings structured around themes like Children in War and Shakespeare -- seemed custom-designed for kids like Cory. And the proceeds were to help needy children.
I ended up buying tickets to two pricey events that promised unusual celebrity access -- a kids' fashion show, featuring favorite stars of television and movies in designer threads, and a session originally described as a "fan breakfast" with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, an unfamiliar name to me at the time. The kids gasped when I told them.
"Jonathan Taylor Thomas? You mean, the star of `Man of the House' (97 minutes), `Adventures of Pinocchio' (96 minutes) and `Tom and Huck' (97 minutes)?" Cory gasped.
Within days, our weekend trip to New York was set, with the girl next door, Lily, 11, enthusiastically joining us. Cory and Lily began elaborate planning on two fronts -- what to wear that would be "cool enough" to hang out with child celebrities and what to ask JTT should they get a chance to pose a question.
Cory, in a lifetime first, actually asked for new shoes, insisted on a mall trip to buy them and settled on a pair of plain white Adidas. "Mom, do you think Jonathan will like them?" he wondered. "Oh yes, I'm sure," I said.
Finding the right question for JTT proved a trickier business. Cory and Lily sat for hours under an umbrella on our lawn, poring over the "Jonathan Taylor Thomas Handbook" borrowed from the school library. From that and other fan materials, they learned the basics -- JTT's eating habits (vegetarian); his pastimes (killing time on the "Home Improvement" set with co- star Zachery Ty Bryan); name of his sibling (Joel, who likes to play basketball).
Compiled on several sheets of note paper, their "Questions for JTT" ranged from simple unknowns (What is your favorite sport?) to more complex queries (What was your favorite movie to make? And why?).
Suddenly I had a brainstorm. Why risk getting in a single question at a crowded fan breakfast? Why not try to schedule an actual interview?
The festival's organizers were more than accommodating, even when I asked if Cory, Lily and Andrew could ask the questions. Kid stars are receptive to interviews by kid reporters, they said. (Especially if their mother happens to work for The Washington Post.)
They scheduled a Friday noon session in the regal Louis XIV meeting room at the Plaza Hotel and warned us not to be late since Jonathan had a crowded schedule. When I announced this development, the interview team grew faint.
"The Plaza?" gushed Cory. "That's the setting for `Home Alone 2: Lost in New York' (running time 120 minutes in the U.S. but cut to 116 minutes in the United Kingdom)!"
There was a flurry of practice sessions. And then we were off on Amtrak, three kids and a Swedish au pair, lugging tape recorders, cameras, notepads and six bags jampacked with the coolest clothing Takoma Park could offer.
Tension was thick in the Louis XIV room as we waited that Friday morning for JTT, who was 15 minutes late and unaccounted for at the Plaza registration desk, causing considerable squirming in the posh red velvet chairs around the interview table. Under elegant chandeliers, Cory and Lily were nervously sipping water from crystal glasses and studying their questions; Andrew was turning somersaults in a room big enough for a senior prom.
Finally, two teenagers strolled in -- Shay Astar, a confident 15-year-old breaking into the big time on TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun," and Devon Sawa, 17, a cool Canadian who had a brief flasher scene in Cory's favorite coming-of-age film, "Now and Then." Devon, who has his own devoted teen fan club, is JTT's lesser-billed co-star in "Wild America."
"We're substituting for Jonathan," the two casually announced. Faces around the table fell. When you're a kid who's spent hours dreaming up questions for JTT, it's hard to just throw out the list and improvise. But Shay and Devon sat patiently for almost an hour while the frazzled interviewers regrouped, answering questions about set tutors and favorite films and how to overcome stage fright.
Once Cory got up his courage, he grilled them on specifics. "How long is `Wild America'?" Cory finally asked Devon.
"What do you mean?" Devon asked, puzzled. "How long did it take to film it?"
"No, how long is it?" Cory said. "What's its running time?"
Devon could not begin to answer. But some sort of peculiar bond was formed as Cory recited the running times of every feature film in which the young star has appeared. Cory even knew an approximate time for "Ernest Scared Stupid," Shay Astor's highly forgettable 95-minute feature film debut.
The kids reacted well, considering they had just been royally dissed by JTT, and only later did the real story come out. It turned out that JTT's mother, irritated over luggage lost at La Guardia, had canceled all interviews so Jonathan could rest and find properly cool clothing for the "Wild America" premiere that evening.
And of course, Devon and Shay and the young stars of "Matilda" and "Harriet the Spy" and dozens of other kid stars and would-be stars waited patiently. JTT was late for that event, too.
"What's with this kid?" I finally asked my young companions.
"Don't blame him," Cory snapped. "JTT is really nice. It's that bossy mother of his that's the problem."
The kids finally got their chance to meet JTT at the Saturday morning "fan event," which turned out to be nothing even close to a "breakfast." It was free to all except the few poor souls like me who had shelled out $20 per ticket through American Express.
While the press fumed and JTT's mother hovered protectively, JTT posed for individual photos with dozens of fans, beaming that familiar lovable smile that has been his secret to stardom.
He posed for so long that he was annoyingly late for the celebrity kids' fashion show (another $15 a child) near Times Square, finally appearing onstage in a classy Ralph Lauren sport coat to accept a donation for needy kids from a group of clothing manufacturers. A pre-teen beside me swooned, dropping into her girlfriends' arms. "Jonathan, I want to MAAAARRY YOU," she yelled. JTT held up the check and beamed as a thousand flashbulbs illuminated the room. He stayed only a few minutes, waved to his fans and exited to wild applause.
By the time we headed home, a weekend of exposure to children's Hollywood had convinced Cory and Lily that they only had more work to do from their Maryland home base.
"If we are going to be stars, we have to find an agent," they announced somberly. "Devon and Shay said it was the only way to break in." (A few weeks later, I discovered several unauthorized calls from the secluded basement telephone to strange numbers in Beverly Hills.)
The JTT mania continues. The kids have plugged into a JTT Web site on the Internet, pinned up his photo and only recently discovered other fascinating JTT facts from a 16 magazine piece on JTT's "Dating Do's and Don'ts."
Turns out that JTT has a pet peeve. Cory read it aloud. "True to his Virgo star sign, JTT gets a little impatient when others are tardy. Don't be late for this date!"
"Oh," Cory went on. "And he loves spending time with his mother, too."
@CAPTION: One happy fan: Cory Thompson with Jonathan Taylor Thomas in New York.
@CAPTION: Heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas, left photo, signs an autograph for a fan, but the writer's son Andrew, above right, had to settle for two stand-ins, actors Devon Sawa, above left, and Shay Astar.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company