POSTER: BRIAN BAIN (ZETROWER)
FORUM: BEST OF JACKIE ON THE WEB
DATE: October 1, 2012
In this post, Brian Bain adds to his well-received series of sketches of outstanding performers whose lives and careers help us understand the challenges and pleasures Jackie Evancho faces as a young entertainer.*
Jackie’s personal and professional story is a happy one; we have every reason to expect it will continue to be so. Other young singing stars and stars of the silver screen have not fared so well, however, either from personality weakness, or parental neglect, or the pressures of work, or from any of a myriad of other causes.
Brian’s purpose in introducing the cautionary tale of silent screen child actor Jackie Coogan is not to suggest that Jackie is at risk of exploitation. Instead, he hopes to help silence those perverse detractors of Jackie and Jackie’s parents who irresponsibly raise the specter of exploitation without having any grounds whatsoever to do so. From all evidence, Jackie is a well-adjusted young person who is doing exactly what she wants to do and is very happy doing it.
PROTECTED BY THE JACKIE COOGAN LAWS – BUT MORE SO BY HER LOVING FAMILY
Jackie, a child performer, stepped onto the stage of the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles and was discovered by a major film director. But this was not Jackie Evancho, it was Jackie Coogan. The director was the silent film comedian extraordinaire Charlie Chaplin. In 1921, Coogan starred along-side Chaplin in the classic silent film The Kid. Coogan’s brilliant performance in that film propelled the young actor to major stardom. During his career as a child star, Coogan earned between three and four million dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that comes close to sixty-five million dollars in today’s values.
At the time Coogan was a child performer, any money made by a minor belonged to their parents. So, when Coogan became an adult, he discovered that his mother and stepfather had spent almost his full fortune on themselves, on luxuries such as furs, cars, and diamonds. Coogan sued his parents in 1938 and won. Although $250,000 was left of his fortune, after legal expenses only $126,000 remained. Jackie Coogan went on to be successful character actor, best known to late 20th-century TV watchers as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.
Because of the publicity Jackie Coogan’s case generated, Congress reformed child labor laws to protect children from avaricious parents and guardians. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which defined rules for the employment of children, including child performers, a category of child employment that up until then had been largely overlooked.
There had been efforts before to reform child labor laws, but it took the added pressure of the Great Depression, which saw large numbers of children laboring to help feed their families, to push the legislation through. To some extent, the legislation was driven as much by adults’ economic needs as it was by concern for exploited children. Out-of work-adults needed the work children had been made to do.
Under U.S law, children under 14 may not be employed for non-agricultural jobs, children between 14 and 16 may be employed in certain occupations during limited hours, and children between 16 and 18 may be employed for the same hours as adults, but only in non-hazardous occupations.
A number of exceptions to these rules exist, such as for employment by parents, for newspaper delivery, and for entertainment. In addition to Federal legislation, States have their own laws to govern child labor. Under Pennsylvania law, which governs Jackie Evancho when she performs in her own State, the minimum age for employment is 14, though there are some exceptions. Children of any age may be employed in the motion picture industry, but children must be at least seven years of age to work in television, in modeling, or in theatrical productions.
We in the U.S. hate the idea of child labor, then, but we love child performers. The film, television, music and advertising industries employ thousands of child performers. Today’s child entertainers are protected by the modern equivalent of the Coogan Law. One innovation introduced in that law is the Coogan account, which mandates that 15 percent of all money earned by a child performer must be deposited in a blind trust bank account accessible only by the child performer from the age of eighteen. The bedrock principle established by the Coogan law is that money earned by a child performer legally belongs to the child, not to the parents or guardians.
One of the charges made by Jackie Evancho’s perverse detractors is that, despite the existence of labor legislation that protects young entertainers, she is being exploited by greedy parents and a mercenary record company. Regardless of how many times Jackie repeats that she is grateful to her parents for allowing her to pursue her dream, and regardless of how often her parents repeat that it is not money and fame but Jackie’s welfare and happiness that is their only concern, the accusation keeps popping up online and in newspaper articles. Those critics produce no evidence of exploitation; seldom do they mention Jackie’s and her parents’ statements on the matter. Were they to expose their evidence, assuming they have any, there would be grounds for debate. But when it comes to presenting evidence, they are silent.
Jackie Evancho’s devoted fans have been more responsible in their discussion of how well Jackie is being treated as a child performer. Naturally our bias is in favor of Jackie’s parents, but that hasn’t prevented us from discussing the matter, and it hasn’t prevented Jackie and her parents from patiently explaining the real circumstances of Jackie’s home and professional life. Because of their openness, we are well aware of the role Jackie’s parents and professional staff play in protecting the young singer, and of how she divides her time between work, study, family activities, and play.
From all accounts, Jackie’s parents do their best to ensure that she is enjoying as normal a childhood as is possible, given that she is a recording artist, a touring singer, an actress and a model. Amazingly, despite her success as a performer and the many professional engagements she has each year, a full three-quarters of her time is taken up with family life and online school work.
In my opinion, Jackie Evancho’s professional career is in capable and responsible hands. Here are a few facts to back up that opinion. In cooperation with her parents, Jackie is managed by Marc Johnston of Align Entertainment. She is represented by a top agent, Nicole David, of William Morris Endeavor, the oldest and largest talent agency in the world. She has a personal lawyer, Ed Shapiro, one of the top lawyers in the entertainment industry. These three professionals have a legal and moral requirement to protect Jackie from exploitation; their obligation is to to see to it that Jackie’s professional activities fall well within the limits of the law.
Sadly, a number of child performers have experienced problems later in life. Judy Garland, Lindsay Lohan and other young actors and singers such as Gary Coleman, Dana Plato, Todd Bridges and Michael Jackson come to mind. When we look at their background we find unstable family life or drug abuse or both.
For every distressing story about how the life of a child performer turned out, there are many stories of child film and singing stars that grew into adulthood with no more problems than can be expected in anyone’s life. The list is long; here are some familiar names: Hayley Westenra, Taylor Swift, Stevie Wonder, Donny Osmond, Julie Andrews, Amy Grant, Shirley Temple, Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Roddy McDowall, Jackie Cooper, Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, Reese Witherspoon, Kirsten Dunst, Anna Paquin, Kurt Russell, Ron Howard and Emma Watson.
No one can see into the future, but from what we know about Jackie Evancho’s self-control and maturity, her stable home life, and her well-managed professional life, we have every reason to expect that she will join this long list of illustrious entertainers who reached adulthood happy, well-balanced, and successful.