Polishing His ACT

L.A.-Ex Gary Goldstein Brings Real News to Kids

Austin is following closely on the heels of Santa Fe as the best place in the country to buy a crystal, go to a Ram Dass lecture, and do four hours of the yoga lion position, all in time to break your Wiccan fast with a macrobiotic tempeh and chard lunch. As an Austinite, you must accommodate it, by either embracing the lifestyle as your own -- submitting to the lure of a loose-fitting dashiki and attending all the ancillary functions -- or, as has been my case, you marginalize the partakers the same way a Catholic approaches a snake-handling holy roller, sending along polite regrets ("My sitar's in the shop. Damn the luck.") while guiltily eating beef in private and stubbing out cigarettes long before stepping out into the Whole Foods parking lot. Occasionally, an event will change your mind -- something akin to the experience of the wedding guest in Coleridge's Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner -- a person singles you out, and wielding a cautionary finger, tells you something that bites you at your core. You suddenly allow for the possibility that there are people who are happier than you, and you listen to them.

Gary Goldstein, the 28-year-old, former teen-magazine coverboy, L.A. native, and former host of CNN's Real News for Kids, is one of those people. We sit at Casa da Luz, a macrobiotic restaurant off of South Lamar, munching rabidly healthy food as I try to ask him about his work in the Austin Independent School District, and his life as a Hollywood prodigy, writing, producing, and starring in children's programming since he was 20. From him, I attempt to pry trashy stories about interviewing strung-out starlets in Cannes, and whether Milton Berle was the asshole I'd always heard he was, and all he can do is look at my shoulders, hunched in and knotted up. "Look at the way you're sitting," Goldstein instructs, as unassuming as Bambi, "you look frightened. What are you afraid of, Andrew?" Ten words out of his mouth, the notepad is on the floor, the story out the window, and Goldstein is egging me on while I indulge my most confessional side -- lamenting troubles relating to my father, trauma with debilitatingly complex women, and chemical addiction. "This could be the last hour of your life, Andrew. Is this the way you wanted to live it?" A straight piece on the civic work of Goldstein and his fellow Hollywood expatriates veers inexplicably, and I am a dysfunctional Grasshopper to this blond-haired, California version of Kung-Fu's Master. Certain emotional peril is inherent in interviewing an interviewer who has undergone a spiritual conversion.

For Goldstein, health is a full-time job and the list of verboten toxins is endless. Booze and caffeine are out, sugar's no good in large doses, red meat's bad stuff, wheat is intolerable, and nicotine, of course, will kill you. On his A-list are intensive yoga, swimming, dance, meditation, and hugs. There is no middle ground -- a beer and burger after spending an hour in a meditative state would be reckless backsliding. So how did all this peace and love happen to this lifelong L.A. resident, whose balanced state virtually creates an audible purr?

From the perspective of the non-Californian, Hollywood is the last place that would serve as a Petri dish for this sort of unified mental and corporal health -- on TV, Hollywood looks like a breeding ground for insecurity, material excess, reckless egotism, and epic drug and alcohol abuse. Goldstein is quick to point out that to a certain extent, all of these perceptions of L.A. are accurate; but he also points out that the most popular church in Hollywood is The Temple of the Body. For Hollywood aspirants, success is gauged in the ability to shoot to the pinnacle of stardom and afterwards, maintaining a physique which looks good enough to stay there. River Phoenix, after all, was considered spiritually attuned and meticulous about the foods which passed through his lips -- granted, a darker vein passed through him at night. Goldstein notes that this diurnal/nocturnal duplicity is typical in Hollywood. Citing the example of Peewee Herman's dead career, Goldstein is gun-shy about discussing personal issues while still considered a celebrity in circles of 10-year-olds. He does say that while Phoenix was tearing up L.A., he was probably safe at home meditating. After Real News for Kids filmed its final episodes in 1995, Goldstein retreated to Austin, a place where those who are serious about wellness pursue it at night as well as during the day.

It is not surprising that Goldstein is frequently misplaced as belonging to the age group to which his work with CNN appealed. At 28, Goldstein looks preternaturally youthful, with a small frame and robust build, a mane of blond hair down to his shoulders -- the hair that made CNN execs cringe. When he first started Real News, a VP well-schooled in the Brit Hume philosophy of personal grooming, asked him how he would feel about shedding some, if not all of his trademark mane. "How short?" Goldstein asked, tentatively. "That's the spirit," countered the exec. The hair stayed for the duration of the show however, through interviews with two sitting presidents, "every" Hollywood luminary, and a host of kids with both incredible talents and harrowing hardships.

On a walk around Town Lake in April, I confessed to Goldstein that I had never seen his work on CNN and asked if there was a certain TV persona he could affect on cue. "Watch," he says. Goldstein turns to me and for a second I play the part of a stationary camera in a TV studio. He opens his eyes, adjusts himself to a military posture and unleashes a gigantic closed-mouth smile, the kind which incites baboon riots in zoos. Television cameras have been known to produce an effect which transforms a freneticism which, in real life, seems emotionally excessive into a positivism just big enough for TV. Goldstein's energy plays great on the small screen. When he says, "Hi, I'm Gary Goldstein. Today, kids...," it becomes clear how his non-threatening cuteness might impel pre-pubescent girls to tear his face from Teen Magazine. The shtick works.

Along with an enclave of industry friends who now make Austin their home, Goldstein has taken a huge pay cut and brought his wares to the Austin Independent School District, exposing the seams behind "Hollywood's seamless reality" to Austin high school students through his brainchild, Austin's Creative Television Workshop (ACT). The program, a hands-on television production course, received a small stipend last spring from the City of Austin's Cultural Contracts Office, an entity which contracts artists to provide services that benefit the city by promoting cultural tourism and creative community service, all funded through Austin's hotel/motel tax.

ACT Workshop's first project took place last spring in East Austin's Johnston High School. When Goldstein introduced himself to students in Marylee Boarman's television reporting class and asked what kind of video the students wanted to produce, he found most were intent on creating a news story about teen pregnancy at the high school. Johnston has gained some notoriety from the remarkable fertility of its female student body; 113 Johnston High school girls are either pregnant or moonlighting as mothers. In response to the almost epidemic proportions of Johnston's baby situation, the school started an on-site day care facility, allowing young mothers and fathers to shoulder the responsibility of caring for their young children while concurrently working towards a high school diploma. The idea is highly progressive: In a day and age when abstinence seems to be the only reproductive curriculum that school boards can agree on, Johnston High's room full of hungry babies and toddlers is a chilling lesson in the necessity of responsible sex education. Formerly, young women with children were seen as having no business in high school, a stigma which denied many young mothers the opportunity to graduate. Now, students with children intersperse parenting classes with history and algebra, and spend their lunch hours in the company of their kids. Goldstein's students felt compelled to tell their story.

Adolescence is frequently treated by local news affiliates as a dysfunction in itself, granting major coverage to kids chewing on toxic ludes from Mexico or visiting smutty Web sites with their P.C.s. Goldstein let the kids film whoever and whatever they wanted. The story was theirs, he reasoned, let them do it as they see fit. "One girl told me, `I'm so tired of adults looking into my world and telling people what it's like to be a teenager. I want to tell them myself. I'm going to be more honest about it because I'm living that way.'" Johnston's students amassed a huge bulk of video footage (Goldstein allowed students with cameras to film however long they saw fit, as long as they were willing to provide transcriptions of every interview). When technical guidance was requested, Goldstein stepped in, coaching kids on how to communicate with the camera, as well as enlisting the assistance of a small army of industry professionals. Austin's Taylor Forman Productions donated the use of their editing equipment and a steady stream of camera and lighting technicians, make-up artists, acting coaches, and set designers migrated to Johnston's classrooms to provide tutorials to small groups of interested students. In the six months ACT Workshop spent at Johnston, the students wrote the script, debated the content, and were sprung from classes for a full day to interview Johnston's young parents as well as community health professionals. Its a special day when boys can roam high school corridors in full make-up without getting pummeled. Johnston High's young crew created a truly unique product -- a news story narrated from the same perspective as the principles of the story. "The segment wasn't dark at all," Goldstein says, "it was showing the issue we are dealing with without any judgement in it as to whether it was a good or bad thing, only that this is a serious issue." The students, in telling the story of their peers, avoided tactics prevalent in more cautionary styles of journalism: No screaming sensationalism or tabloid-style scandal-making is present in the final cut. The young men and women interviewed in Johnston's day care facility emerge as a group of young people strapped and nobly coping with more responsibility than adolescents should have. The vacant expression on the face of the 14-year-old girl with a baby in her arms who says "It's not like babysitting. Your baby doesn't leave," gives sufficiently compelling evidence against unprotected sex with no added homily or condom waving.

Marylee Boarman was thrilled at her classroom's transformation into a newsroom. "I couldn't ask for a better experience for the kids. The students had access to sides of the industry that just can't be provided on a normal basis in the classroom."

The professionalism of Johnston's young news crew even impressed the professionals. The students brought their footage to Martha Degrass, producer of K-EYE 42's K-EYE Witness News at Six, who was impressed enough to get their two-minute clip on the news at the station's 5pm newscast. Since the clip aired in April, Goldstein has also approached his old comrades at CNN to use the story on Newsroom, another show aimed at younger audiences. Initially, the producers were hesitant to air a tape produced by high school-aged industry outsiders, but the work spoke for itself. "When they saw the quality of the tape they called me and told me they definitely wanted to air it," Goldstein said. Look for Johnston's students taking the plunge to a national stage very soon. As for Goldstein and ACT Workshop, in July, the Cultural Contracts Office will recommend to the City Council a renewal of ACT's contract for the fall, and barring any unforseen difficulty, Goldstein will be back in the AISD. He intends to expand the program to other Austin high schools while continuing to dip his toes in more profitable freelance television work. "Just enough to get by," he allows.

At the Clearwater Cafe, Goldstein introduces me to two of ACT's professional presenters -- Kate Linforth, formerly in script development at Touchstone Pictures, and Lorn-Nicole Robinson, a makeup artist for television and film. Both have worked in L.A. and have chosen the quieter confines of Austin for their homes. The three tanned faces, all peace and health, make me feel like a city bus in a field of electric Volkswagons. Around the table, a resounding consensus is reached that "the energy in L.A. is really gross." But in small ways, Planet California persists. Goldstein has spent the morning chauffeuring a friend's peacocks around Austin in the back of his Honda. Robinson, a minute after meeting me, levels a finger at my nose and sweetly tells me to enjoy my vitality now because, "You are going to die. I'm serious, you're going to be dead," while Linforth suggests that Disney has the financial muscle to assume the role of planet earth's central governing body. It's a small world, after all. A cellular phone rings once, two are beeped on pagers, and the phone makes a complete orbit around the table, stopping briefly in front of each Austin transplant. When asked whether there is ever a time when the three need to be out of reach, when the three just leave the beepers at home and enjoy the anonymity of a walk or swim on the Greenbelt sans telecommunications, they look at me like a triumvirate of salmon asked to relinquish their gills for an afternoon. Assimilation, after all, takes time.

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