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The quest for 'Fame': young auditioners vie for the TV limelight

Broadway often brings fame to young performers, but one day recently a group of young performers brought ''Fame'' to Broadway. For two seasons the NBC series ''Fame,'' about a fictional ''School of the Arts,'' allegedly based on New York's School of Performing Arts, struggled to accumulate high enough Nielsen ratings to survive on network TV. Although the show attracted a loyal audience, the ''mere'' 20 million to 30 million people who watched weekly were simply not enough for NBC to keep it on the air. So, the show was canceled last year amid cries of outrage from ''Fame'' cultists, who were convinced that there would never be another show like it - combining dancing, singing, and acting by a cast of young unknown performers.

Then, Eilenna Productions in association with MGM Television decided to continue the series by offering it to independent stations throughout the country. Now in syndication, it is reaching just about as many people as it reached when it aired on NBC.

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Probably most important from a financial point of view, the producers are building up enough of a backlog of shows to offer the series for rerun syndication sometime in the future. Two seasons are not enough. Unless the current syndication rules are changed (they now allow the independent producers to reap the profits from syndication instead of the networks), ''Fame'' will become a profitable operation in a year or two when the show is offered for rerun syndication.

Meantime, some of the original ''Fame'' cast are growing a bit too old to play high school kids and others are finding acting roles elsewhere, so executive producer William Blinn decided to come to New York to search for future ''Fame'' cast members.

He ran small ads in Variety and Backstage announcing an open audition at the Minskoff Studio at 1515 Broadway and was caught unprepared when nearly 4,000 young people showed up early in the morning. By noon police had to be called to control a line all the way down West 44th Street. ''Fame'' was really making an impact on Broadway.

Old enough not to be mistaken for an applicant, I was allowed to make my way through the crowds of young people, up the lobby escalator, into a crowded elevator, and through the halls of the third floor lined with kids in jeans and leotards. I knocked on the studio door, where I was allowed in after it was established that I was not a job applicant using a press-card ruse to gain entrance.

Against the walls of the huge mirror-walled studio were about 30 youngsters, listening to executive producer Bill Blinn. Dressed in jeans and black turtle-necked shirt and not many years older than they, he apologized for the inconvenience of the situation.

He admitted that he was not prepared for the mob and so it was necessary to ''type'' rather than audition. You've been through the worst already out there, '' he said. ''Now, just stand there for a moment and try to relax. If you are not chosen, it is not your fault at all, you just do not happen to be the type we are looking for right now. If it makes you feel any better, I myself am the wrong type to be cast as producer.''

There was a lot of deep breathing and uneasy giggling as the 30 boys and girls of various heights, weights, and colors tried to smile casually.

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I noted one young girl obviously pregnant, a boy with a T-shirt which read ''Shut Up and Dance,'' and one little girl accompanied by her mother. The mother carried her huge portable radio.

Blinn and an assistant quietly looked over the group, conferred for a moment, then pointed to three of the people and asked them to wait. The boy in the ''Shut Up and Dance'' T-shirt was one of the chosen trio.

While I was chatting with executive producer Blinn, one of the group not chosen - a blond young man - looked over at us anxiously, then walked over. ''May I interrupt for just a moment,'' he asked shyly. ''I'm a songwriter and this is a cassette of one of my songs. Would you just listen to it? It has my name and phone number on it.''

Blinn took it and said he would have to listen to it in California. As the young man departed, I remarked to Blinn that the boy seemed exceptionally nervous and vulnerable, and it must have taken a lot of courage for him to make the approach. Blinn shrugged his shoulders. ''He'd better learn about rejection if he wants to stay in show business,'' he said.

Blinn explained that he was auditioning in New York because in California he got mainly California types. It was essential to get New York types, he said, since the series supposedly takes place in Manhattan.

''One difficulty is that we need kids over 18 who look under 18. In California, kids under 18 must have chaperons on the set and we don't want to cope with 150 chaperons.''

At one end of the room, a group of kids sat on the floor. They were the ones who had been previously chosen by type. Now they were waiting to be auditioned for dancing. The assistant choreographer of the show asked for the ''dancer dancers'' (the trained dancers who all were dressed in leotards, most wearing leg warmers) to form a group and ran them through some steps.

Two of those were chosen and asked to leave their names and numbers for future readings. Then the ''non-dancer dancers'' (untrained and almost all in jeans) were asked to do some unrestrained disco dancing. Only one of these was chosen.

Meantime a new group of youngsters was shepherded into the studio. In the midst of them I spotted the nervous blond kid, this time dressed in a red shirt and white sneakers; he had obviously changed clothes and sneaked back into the next waiting group.

The choosing process went on and this time he was one of the few chosen from the new group. Blinn thanked the unchosen and suggested they return in February when he might be back for further auditioning.

Since he told me that the process would be going on until the evening, I wished Blinn luck and started for the door. As I passed the group of chosen kids , sitting on the floor, waiting for their dance audition, I nodded to the nervous blond youngster.

''Congratulations,'' I said. ''You made it the second time around. What's your name?''

He smiled nervously, although by now I was beginning to realize that it wasn't uneasiness, but the ''type'' he was playing.

''Jeffrey Sage,'' he said. ''You know, I'm a songwriter from California, not a dancer. I can't dance at all.''

''What are you going to do?'' I asked.

He shrugged. ''I'll think of something.''

I was too nervous to wait and see.

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