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L.A. Stories
Catching up with the sunset kids – the growing cadre of alumni working behind the scenes in Hollywood

By Ali Crolius


Photo: surfer and sunset

 


The pilot announced that we were beginning our descent into LAX. Emerging from the black expanse of desert below, the brilliant grid of Los Angeles was lit up like a vast circuit board - a city so unfathomably huge that I wondered how émigrés of Baystate origin had ever managed to orient themselves to its sprawl. But many have, among them the dozen or so in the entertainment industry who were on my week's itinerary.

     This trip early last year was the culmination of months of collecting names of UMass alumni who've made the leap from Mass Ave. to Sunset Boulevard. I'm not sure when I began to be aware of the UMass presence in Hollywood: probably sometime between The Cosby Show (the Cos has a doctorate from UMass) and Independence Day (actor Bill Pullman has a UMass M.F.A.). Together with actors Richard Gere '71C and Jere Burns '80, and such musical talents as Buffy Sainte-Marie '62 and Natalie Cole '72, these grads cut a stellar figure on the national marquee.

     What I'd been discovering, though, was that the famous names and faces are only the tip of a small but ferociously talented iceberg of UMass alumni in "The Industry," as those inside it call the film and television business. This iceberg is made up of writers, producers, agents, publicists – the behind-the-scenes pros whose names appear, if at all, as the credits scroll down past the high-profile stars. Producer-screenwriter Jon Hensleigh '81, whose credits include Armageddon and the Jumanji movies, was profiled in this magazine in 1993. It turns out he's far from alone in LaLaLand.

     I began phoning around to inquire about these alumni. Talking my way past phalanxes of personal secretaries and wary assistants, put on hold and transferred from offices in Santa Monica to Manhattan and back again, I soon had interviews lined up with a number of them. Somewhere below, in that electric city, they were doing their part to create the images the whole world watches. I could hardly wait to meet them – if I could ever find them.

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It does, too, rain in Southern California. A cold drizzle dogged my first forays among the maze of boulevards and freeways that is metropolitan LA My first soggy stop, the night after I got in, was the Larchmont Boulevard Starbucks, where I'd arranged to meet Louise Spinner '89.

     Like most of my UMass-in-Hollywood contacts, Louise works well behind the scenes. Her job title is talent manager; her business address is The Talent Entertainment Group, which counts Patrick Swayze, Julianne Moore, Kiefer Sutherland, Reese Witherspoon, and Kyra Sedgwick among its fifty or so clients.

     As she made her rather grand entrance, though, I saw that Louise could easily pass for the talent itself. In her short black Prada dress and dangly earrings, her feathery short do and her flawless makeup making the most of her light freckles, she's like a preposterously pretty pixie. And can you say high-voltage? You find yourself peering behind her to see where she's plugged into the wall. I was relieved when she made that double-latte a decaf.

     Louise loves, loves, loves her work, which she calls "a perfect symbiosis" of her talent for staging happenings and her own dramatic persona. "I always wanted to be in front of the camera," she says. "I sublimate my need to act through my clients."

     At UMass she exercised these traits as a member of student government. Her stints as a radio personality in a tiny, now-defunct station in Southwest were followed, after graduation, by the titles of vice president of prizes for WBCN in Boston ("stuffing posters into tubes for people who had won something") and entertainment supervisor at such Manhattan fun spots as the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World. It didn't take much to persuade her to ditch it all when her UMass roommate Kathy Misrock '84, who was in LA pitching the services of video producers to rock-and-roll bands, suggested she come west. "I didn't have much waiting back home at my parents except a curfew and a pot roast," says Louise.

     Like every newcomer to the industry, Louise was in and out of various jobs during her first year or two. On the totem pole of celebrity handling, she says, agents rank highest, followed by talent managers, then publicists. By Hollywood writ, only agents may directly solicit roles for clients, and their jobs are intensely coveted. Appraising her future, Spinner "feared only lateral movement" while waiting for her Rolodex to fatten and experience to accrue. So she moved decisively into talent management.

     Managers, like agents, nurture careers, says Louise, but it's often the manager to whom an actor turns when asked to prepare for an audition, or when waiting for a call-back, or when the callback doesn't come. "My mother calls me a glorified hand-holder," says Louise. Managers go to bat for their clients when they feel overlooked by casting directors; when the chips are down and the starlet from San Antone is ready to pack up and go home, the manager is there with an encouraging word. "I'll remind them, 'Look, you are a working actor. Your guy took a phone call in the middle of interviewing you. You've got to see him again. And don't take no for an answer!'"

     "Actors should be unfettered in their pursuit of their careers," she says. "They need someone who can remove stuff from a portfolio if it's not flattering, someone who can call a publicist and say, 'Sure, he didn't look so great in that last film, but keep in mind he was working with a bad script.' It's something you can't do if you don't believe in your client."

     Of course, adds Louise, "We're not alchemists. There's only so much we can do." Not all clients are thin, blonde, and barely out of puberty; even those who are have only "a tiny window" through which to cop a foothold in Hollywood. "If you're not a sixteen-year-old boy, there aren't that many roles for you," says Louise. So she and her fellow managers are constantly scouting "to create opportunities, to find alternative material, smaller artists, and indies" – independent films – as breeding grounds for their burgeoning talents.

     Like anyone in a demanding job, Louise occasionally has fantasies of "leaving it all and opening a bookstore in Big Sur." The Newton native finds no trace of New England sensibility in a city "with no edges, where nobody walks, where there are no recognizable neighborhoods, where there's such anonymity." At Photo: smilethe same time, she's found something "that reduces all this sprawl to a little hamlet this big" – she holds the perfectly lacquered nails of thumb and forefinger an inch apart – "which is that we all work in the same factory."

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In the 1980s, coffee houses sprang up around Los Angeles to provide alternative watering holes for the legions of the healthy-living. Those coffee houses are now a fixed part of the Hollywood scenery. Many, like Buzz on Beverly in West Hollywood, also hold regular open-mike nights, and so have become important venues for new talent as well. It was to Buzz that Steve Brykman '90,'00G invited me to watch his stand-up comedy routine.

     The light was dim, the floor sticky, and the clientele a sundry fraternity of goofballs and misfits. Steve is a short, friendly kid whose tousle of brown hair and penchant for plaid shirts make him look like he's perpetually on his way to an early morning English class in Bartlett. With a highish voice that wobbles on the edge of a titter and bespectacled hazel eyes glinting with more mischief than mirth, Steve has the nebbishy appeal of a young Woody Allen – unsurprising, perhaps, in a Lexington native whose grandmother lost siblings in the Holocaust, and who was drawn from an early age to recorded performances of borscht-belt standup comics.

     Steve, who put in a miserable stint at medical school between undergraduate and graduate work in English at UMass, headed out to LA armed with a screenplay entitled Joel's Bar Mitzvah, co-written with fellow M.F.A. grad Steven Beeber '85, '95G. While Joel was being shopped around to any pair of eyes Brykman could convince to focus on it (including those of Laurie Horowitz '82 – see profile, page 57) he supported himself as a Web page designer, meanwhile feverishly pursuing the connections that may be the single most important element of success in Hollywood.

     "There's this whole idea out here that if you just hang out enough, something will happen," he'd said during our meeting a few days before at Jerry's Famous Deli in Studio City, where even the waiter seemed to be auditioning. "If you meet enough people, eventually you will meet someone who needs a writer." Like many writers with some successes to show for their efforts, Steve has had not so much a "first big break" as a gradual breaking-in based on following up one connection – any connection – after another. Tom Kenny, who does voice-overs on Nickelodeon, introduced him to Penn and Teller's producer, who introduced him to a colleague, Kevin Meaney, who once opened for Jerry Seinfeld on Broadway. Turned out all that Meaney needed was a Web page, but hey, it was another layer peeled off the mystical onion of connection.

     And Meaney passed on the invaluable piece of advice: Think, therefore you are. Meaney, too, had crashed on people's couches, but he thought of himself as a producer and began telling people he was a producer; people saw him as a producer, and soon he was. Following suit, Steve started telling people he was a writer; soon he was writing jokes for Comedy Central. Other "jobettes" popped up, though nothing, for a while, that added up to a "bona-fide writing job" with contracts and large – or even regular – paychecks attached.

     Back at Buzz, it was just about eight o'clock: time to start. A hat circulated through the room; the comedians drew numbers from it to determine order of performance. Steve went third. If he was nervous, it didn't show; I myself was suffering agonies of sympathetic stage fright. Steve had warned me that comedians make the worst audiences. Ever-mindful that "Industry" might be in the room, they're stingy with the laughs, he said.

     Luckily for both of us, Steve was genuinely funny. In contrast to previous pacing comics – the kind who twist themselves into ludicrous shapes to get a laugh – Steve on the low plywood stage was a slight slip of a figure with index cards: less polished than some, more confident than most. As for the audience, they seemed more chattery and distracted than stingy.

     I looked around. One guy was jotting notes on a napkin – was he fine-tuning his performance or stealing Steve's? Another was reciting his whole routine for a shrill clutch of fans at a table right up front. What could our intrepid standup do but soldier on 'til he reached the end of his cards? He received a smattering of applause, and stepped off the stage. I thought the experience might make him more compassionate toward the brother and sister comics who followed, but no. When it came time to clap, he clapped as lackadaisically as they.

     In peeling away skin after skin of his LA onion, Steve was ultimately hired as a full-time writer at The National Lampoon. The once bitingly sardonic favorite of politically conscious high-schoolers, has been resurrected as an entirely online entity, and is, said Steve last year, "eh, not so funny." (It's gotten funnier lately, he now says.) Returning last fall to defend his thesis, Steve found himself nostalgic for New England, but determined to stick it out in LA

     "I'm just sort of enjoying the game of LA," he says. "People at UMass were always saying the Valley isn't real life. You think of Hollywood as this shiny, gleaming thing, but then you come out here, and this isn't real life either.

     "When I first got out here, I did joke-writing for Bobcat's Big Ass Show. You know how on TV: It looks like there are 200 people in the audience, and this 100-foot stage? You get there and it's twenty feet long, there are thirty people in the audience. And this set with these structures that look like futuristic martini glasses – you get behind the set and it's bare light bulbs, and hunks of styrofoam they've painted and stuck together with electrical tape. This whole place is just this big illusion."

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Jenny, the superefficient personal assistant to Andy Gordon '84, had gotten me clearance to use the Fortress-like CBS parking garage in Studio City. The security guard found my name on the list. I was in.

     On this beautiful morning, the first since my arrival, I was to get my first glimpse of high-level Hollywood action. Starbucks and coffee houses are all very well, but this gathering in a windowless studio at CBS was to give me a sense of where it can all lead. Andy is the creator, with his longtime writing and producing partner, Eileen Conn, of the TV sitcoms Just Shoot Me and Mad About You. Today a select group of invitees would watch a reading of their new pilot, Baxter & Sons.

     Television studios are vast repositories of furniture and props and scaffolding and electric vehicles that can be endlessly recombined into new sets. This one, as I entered, seemed as cavernous as the garage I'd just left. All was dark except for two pools of light: one around the table where the cast would shortly be reading, the other around a delectable breakfast spread: lox and bagels, hard-boiled eggs, bowls of fruits and salads, boxes of matzoh for those observing Passover.

Photo     A cloud of caffeinated laughter rose from the group of about forty people clustered around the food. The beautiful ones must be the actors and actresses, I thought, while the rest of us would be agents, managers, friends, gofers, and other hangers-on. Sipping alternately at a coffee and a Fresh Samantha juice, I tried to blend in. This was definitely not the time to try to interview the UMass Friends of Andy – classmates Dave Rath and Drew Ogier – who were there in support of their pal.
Andy himself was casual in blue jeans and a navy sweater, but his shiny pate, perspiring under the lights, belied his preoccupation. This was the season when networks make their initial picks of shows their creators hope will become the fall's hits. Despite his earlier successes, there was no guarantee that CBS would pick up Baxter & Sons, a homely comedy about a father (of daughters) who runs a construction business.

     Andy Gordon is acknowledged among his confederates as a prodigious son – one of the first UMass alums to make it big in Tinseltown TV, paving the way for others to follow. And follow they have: Many are the buddies from Van Meter and elsewhere on campus who claim to have flopped on Andy's couch when they first arrived – among them Rath and Ogier, with whom Andy worked on The Collegian, where he had his own film-review column, "Trailers."

     While some from UMass hit the road to Hollywood after other paths disappointed, Andy fixed his sights on the short, straight road. He headed west shortly after graduating with his BDIC concentration in film studies, and luck, that phenomenon that seems to favor the prepared, catapulted him from errand boy to writing wiz in an unusually short time. His admirers say he's created a standard for success in sitcoms. Mad About You was premiered in 1992 and received the first of many Emmy nominations the next year. (Many wins would follow as well.) Andy melds two traits often at odds with one another, in Hollywood and elsewhere. On the one hand, he's fiercely, frighteningly ambitious. Pulling all-nighters in the studio, running home at eight a.m. To walk the dog and take a shower and be back by noon: it's a high-stakes version of the life he led in college. He knows he's the best, and gets indignant when some producer doesn't see that; he has no problem blowing his own horn when he sees the need, phoning whomever to say, "It's ridiculous not to do this show – it's really, really funny."

     He's also super-nice. If he gets "snippy" on the set, in a do-or-die moment when everyone needs something from him, he'll anguish for weeks over the lapse. He tries to work only with "lovely, warm people," because, he says, "I'm a firm believer that life is too short to be a jerk or work with jerks." (Hence his stars tend to be people famous for warmth and loveliness: Helen Hunt, Paul Reiser, David Alan Grier.) He's generous not only with his space – that couch on which a series of friends have crashed, the home he opened for our UMass-in-Hollywood photo shoot – but with references to his roots. A "UMass 84" vanity plate was spotted on Gordon's car by an earlier visitor to LA Last year on Just Shoot Me, he borrowed the unusual name of a UMass administrator – vice chancellor for advancement Royster C. Hedgepeth – for a character who headed an insane asylum.

     The reading went well: the actors were charming, light and fluffy as Malomars, and as sweet; the audience was appreciative. When it was done, Andy and the others retreated to a dining- room-window-seat set to dissect the script: what worked, what didn't, how to punch up which jokes. To an outsider, they appeared to form an impregnable wall of bright ideas, analyses, suggestions, feedback, with Andy, perched on the window seat next to the brash, redheaded Conn, clearly the ringleader. As it turned out, CBS took a miss on Baxter & Sons, and for months the show remained in a state of pricey suspended potential. (The pilot alone cost $1.8 million to produce, says Andy.) But his glee was audible as, in a phone conversation last December, he passed along the news that the show that beat out Baxter had bombed - "When America rejected, we felt vindicated" - and that producers were taking a second look at his cleverly constructed baby.

     "Suddenly we've got two networks vying for it," said an exultant Andy. Later in the month he had sold Baxter to NBC. (Breaking news: NBC has purchased another Gordon pilot, Dag, which will star David Alan Grier as a secret service agent assigned to protect the first lady. They'll shoot that pilot this spring.)

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Next on the itinerary was screen writer Peter Tolan, whose Billy Crystal-Robert Deniro farce Analyze This had opened in LA that week and had already grossed $100 million. Thinking it would be rude to show up for the interview without seeing the film, I arrived at a Santa Monica cinema to find the line around the block – a sell-out crowd. When I finally settled into my seat and the opening credits rolled, I had to fight the impulse to stand up and shout, "Hey, that guy - See? 'Written by Harold Ramis and Peter Tolan'? - that guy went to UMass Amherst! Let's hear it for the Maroon and White!" (For the same thrill this winter, watch for Tolan's credit on the new Mike Nichols film, What Planet Are You From?)

     Peter would have graduated in 1976 if he'd stayed on campus long enough to collect a degree. (In what, is a question. Peter program-hopped, sampling "every major but animal husbandry.") Fine Arts Center administrator Jim Macrostie remembers this "very bright, very frustrated" student as the only undergrad he can recall who ever wrote and produced his own play: The musical revue Best Friends of 1928 was mounted in Bowker Auditorium in 1976. "It was one of the most magical experiences I've had in the theater," says Peter . "I don't know if it's because we didn't expect anything, but everything just worked."

     Macrostie hooked the promising student up with a colleague in Minneapolis, and Peter left UMass to do dinner-theater improv there. Within a year he was, according to Macrostie, "the hottest thing in the Twin Cities."

     "It all comes from doing shows at UMass," says Peter today. "Macrostie saying go to Minneapolis, performing there, meeting the woman who became my comedy partner" (Linda Wallen, who now produces That 70's Show).

     When I visited, Peter and his wife, Leslie, had just moved to a 1912 Pasadena mansion so grand it had been used for exterior shots in Dynasty as well as scenes in Duck Soup and Terms of Endearment. While Peter ran out to fetch Peter Jr. from a sleepover, I stood in the immense kitchen drinking coffee with the nanny, coo-chooing with Beatrice, Peter's and Leslie's youngest, and employing visualization techniques to halt the rain so I could see the Hockneyesque gardens in sunlight.

     Peter returned and ushered me into his study, with its tall ceilings, French windows overlooking a reflecting pool, and interior doors that slide closed on mewling children and bounding dogs. In the middle of the room is the desk to which he repairs each night once the children are in bed, and works until three or four in the morning. (I was beginning to suspect that the key to success in Hollywood is needing very little sleep.) He writes swiftly, says Peter, knocking out HBO pilots, treatments for Disney, and episode after episode for TV – "a sausage factory," he calls it. His current projects were a new movie for Billy Crystal and a remake of Bedazzled.

     Peter is pleasant, talkative, but possessed of a certain native New England reserve – converted, perhaps, into a means of reserving energy for his work. He's surrounded himself with things he loves: snowy family photos from his Scituate childhood on a bookshelf, a life-size cutout of Garry Shandling – a.k.a. Larry Sanders, the TV personality Peter helped create – grinning maniacally from a corner. On the walls are various awards - the Peabody Award for Excellence in TV broadcasting, Emmys for The Larry Sanders Show – along with the vintage steeplechase prints Peter began collecting around the same time he discovered the racetrack as a relaxing lunchtime diversion.

     "I'm a germinator," said Peter. "I say I'm going to the track, but I'm thinking, thinking. By the time I sit down at my desk, I'm ready.

     "It's always a gamble when you sit down in front of a blank screen," he added. "You have to trust yourself that you're going to find your way through it – even when you don't know one hundred percent where you're going."

     If the blank screen doesn't paralyze Peter, maybe it's because he's faced worse: other people's scripts, which he's earned a reputation for "doctoring." Analyze This was one of his patients. Crystal had already been working on the project with writer Ken Lonergan, and the basic premise was sound. "A mob boss who's in therapy – that's funny," said Peter, chuckling as if the idea had just come to him.

     "But it will not be funny unless it's real. As a writer, you know what you can and cannot put in someone's mouth."

     I asked Peter if it's all worth it – the late nights, the phony people, the Hollywood hypocrisy he says he "loathes." He led me over to the window, where we looked out through a curtain of rain falling from the tile roof, down the sweeping lawn where Joan Collins and Linda Evans had their famous cat-fight scene in Dynasty.

Photo: palm tree     "I'm enjoying this too much not to think it's great," said Peter. "California," he sighed, gazing at the potted orange trees hung with big, ripe fruit. "It is great out here.

     "I am, however," he added with his quizzical smile, "still waiting for that honorary degree."

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Writer Dode Levinson '87 is a big, smart, lovable teddy bear of a guy who insisted on cooking me dinner, which we ate looking out over the houseboat-studded harbor near his Venice apartment building. It was early evening, but for Dode, like the other writers I'd met, the day was just beginning. His writing partner, Jason Glassman, would show up around eleven, and they'd work through the night on several projects they were juggling.

     This Boston kid couldn't quite find his place at UMass, he says, until he stumbled onto The Collegian. "I found people who were really smart, really capable, really motivated," says the Dodester, as he likes to be affectionately called. "The Collegian came into people's lives five days a week. Everyone read it, everyone talked about it. And we were at the epicenter of it." In fact Dode was exposed to the LA virus at The Collegian, via letters from Andy Gordon to buddies on the staff. "He wrote glorious letters saying you see celebrities all the time, the weather was beautiful. Later, it turned out he was just lonely and wanted us to come out here."

     Dode started out in LA working on screenplays to finance the novel he wanted to write. Once hooked on the challenge of turning out "product" to specific guidelines, he wrote three low-budget movies, including the film version of Stephen King's Children of the Corn. "Basically all horror movies are coming up with new ways to kill people," he says cheerfully. "I came up with half a dozen different ways to do that. I thought it would get me work." Eventually he gravitated toward animated characters for which he and Glassman create storyboards.

     He has faced rejection, had scripts caught up in bidding wars which ended with both studios going cold on him. Writing on spec, he says, "You take all the risk. If someone responds, you're singing 'If I Were A Rich Man.' If they don't,
you've spent six months with nothing to show for it but a script you like."

     But Dode has the cool confidence that I was beginning to recognize as a common trait among the UMass crew in Hollywood. "The way I personally deal with it is: I am the factory. I create, I flesh it out. I am incredibly valid and all of this gives me license to continue to follow my instincts. It's risky to a degree, but you're betting on yourself. Is it any riskier than going to work for a corporation that's at the beck and call of stockholders? I just have to keep turning it out, and proving to the town that I'm for real, that I have the skills and sensibilities to get a studio deal.

     "My goal? To be a coveted writer. To be given an office on a lot, a salary, and to give the studio the right to look at whatever you write first. I very much want to be in that company within the next couple of years."

     Things are looking good. Doomsday, an animated "post-apocalyptic odyssey" that Dode created with Glassman and Tracy Torme (Mel's grandson) was recently bought by UPN. The story is being animated by the same group that does The Simpsons, and will premiere this fall with Howard Stern as executive producer and voice of Orinthal, the family dog.
That office on the lot may be right around the corner, Dodester.

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My week in Los Angeles flew by as I, too, flew from office to studio to home. The Beverly Hills office of Leanne (Fader) Coronel '84 has a spectacular view over rooftops and past earthquake-proof skyscrapers to the hills beyond. Her firm, Endeavor, represents Bob Newhart, Lindsay Lohan, and James Van Der Beek - "Next to DiCaprio, the hot young talent," says Leanne. Talent manager Dave Rath '84, who counts comedienne Janeane Garofalo among his clients, has mastered the art of friendly intimidation. "As far as the Starbucks offer, Janeane doesn't usually get that commercial," he was saying into a telephone the day I visited. Title designer Kyle Cooper '85 works in a high-tech maze of offices in the childhood home of Candice Bergen on Sunset Boulevard; his credits fill three crowded resume pages and include every possible award.

     "They talk about the 'Harvard Mafia,' the like million writers out here who went to Harvard," says Andy Gordon. "UMass doesn't quite have a Mafia. But our circle of UMass people all know each other. It sure has become a strong group." And an inclusive one: Long after my return, I was still fielding emails, voice-mails, and phone calls from and about other Umies in Hollywood.

     I talked to many of them by phone. Comedian Kevin Rooney '79 graduated from the TOC to the Merv Griffin and Tonight shows and to writing for Dennis Miller and Jay Leno. Ken Ober '80 moved from the Hot L Warren in South Deerfield to Comedy Central's Make Me Laugh. Dana Gould '86 went from Boston standup to sitcom acting – "a contradiction in terms," he wisecracks. Drew Ogier '84, who switched from a parent-pleasing major in engineering to a more simpatico one in communication, started as a gofer and propmaster on, among other shows, Roseanne, and is now writing and producing for the Big Gal. Also on the Roseanne crew is Henrietta Hebert '94, among whose responsibilities as assistant to the executive co-producer is scanning magazines in search of hot young talent for the show. And Tammi Colleary '95 ran with her communication degree to an internship at MTV, and is now a producer's assistant on ABC's Politically Incorrect.

     Long after my deadline had passed, omissions were being pointed out to us: independent producer Brad Weston '86, whose recent credits include the movie Guinevere, was one of them. So were Steve Spignese '91 (publicity) and Judy Toll '79 (talent). Clearly, there were just too many Umies in the industry for me to talk to. So, to all of you we couldn't track down, or who were too busy, or whose assistants said you had a bad experience at UMass and wouldn't want to be interviewed – here's where your minute of fame on the homefront would have been.

Photo     And your numbers are growing. A person can't so much as board a bus in Manhattan these days without running into the UMass-to-Hollywood-bound. In a long, snaking line at the Port Authority in December, I fell in with a charming young blond-spiked Venezuelan student who, it turned out, will graduate in computer science this spring from UMass. Luis Ochoa '00 had just gotten a job offer to do film animation for Pixar out in Los Angeles. He thinks he just may go for it.

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