Actors as readers bring stories to life BookPals: The program started by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation in Los Angeles arrived in Baltimore and Washington this year.

November 22, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Actor Giancarlo Esposito isn't a Rugrat, a Barney or even a recognizable name for many elementary schoolchildren.

But the new cast member in the Baltimore-based television show "Homicide: Life on the Street" has something that he hopes will make children at Garrett Heights Elementary School take notice: an ability to make stories come alive.

The belief that actors are storytellers extraordinaire, who can make children understand the magic of literature, prompted the Screen Actors Guild Foundation to begin reading to Los Angeles children years ago. Today, its BookPals program has spread to more than a dozen large cities and 30,000 schoolchildren.

On Friday, as Esposito read to a class at Garrett Heights, Baltimore joined the list. In coming weeks, about 20 other actors will join him in reading aloud in the schools, once a week for six weeks.

Liam Hughes, one of the participating actors, said he believes reading is not only a means to greater academic success but an escape for some children who aren't exposed to other cultures. "Reading is something that opens the door," he said. "It is the pathway to ideas and to other cultures and to history."

Hughes, who had small parts in "Homicide" in 1995 and, more recently, the John Waters film "Pecker," said he hopes to dramatize stories to stir a child's imagination.

He said he will tell children, "This is going to be what you can do by yourself once you are reading."

BookPals (Performing Artists for Literacy in Schools) was started by actress Barbara Bain in Los Angeles in 1993. Bain -- who played espionage agent Cinnamon Carter on the television show "Mission Impossible" in the late 1960s -- has taken on a different role as BookPals' national chairwoman.

About 1,500 volunteers read to about 35,000 children through third grade in more than 800 schools each week, according to the national organization.

The program hires a coordinator for each city to help the school system it is working with so that school personnel are not burdened with keeping track of and organizing volunteers. Eleanor Smith, a former teacher running the program in Baltimore, said she will be looking for as many actors as she can find to volunteer in city public schools.

The program's early focus was on big cities, such as Los #F Angeles and New York, but has spread to midsize cities. This year, Baltimore and Washington were added. The program aims to concentrate on disadvantaged children.

"This is the thing about reading," said Hughes. "No matter how poor you are you can pick up that book and be somewhere else."

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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