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Baylor alumni strive to survive daily life in Hollywood

Nov. 11, 2005

by MANDY SMITH, reporter

Reading their job titles is enough to make one green with envy. And it may even inspire a few to pack up and head 1,487 miles west, to Los Angeles.

2001 Baylor alumna Natalie Burkholder has held a variety of jobs in her four years since moving to California. She's produced, done accounting for a construction company, worked with public relations, been a nanny for Kelsey Grammar, and now she's working in freelance news and helping autistic children.

Courtesy photo
Bass player Corey MacGregor, lead singer and Baylor alumnus Pepper Berry and drummer Mark Di Benedetto make up Bobot Adrenaline, one of the many bands struggling to hit the big time in Hollywood.
"That's kind of how it works out here -- hopping from job to job," Burkholder said.

She initially went to California to pursue her acting career. And she, like many other notable alumni, is a testament to the perseverance and passion necessary to become something bigger, better, and let's just say it -- more powerful.

There are few cities with more allure than Los Angeles.

"It's just so diverse," 1989 alumnus Pepper Berry said. "What's in Los Angeles? Everything. Who's in Los Angeles? Everyone."

In the world of film production, music, movie stars and horrid traffic, a substantial number of Baylor alumni have found their home. And they each have a personal story of how they've survived the competitiveness.

Baylor alumni are working on nationally-acclaimed films. They're being asked for autographs. Sharing the red carpet, winning Emmys and getting tossed out of a club for refusing to leave P. Diddy's table ... twice.

Berry, who is part of a band called Bobot Adrenaline, does marketing and graphic work for a jewelry designer. He also does freelance graphic design on the side, all while managing his band career.

"It's incredibly easy to start a band. It's just as easy to make a record. It's just as easy to get a record deal, tour the country and get your song on TV or on the radio," Berry said. "But it's nearly impossible to make a living doing any of that, so be ready for it. You better love what you're doing."

Berry's band deals with socio-political issues, and one of its songs is featured on Tony Hawk's new video game, "American Wasteland."

It's evident these Baylor alumni have a love for what they are doing.

"You have to really love doing this. It's not a 9 to 5 weekday job." said Kristen Cox, 1994 alumna and now president and CEO of 16x9 Productions, Inc. "It'll put a strain on a marriage, keep you away from your friends and stress you out beyond what you think you can bear."

But, there are perks.

"I got paid to go to Russia for three weeks," Cox said. "I've hung out on the field with Camden Yards. I shot a NASCAR race from inside the pit. The perks are pretty darn cool."

Jim Hillin, aka Jimbo, graduated with a Bachelor's of Music Education degree and now works with visual effects for big-time productions.

He is working on his 17th film and has written 13 screenplays.

"It's feast or famine," Cox said. "When I have work, I'm terribly busy. When I don't have work, things get very tight. I never know when the next job will come or what it will be."

1995 alumnus Todd Deeken is the director of post production for New Line Cinema. Deeken said there is no better time than right out of college to move to California.

"It's a very difficult move and should be done with the fewest hindrances possible," Deeken said.

He also said that generally, people in Los Angeles do not hire anyone who isn't already working there.

"Accept the fact that you will have to move to California without a job," he said. "It's a tough leap to take ... but the sooner the better if you believe it's where you should be."

And it's a popular place for telecommunication graduates to be, which is why the growing alumni base in California is of great importance for people needing to get plugged in.

Burkholder, the unofficial coordinator for Baylor alumni in Los Angeles, loves having alumni get-togethers and said the response for the events are pretty good; anywhere from 50-95 percent of the people on the list attend.

"It's an interesting group for sure," Burkholder said. "From people who have Emmys and are meeting with Spielberg the next day, to a kid who hasn't landed his first gig yet. It's a lot of fun to see people network, build relationships and share stories."

Brian Elliot, senior lecturer of telecommunication at Baylor, explained how the large alumni base was built.

"As a few graduating seniors began to move out there, we made an effort to keep tabs on them, see how they were doing," Elliot said. "As these relationships grew, more connections were formed as well as renewed friendships with folks that had moved out there without us knowing about it."

It's turned into a Baylor community a thousand miles from Waco.

Elliot said the alumni get-togethers seem to happen about twice a year, not accounting for the numerous times the alumni connect outside of an official event.

Having newbie Californians rub elbows with more experienced alumni is of high importance.

"Couch surfing," a phrase Buckholder said means moving from apartment to apartment, is common in Los Angeles. One person's couch may become another's home for a while.

There are also some annoying aspects to note about Los Angeles.

2000 alumnus Jack Pyland and now post production coordinator for NBC's "Las Vegas," said his least-favorite part of living in California is "the crazy, knee-jerk reactionist people; the traffic; the fact that most people you meet are your competition and they view you that way."

The journey to Los Angeles is unique for every alumnus. 1990 graduate Orian Williams started out as business major and then changed to telecommunication after working on a movie called Action USA.

"This film was shot in Waco and literally had the worst story line ever. However, this job oddly changed my ideas about school and what I wanted to do with my life," Williams said.

Since becoming a film producer in California, he's been grateful for the 100 jobs he's had since the beginning. Each has been a stepping stone to something greater.

"I've learned a bit from every job. That path is bizarre and how I got here I have no idea, but it's cool to look back on the decisions I made to lead me to this place now," Williams said.

Pyland says there are two ways at approaching a potential move to California.

"Take the time to make something good, and I stress take the time. No matter what you're doing -- making a short film, a feature, music video, whatever -- research, write it out, make a shot list, make a shooting schedule, budget, scout location, find a good crew and make it," he said. "Get it shown to people and cross your fingers."

If that doesn't seem appealing, take option two.

"Move out here with the understanding that you're going to grind it out for a year, probably scrape by for at least six months, and meet as many people as you can, and figure out where you want to be and what you want to be doing, and who can help you get there," he said. "And again, cross your fingers."

It is indeed possible to "make it," as alumni have proved. And it's possible to fail. But the point? There's no harm in trying.

"Persistence is everything," Berry said. "Stick to it for a long time."