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On Wednesday, two thousand screaming teens, a few dozen parents and one dubious movie critic converged on Ronnie's Cine to meet Zac Efron, star of "High School Musical' and the upcoming drama "Charlie St. Cloud." None of them came away disappointed.
Efron flew to St. Louis to preview his new movie for contest winner Emily Johnson, a senior at St. Joseph's Academy, and 100 of her closest friends. But even though a rain shower delayed his arrival by about an hour, Efron made time to shake hands, sign autographs and pose for photos on the red carpet with the fans who were stuck outside.
I've been to several similar events, from the "Game of Their Lives" premier in St. Louis (where a little-known Gerard Butler rehearsed the smile that has served him well in his subsequent ascendance) to the Oscars in Hollywood (where in 2008 I glimpsed a beaming Efron and girlfriend Vanessa Hudgens in the procession); but I don't think I've ever seen such positive vibes flowing in both directions.
Efron spent at least half an hour communing with fans (and he even pulled a pint-size girl out of harm's way in the front of the scrum).
Among the fans was Daniela Nieves, a 15-year-old from Venezeula who is spending the summer with her aunt Angela in St. Louis. Coincidentally, Daniella had brought on the trip to America her Zac Efron doll and framed photo. Daniela and her souvenirs were at the front of the barricades Wednesday, and after a long, rainy wait she was rewarded with an up-close encounter--and tickets to the movie from an anonymous benefactor.
I wasn't one of the lucky few who previewed the movie; yet some fans said I was the luckiest of all, because I was granted 15 minutes to chat with Zac before he hopped on a plane to an event in Chicago.
While "Charlie St. Cloud" screened in an adjoining theater, I was ushered into Ronnie's birthday-party room (I kid you not) to interview its star.
We talked about fun things like baseball and drive-in movie theaters (both of which he enjoys) and serious things like fame and death (both of which are on his mind as he transitions from a teen-idol to the grown-up star of a movie about grief).
Between us was a giant bucket of popcorn; and after we shook hands and wished each other well, I realized I had inherited a coveted collectible.
In front of the theater, where diehards still lingered after Efron's Escalade departed, I was asked about the bucket by fans I had previously interviewed.
"This is Zac Efron's popcorn," I told them.
Suddenly I was besieged by offers. I distributed handfuls of popcorn to pleading teens (one of whom actually stuffed some fluffy kernels into the wasitband of her shorts). Then I adjourned to the nearby TGIFriday's, where studio insiders assured me that Zac Efron had been a genuinely nice guy.
A real doll.
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