The two-week camp caters to teens with autistic spectrum disorders and their friends, though you'd have been hard-pressed to figure out who was who on the set. That, says Travolta, is exactly the point.
"I don't see a difference," says Travolta, "because I treat everyone the same."
Most children's film camps give each kid a video camera and send them out to do individual short films. Travolta uses a different approach, one that turned the classrooms and lawns of Moraga's bucolic private university into an actual working film set last week.
Just like the original "American Bandstand," the footage included commercials, music videos and a prize as enticing as the memorabilia they used to give out when "Bandstand" was a hit in the 1960s. The 1962 episode the kids watched the first day of camp featured "the towel that mopped the brow of all four Beatles," Travolta says, so he brought along an equally, er, fetching bit of memorabilia.
"John Travolta's dirty sock
A full-blown carnival blossomed on campus one afternoon as the set for a music video. A classroom scene, complete with eccentric science teacher, materialized another day. And "Joey's Super Ultra Mega Toothbrush Store" was the set for yet another.
"We did a little of everything," says Devin Morrissey, a Danville 14-year-old. "We had a blast."
"They brainstorm, storyboard, write, sing. As a group,they learn how to budget, how to break a script down," says Travolta. "When you're not included in a lot of things (at school), you don't learn to work with other people, to collaborate."
But the camp is "a safe place," he says, to contribute. Suddenly, even the quietest, most withdrawn teen opens up, floats ideas.
"Here, the kid who was a little different gets, 'Oh, that idea is brilliant!'" Travolta says.
The camp gives kids a feeling of accomplishment,too, says Molly Magoulas, 14.
"Knowing you made something, it's such a great feeling," the Oakland resident says. "We have a video camera,and I'd toyed with it, but now I have the experience."
This is the first time Travolta's film camp has come to the Bay Area, but the former special education teacher had been doing film workshops for actors and directors for years. Four years ago, his passion for film and for special ed kids came together unexpectedly.
He was helping his daughter organize a high school film festival when he got a call from a parent asking if he'd be interested in a film about autism, told from the point of view of an autistic teen -- her 15-year-old. Only problem was, the kid didn't know how to make a movie. Could Travolta help?
Travolta donated his crew and time to facilitate the film. The result was a 10-minute short and a good bit of press. When the doors opened for what the organizers thought would be an audience of 50, some 500 walked in. And then it got big.
Calls poured in, not just from autism groups here, but from Italy, India and Spain.
Travolta decided to launch a special film camp specifically for teens with high-functioning autistic spectrum disorders, including Asperger's. These kids have average to high intelligence -- some are utterly brilliant -- but may lack the empathetic social skills, for example, that allow them to interpret and react appropriately to other people's emotions. The brain of a typical child automatically organizes and prioritizes the constant barrage of sights, sounds and smells of daily life. Children on the autistic spectrum are overwhelmed.
But special education makes a tremendous difference in helping kids cope and surmount many of those challenges, doctors and parents say. And Travolta sees his camp as just another facet of that, something that plays to teens' strengths, helps them acquire new skills, have fun and make friends all at the same time.
Travolta does five teen film camps a year, including one for migrant workers' children, another for teens on an Indian reservation and three for autistic kids and their friends. And he started another film workshop in the Los Angeles area for young autistic adults making the transition to the working world.
Word about each of the camps spreads quickly, buzzing across phone lines to parents and kids alike. Clayton Valley High student Dylan Trent heard about the St. Mary's camp from his sister.
"'Oh heck yeah, I'll do it!'" Dylan remembers telling her. "And she was right. It's an amazing camp. I've made new friends. I've gotten to direct a video."
Come September, Travolta's young producers, directors and actors will get a taste of another Hollywood staple: the big film premiere. The college's Soda Center will assume the role of glitzy movie palace. And the kids?
"We're going to get a limo for them," Travolta says. "They'll go down the red carpet."
Reach Jackie Burrell at email@example.com.
For more information about Joey Travolta and his filmmaking camps, visit http://www.joeytee.com/camps.htm.