By Richard K. Rein
Updated July 12, 1982 12:00 PM

Decked out in her red Annie dress, her curly Annie stretch wig and a smile as inevitable as tomorrow, freckle-faced Aileen Quinn, 11, props up her right leg on a chair and—Yikes!—her dress hitches up a notch. “Psst, the leg,” comes an urgent whisper from Aileen’s mother, Helenann Quinn, 34, who keeps a vigilant eye on such lapses. The offending gam drops to the floor in a flash, but don’t worry, Mom. The 4’2″, 60-pound star of the mega-musical Annie isn’t going the Brooke Shields route. She was simply positioning a fan’s autograph book on her knee for yet another signature-sketch (see above). “Autographs are pretty easy and you get to talk to people while you sign them,” she says. Later on she concedes, “I haven’t really had a chance to meet anyone, but I do say ‘Hi.’ ”

These days, of course, it’s “Hi” noon, morning and night for Aileen as she takes to the road for Annie. This was to have been the summer that a wide-eyed, four-foot movie charmer would break audience hearts and box office records. Unfortunately, so far an extraterrestrial has been doing that—not the engaging moppet from Yardley, Pa. Unlike E.T., Annie opened to some disappointing reviews and less than blockbuster business. That can mean a hard-knock life for a movie costing more than $40 million (the most expensive musical ever), plus $10 million for ads. There’s also cause for concern among the 50 companies cranking out some 350 Annie products from dolls to lunch boxes. Columbia Pictures believes word of mouth from its review-proof kiddie audience eventually will save the day. But now that co-stars Albert Finney, Carol Burnett and Ann Reinking have finished their promo chores, little Aileen is having to duke it out on her own for Annie’s sake.

Quinn, who beat out some 9,000 contenders for the $100,000 role, is up to the task. She travels light on tour. A hairdresser (or Mom) helps Aileen fit the red wig she now wears (her naturally straight brown hair was dyed for the movie). She also carries a supply of tooth whitener. “I bring it for the cameras, so my teeth will have that extra sparkle,” she explains. Riding in a limousine with a reporter, Aileen even snuggles into the journalist’s lap in order to supervise the note taking. “I like interviews,” she says. “I like it all.”

Her one break from the dozens of personal appearances that began six weeks ago in New York, L.A. and Dallas was a tough one. During a week’s vacation in May, Aileen fractured her left arm in a fall from her bike and needed a four-day hospital stay. Five weeks later Aileen, arm in sling, left for London’s royal premiere of Annie. In October she begins a two-month promotional tour of Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and six European cities. “I didn’t foresee all this,” says mom Helenann. “I thought she was going to do the film and then we were going home.” Still, Helenann views the job as a lifetime opportunity. So does Aileen. “It’s not work, it’s fun,” she beams.

Aileen handles herself with daunting aplomb for a kid with no experience beyond local amateur productions, a few commercials (Planters Cheez Balls, Shake ‘n Bake) and six months as an orphan understudy in Broadway’s Annie. Until the L.A. filming, she had seldom left suburban Yardley (pop. 2,533), where she lives in an 11-room mock-Tudor home with Helenann, an actress turned elementary schoolteacher, her father, Andrew, 39, an executive with GE’s aerospace division, and brother Drew, 7, a fellow student at Grey Nun Academy, a local parochial school.

Helenann admits Aileen got interested in performing, at 7, by watching her in amateur stage productions. And, yes, she encouraged Aileen to take dance lessons. But forget the stage mother label. “Aileen wanted it,” she protests. “I’m more concerned with her education and her development into a good human being.” On the road their schedule always includes Sunday Mass and a return home for all major religious holidays. The whole family will travel together on overseas trips. “We try to keep our family together,” adds Helenann. “Show business is something we enjoy, but it is not the stem of our life.”

Their family is, and the Quinns guard their home privacy fiercely. Aileen’s room is a pink-and-red preteen dream with a canopy over her bed and bookshelves stuffed with dolls. Aileen does her own cleaning up. For fun, she loves jacks, bike riding and sleepovers—a big deal, she says, with fifth graders. “You stay up all night until 5 o’clock and talk about everything.” Boys? “Not as girlfriend and boyfriend,” she says shyly. “They’re out of my life for now. I’m sure that when I get older things might change.” A major crisis for Aileen during the Annie filming concerned her friend, Amanda Cannon. “I didn’t want to leave her. I thought she wouldn’t like me anymore,” she says. Aileen prayed “she would still like me. Then I got a letter from her saying, ‘I’m still your best friend.’ I think she is. She seems to be.”

The uncertainty apparently derives from the long time Aileen has been away from home. Besides the Annie tour, Aileen already has taped an Andy Williams Christmas special and commercials for Minute Maid orange juice and is recording an LP of upbeat songs—not those from Annie. She also writes short stories. Her favorite, she confides, is about a little girl who turns into a couch. Then everybody sits on her. The symbolism is not lost on Helenann. “I’d like her to enjoy childhood and have fond memories of it,” she says. There doesn’t seem much time. There’s talk of an Annie II, and Aileen has just been signed for a new film comedy, Full House, to be directed and written by David (Superman) Newman. For now, at least, there’s the summer. “So far I like being an actress,” says Aileen, “but right now I just want to be a kid.”