August 28, 1995 12:00 PM

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1981, AND like scores of other schoolkids, 15-year-old Charlie Estevez (he had not yet changed his name to Sheen) packed his bags and headed for the Mickey Owen Baseball School in Miller, Mo. A naughty fellow even then, Charlie was caught AWOL one night after he sneaked away from the Ozark campgrounds and headed into town. “We gave him two choices—go home or do extra stuff,” recalls school president Ken Rizzo. “He wanted to stay, so he had to scrape the cafeteria trays.” Thus, Estevez became known as “slop boy.”

Canoe trips, color wars and “Kumbaya” by the campfire: Like many of us common folk, Sheen and other celebs have fuzzy and sometimes not-so-warm memories of that annual rite of passage known as summer camp. Jamie Lee Curtis, Andrew Shue and Disney honcho Michael Eisner bunked for the season at exclusive sleep-away retreats. Others zeroed in on their passions. Bill Clinton mastered the sax at the University of Arkansas Music Camp Fayetteville, Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus practiced her serve at Sidwell Friends tennis camp in Washington, and Cindy Crawford flexed her gray matter at Colorado Spring’s Air Force Academy science camp, where the cadets nicknamed her Legs.

That so many celebs were happy campers is not mere coincidence, says Karenne Bloomgarden, president of KB Camp Service, a New York City referral agency, who believes that independent adventures provide future stars with their first real chance to shine. “Children experience success and failure with no parent there,” says Bloomgarden. “If you can do it at camp, you can do it anywhere.”

Take Michael Jordan. He was a little-known high school student heading into his senior year when he attended Five-Star basketball camp in Pittsburgh. “I saw him jump to take a shot, and he just exploded,” remembers codirector Howard Garfinkel of Jordan’s first session at camp. Chevy Chase was a counselor, not a camper, at Camp Tamakwa in Algonquin Park, Ont., but co-owner David Bale still remembers Chase’s bravura performance in West Side Story. “He was supposed to be a nondescript cop,” he says. “But at the end—Tony’s shot, Maria’s crying, music’s swelling—Chevy trips down the stairs in that obvious, staged way. It was hilarious.”

Budding talents weren’t always appreciated, however. Camp officials remember Robert Zimmerman crooning from a cabin roof at Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis., and the rabbi ordering him to get down and clam up; he later found better audiences when he became Bob Dylan. And thank goodness that campers at the Perry-Mansfield School of Theatre and Dance in Steamboat Springs, Colo., pleaded with Dustin Hoffman to concentrate on acting instead of drum playing. Pounding rhythms were equally unpopular with veteran hippie Wavy Gravy, proprietor of Camp Winnarainbow in Laytonville, Calif., who in the mid-’80s remembers Frank Wright III, now Tre Cool of the punk group Green Day, arriving with an entire drum set.

Some parents found it hard to say goodbye for the summer. When 11-year-old Candice Bergen was on a 30-mile horseback trek at Orme Summer Camp in Mayer, Ariz., her father, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, surprised her by driving up—with her wooden would-be brother Charlie McCarthy in tow. “We were out in the middle of I nowhere,” remembers camp director Ben Powers, “and he did a little skit!” For those who clutched their mommies’ apron strings, being on their own was sheer misery. “It was the first time away from home for a lot of them,” says actor Jeff Daniels of his bunkmates at Bruin Lake Boy Scout Camp in Gregory, Mich. “About half the boys sat in the tent and cried.” Conan O’Brien, who got a wicked sunburn one summer at Cragged Mountain Farm in Freedom, N.H., dealt with separation anxiety his own way. “I would think of fantasy situations, like a cholera outbreak,” he says. “My father, who’s a doctor, would rush up and save everybody, and I got to go home.” Still, O’Brien doesn’t plan to let his own miserable memories prevent his future offspring from checking out the call of the wild. “They have to suffer like I did,” he says. “That’ll be our bond.”

JANICE MIN with bureau reports

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