April 30, 1990 12:00 PM

Before reporting this week’s story on Young Hollywood, New York City-based special correspondent Michael Small had made previous forays to that strange yet familiar land, interviewing Joni Mitchell, Ray Davies—and dozens of Madonna wannabes at the Material Girl’s 1985 concert. On those occasions, L.A. grew too much for the man. “I didn’t understand it at all,” says Small, who grew up in Concord, N.H., and Topsfield, Mass. “It looked like northern New Jersey. One giant suburb.”

This time he not only got to the heart of the town, he got under it. Working his way through a series of subterranean clubs and coffeehouses, he got to hang with a new generation of actors and musicians who are abandoning the Tinseltown legacy of excess and glitz in favor of simpler, but funkier, living. “I was really surprised by how clean-cut everyone was,” says Small, who in 1984 covered New York’s far grittier East Village club scene.

Before he came to PEOPLE as a researcher in 1980, Small, 32, had only rubbed elbows with the stars—though he did that literally, at Harvard, where he wrote for the Harvard Lampoon. “Robert Redford came to school to talk about the environment,” he recalls. “I sat next to him, and my elbow was in all the pictures.” As he moved through the ranks of PEOPLE up to senior writer, Michael became known for his ability to spot new talent (an expert on New York’s downtown art scene, he also reviews alternative bands for Picks & Pans). Now he’s proving his own new talent: The Cool Club, a play he has written about an imagined East Village nightclub, will be performed in New York this June.

“Michael’s own interests coincide with those of the young stars, which gave him an unusual access to their world,” says senior editor Susan Toepfer. “He is also as far as you can get from the image of the insensitive reporter. Michael doesn’t chase people through restaurants. He’s someone you’d invite to dinner.”

Sizing up the new scene proved educational for Small. “Before I went out I didn’t know Keanu Reeves from Rex Reed,” says Michael. Then, one afternoon on Melrose Avenue, he drove by Drew Barrymore, who waved and yelled, “Michael, how are you?” Says Small: “That’s when I finally felt a little bit part of it.”

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