November 13, 1978 12:00 PM

There is no crueler crapshoot than trying to make it in the entertainment business. Jilly Rizzo, a Frank Sinatra satrap, sold in 1975 a joint around the corner from the place that became Studio 54. Pierre Cossette, the developer of Ann-Margret, five years ago sought to create another superstar, “The New American Hero” no less, with a debut TV spectacular. Cossette’s find, singing cowboy Neely Reynolds by name, eventually retreated, emotionally shattered and broke, to his home in Dallas. (He is now planning a comeback in Nashville despite feeling “paranoid” from his earlier experience.) Indeed, promoters and hopefuls spring eternal, and this month Rizzo and Cossette have fresh singing discoveries they are seeking to break via splashy CBS specials. Their two unknowns—Marlene Ricci from Buffalo and Mark Holden from Australia, both 24—are now poised like Neely: reaching for the brass ring and dreading the gong.

Marlene Ricci should have known something big was afoot last April when she spotted the card on the flowers in her dressing room. “I couldn’t figure out who Francis Albert was,” she admits. “I felt so dumb.”

Yet who can blame Marlene for not knowing what to call Ol’ Blue Eyes? Just months before, she was singing on the Ramada Inn circuit. Then Rizzo spotted her in a Vegas lounge and beseeched Sinatra to come hear her. Reports Jilly: ” ‘Mr. S’ [as he refers to the man] about fell out of his chair. He said, ‘This gal can’t miss.’ ” Mr. S indeed booked Marlene as his opening act, and next CBS picked Marlene over 25 performers to play the ingenue lead in last week’s Cinderella at the Palace. With host Gene Kelly and cameo co-stars like Ann-Margret, Paul Anka, Andy Williams and Sinatra, Marlene gulps, “I’m learning fast.”

The process has also brought future shock. Marlene’s boyfriend and ex-manager, Jim Burgett, 42, has quietly stepped aside while Rizzo has taken over her career. “But we’re not going to change her,” Jilly cautions, “just her clothes and her hair.” Actually, it was Frank’s wife, Barbara, who took care of the latter, flying the petite (5’2″, 105 lbs.) Marlene into Vidal Sassoon’s in L.A. Sinatra has himself given her performing tips.

Not every aspect of Ricci’s Vegas life-style is approved by her Catholic parents back in Buffalo, where her father drove a bulldozer. They’ve yet to adjust to her unwed, four-year relationship with Burgett, a divorcé with three daughters, the eldest just a year younger than Marlene. Jim and Marlene toured earlier as “a reverse Sonny and Cher act,” she explains. “We could have played motels for the next 50 years. It’s good money.” But now, at their four-bedroom home outside Vegas, Burgett has temporarily dropped out of performing to spend hours on the phone with Rizzo mulling Marlene’s career. She believes “all of the decisions remain with the artist,” but Jim interjects, “That’s not always true as you go along. Every move right now is important. If they want you to jump, you’ve got to jump.” A record contract is the next step for Ricci, who wants “50 hits so I can play big arenas.” Family? “I used to think, well, I could always get married and have kids,” says Marlene. “Now I want to wait until my career is more successful and I’m a name. Then I can have a nanny.”

Mark Holden has a right to feel ‘supernervous’

Mark Holden just wrote a song called If I Wasn’t Living This, I Would Swear It Was a Lie—and it’s no wonder. After a career that never lifted off Down Under, he arrived in L.A. last May as a tourist. Mark happened to call his one contact in the record industry, who led him to producer Cossette, then searching for a totally unexposed (not even a Merv credit) actor-singer. The result: Holden makes his U.S. debut full-blown on national television in CBS’s Hollywood’s Diamond Jubilee extravaganza Nov. 11. “I’m hoping that by the end of the night Mark Holden will be on his way to becoming a superstar,” proclaims Cossette. For Pierre, “It’s no different from Faberge packaging a new perfume; if the raw material isn’t there, you can’t do anything. But Mark has leading-man quality.”

Mark understandably feels “super-nervous” under the pressure. In meetings with the TV production staff now choreographing his life, he found “I had things to contribute, but things became so confused I decided to let them all talk.” His main effort now, Holden says, “is catching up. Everyone I work with here is so talented I could hardly sing at first.” He has enrolled in acting classes, started working out at the Y, and “turned into a health nut. I must have my body together, to knuckle down and focus my discipline.” So disciplined, in fact, that Mark doesn’t have a lady.

The hyped-up pace is a jolt after Australia. The son of a suburban Adelaide architect, Mark chucked law school in his third year to van around the country, singing where he could, “sleeping on the floor at a friend’s flat or in a hotel if someone else was paying the bill.” He cut a record that “bombed,” then saved his money to come to the U.S.

Now his temporary home is a small Laurel Canyon cottage, from which he sallies forth on moviegoing excursions. (A film buff, his biggest thrill yet came during his TV taping when he met Bette Davis, who told him: “I envy you the challenge.”) Cossette is talking about a movie-of-the-week for Mark, “then maybe even a summer variety show.” Yet, with only a one-year contract, Holden has no guarantees. “I might never work again, and by next Christmas I could be dead broke,” he admits. “I’m an alien in another country a long way from home and the people who care about me. I just hope I can cut it here. Otherwise, I’d have to go home and bury myself in Adelaide.”

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