News Column

Lil P-Nut stays humble as his star continues to rise

July 18, 2013

YellowBrix

July 18--At a 1920 convention, George Washington Carver revealed 145 uses for the common peanut.

Today, Benjamin Flores Jr. seems determined to demonstrate the similar adaptability of his alter ego, Lil P-Nut.

The pint-size Memphis entertainer with the legume-inspired nickname has been a rapper, commercial pitchman, cartoon voice actor (in the sequel "Happy Feet Two"), scene-stealing TV guest star, FedExForum Grizzlies game-time crowd-rouser and duet partner with the late Bobby "Blue" Bland.

But wait, there's more: P-Nut -- who celebrates his 11th birthday Tuesday -- this week became more visible than ever on a national level by materializing on network television as a character invisible to most of his co-stars.

Billed as Benjamin "Lil P-Nut" Flores Jr., P-Nut stars as a wisecracking and stubborn but lovable little ghost named Louie (after Louis Armstrong) in "The Haunted Hathaways," a live-action situation comedy on the Nickelodeon network.

The premiere episode Saturday night attracted "a spirited" 3.3 million viewers, according to a boastful Nickelodeon news release. For the Viacom-owned network, that represents a triple-digit increase over last year in percentages of viewers for the time slot, suggesting "The Haunted Hathaways" may be a hit. The "Hathaways" will continue to haunt the Nick schedule at 7:30 p.m. each Saturday for the remainder of its 20-episode first season.

P-Nut's Louie is the only ghost on the program who relishes his Halloween appeal. "Time to get my scare on!" he says in the debut episode. Unfortunately, P-Nut is not so much spooky as "somebody's apparent reincarnation of Gary Coleman," in the words of syndicated TV columnist Kevin McDonough. Instead of being frightened, a little girl who encounters Louie squeals: "You are adorable!"

"My character is a mean ghost, and he always wants to scare people, but every time he wants to turn himself into something scary, he turns into something funny," said P-Nut, who becomes a banana, a bunny rabbit and a fairy princess -- his comic drag includes a tiara and a wand -- in the first episode.

Not all of Louie's tricks are failures, however. In the show's first scene, he pops off his head (with the aid of digital effects), and green ectoplasm oozes from the stump of his neck.

"He's a beginning ghost," P-Nut explains. "He doesn't know how to control his powers."

P-Nut, however, does seem in control, thanks to the help of sympathetic parents and skilled agents. His success has led the Flores family to Hollywood, following a trail blazed by such other Memphis-area natives turned Nickelodeon and Disney stars as Lucy Hale and Olivia Holt. The family -- parents Ursula and Benjamin Flores and sister Melissa Flores, 15 -- recently relocated to a Los Angeles apartment, the better to support P-Nut's career. (They may need a bigger place eventually: P-Nut's little brother is due Aug. 31.)

"We asked P-Nut if this is what he really wanted to do, and he said yes," said dad Benjamin Flores Sr., 35. "We said, 'OK, if this is what you want to do, we'll support you.' We're behind him, and we're watching over him, 24/7."

Supporting a kid is not the same as spoiling him, Flores is quick to add.

"We keep him humble; we keep him respectful. I think the first thing is making sure that me and my wife, that we stay humble, because if he sees us change, he's going to change." He said Hollywood producers so far are impressed by his son's "humbleness and charm, that Southern hospitality that you get from growing up in Memphis."

Of course, the Flores family will return to the Bluff City with some frequency to visit grandparents and other relatives.

Said P-Nut: "Los Angeles is nice, I love it out here, but I still got that place in my heart for my hometown. I still got love for my town."

The "star" life is nothing the Flores family had expected. Benjamin Flores was a shipping supervisor for a furniture company and Ursula Flores a dispatcher for a cab service when Lil P-Nut -- his nickname a gift from an uncle, "who said he had a head like a peanut" -- began rhyming and rapping, and proving himself "very gifted," his dad said.

Benjamin Flores said he spurred P-Nut's interest in rap by making up rhymes to help his son learn his math lessons. Unhesitantly breaking from his shell, P-Nut embraced rap, becoming a school, neighborhood and eventually city celebrity by the time he was 6.

YouTube videos, homemade hip-hop songs and crowd-pleasing appearances on Ellen DeGeneres' talk show led to his recruitment to be the voice of Atticus, a rapping penguin, in the digitally animated "Happy Feet Two" (2011), an assignment that brought him into contact with such fellow cast members as Robin Williams, Elijah Wood and Brad Pitt. P-Nut is now represented by the Osrick Agency, an L.A. talent agency that works primarily with child stars.

"It's just amazing to me; I still can't get over it," Flores said of his son's success.

Like many other Nickelodeon programs, "The Haunted Hathaways" is something of a throwback to an earlier, more innocent sitcom era of aggressive laugh tracks, bright studio lighting, rapid-fire gags and happily resolved conflicts. Its supernatural themes may remind parents of such predecessors as "Bewitched," "The Addams Family," "Topper" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

Set in New Orleans but shot on the Paramount lot in L.A., the program introduces a newly divorced mom (Ginifer King) who relocates to a cobwebby new home in the Big Easy with her two daughters, a teenage gymnast (Amber Montana) and a precocious preteen (Breanna Yde).

Unfortunately, the home already is occupied by the ghostly trio of a jazz musician, Ray Preston (Chico Benymon), and his two sons, P-Nut's rascally Louie and a cheerful teenager named Miles (Curtis Harris). By the end of Episode 1, the deceased Prestons and the breathing Hathaways are reconciled, even if Louie disrupts a family meal by making a baked chicken jump up and dance about the dinner table on its drumstick legs.

As in a "Casper" cartoon, the underlying morbidity of the theme is not addressed. P-Nut says he doesn't know when or how his character kicked the bucket. "He might have drowned," P-Nut theorized. "They don't tell me."

Whatever Louie's origin, P-Nut loves the character's supernatural ability. (In other words, you'll believe a P-Nut can fly.)

"There's a lot of cool things that come with it," he said. "It's fun, you get to fly and levitate." The flying effects are sometimes shot against a green screen, with the background footage added later, but sometimes P-Nut actually is strapped into a harness and hoisted into the air. "The harness is pretty fun 'cause I'm up in the sky and looking down on everyone. Once you see the show, it's mind-blowing."

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(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

Visit The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.) at www.commercialappeal.com

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