By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
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By LA Weekly
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A list of Hallee’s current faves: Cameron Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, Bobbie Gentry (“Ode to Billie Joe”) and Led Zeppelin. Caitlyn’s are all things Brittany Murphy (especially Girl, Interrupted), David Spade, Fight Club, Rufus Wainwright (a former Oakwood resident) and the Doors. Luke likes Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Audition by Takashi Miike, William Goldman’s book Which Lie Did I Tell?, The Band and Wes Anderson. Luke’s ideal career would be that of Owen Wilson, Vincent Gallo, Woody Allen or Mike White if he acted more.
Deedee Bradley admits that she has seen her fair share of it. “Sometimes I get some pretty scary parents. When that happens, I tell the agent right away. One time, I had a little 4-year-old that got slapped in the hallway. The kid didn’t want to audition and the mother hit her. My assistant told me about it. We called the agent and the agent dropped them. The agent was horrified. The agents that I deal with are real good, very reliable, very honest. They won’t handle kids and/or parents like that.”
Some parents, though, just recognize early on that acting is where their kids excel and make a decision to support it. When Hallee’s older brother switched from sports, which he wasn’t good at, to theater, where he shined, her parents noticed the change in him right away. “Greg is a very soulful person. It was making his personality,” explains Debbie Hirsh, a former Navy captain, from her sunny Toluca Lake kitchen. When their daughter decided to follow in her brother’s footsteps, the Hirshes were prepared.
The Toluca Hills Oakwood has been aggressively pursuing a child-actor clientele since the early ’90s, acquiring the domain name ChildActors.net and procuring relationships with SAG, child-actor advocate Paul Peterson, and kid agents and managers across the country.
Besides security and convenience, the Toluca Hills Oakwood offers acting and dance classes, child-rights advocacy seminars, schooling and the veritable rite of passage Sunday Brunch, where kids of all ages schmooze and line up for a continental breakfast of doughnuts, OJ and cereal. As well, there are the expected Oscar-viewing and holiday parties. And, this year, a particularly popular (not) teen meet-and-greet, a sort of group therapy/orientation which put the clubhouse karaoke mike to use. “All the kids just ended up freestyling,” recalls Hallee with a laugh.
“The parents would go crazy having their kids for a month or two at a hotel,” explains Joni Rodenbusch, the National Entertainment accounts manager, who, along with Oakwood’s activities director, Rose Forti, developed the specialized program. For the past few years, the child-actor business has consistently brought in more than a million dollars a year for the global corporation.
“Everyone just sort of ends up at the Oakwood,” explains Caitlyn. “A lot of the kids we hang around with don’t even live there anymore, but they come back just because that is where they meet all their friends. It’s kind of just like, ‘Oh, I have nothing to do, I’ll go to Oakwood.’”
One of Caitlyn’s favorite things about the Oakwood is that all different kinds of kids hang out here together. “Not like at school, where there are little cliques.”
That said, Caitlyn (who is thinking about changing her name to something catchier like Boston or Reggie), Luke and Hallee are part of a sort of core group around the Oakwood. A group that also includes 18-year-old Elyse Rogers, who has been coming out from Florida for six years, 16-year-old Rheagan Wallace, who lives here year round, and a bunch of boys who all have pretty big careers and no longer live here, including Aaron Himelstein (the young Austin in Austin Powers in Goldmember), Andrew McFarlin (The West Wing, My Wife and Kids) and Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle).
In their defense, much of the segregation arises from the fact that some 95 percent of the pilot-season kids are generally first-timers.
Rodenbusch explains that pilot season can serve as a filter, separating, as the saying goes, the boys from the men. If a pilot season goes well, a lot of parents will figure out something more permanent, and if it doesn’t go well they may rethink the whole endeavor.
Not everyone at the Oakwood is in show business, though. Forti, the 55-year-old activities director, is sort of an omnipresent Mrs. Garrett meets Julie McCoy. “Whenever I think of Rosie,” says one Oakwood kid, “I think of her taking something out of her bra. She uses her bra like a purse, and she’s always taking something out of it, like a camera or something huge, something you wouldn’t expect to be coming out of a bra.”
Forti, who has been a resident of various Oakwoods for 33 years, and worked for them for 30 — she’s been at this location for 17 — got her start in the Department of Recreation back in San Jose. “People always followed me,” the assertive Forti explains from her office, which is lined with 8-by-10s of kid actors, both former and current residents.
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