- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

LOS ANGELES — From the street, it may look like just another sprawling L.A. apartment complex, but to a kid with dreams of stardom, it’s the Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.

Oakwood Toluca Hills is the place where wannabe child stars arrive by the hundreds every year to take up residence as they take a shot at becoming famous.

“Everyone in the business, everyone who knows about acting, knows about it,” says teen star Devon Werkheiser, who arrived four years ago with his mother and with one small film role to his credit. He left for better digs after he landed the starring role in one of the most popular teen shows on television, Nickelodeon’s “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide.”

Just one visit to the complex of 1,151 furnished residences carved into a section of the Hollywood Hills reveals this is no ordinary cluster of three-story beige-and-tile apartment buildings.

Around the pools, in the clubhouses, at the barbecues, they are everywhere: curly haired, freckle-faced, good-looking youngsters. They are outgoing, friendly and a lot like the people you see on TV — and sometimes they are.

Typical of the 400 to 500 child actors living at Oakwood at any given time is 14-year-old Vincent Martella, who arrived during TV pilot season five years ago from his native Florida, hoping to land a TV role.

“I was doing commercials in Florida, and I came out here because I wanted to do television and movies, and I knew this is where I had to be,” he says over Sunday brunch at one of the complex’s two clubhouses. The clubhouses also double as theaters for karaoke night, classrooms for student-actors away from home and the setting for the complex’s very own Academy Awards night.

Vincent struck out at the auditions that first year, but the cherubic-faced actor came back the next year and landed a few parts. He finally grabbed the brass ring the third year, winning a co-starring role on the hit TV series “Everybody Hates Chris,” playing opposite Tyler James Williams as Chris’ only friend

Not everyone who comes to Oakwood becomes a star or even a working actor. Vincent’s father, Michael Martella, isn’t sure how many years they would have kept returning if his son hadn’t broken through.

“You’ve got to know when to cut loose, I guess,” Mr. Martella says with a shrug.

Time is of the essence in Hollywood, where pilot season (January through April) passes quickly and the cost of a studio apartment at Oakwood runs a little more than $2,100 a month. Even teenage actors here are reminded that they get older every day and thus quickly learn to sidestep questions about their ages.

“If you’re not financially solid, I don’t think you can stay here,” says Hope Pease, whose 12-year-old son, Gary, has appeared on “Hannah Montana” and other shows.

Still, they keep coming from all over the country. Cars parked around the complex display license plates from Utah, Texas, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, among other places.

“I’m originally from Covington, Indiana, which is a small little town, so it was a big jump, you know, coming out here to L.A., to the big city and everything,” says Hayley Holmes, a hazel-eyed, honey-haired teenager who has had a recurring role on the series “Trapped in TV Guide” and has appeared in music videos, TV shows and commercials since arriving nearly 18 months ago.

“I’ve been very fortunate in the short time I’ve been out here to be able accomplish so many different things,” she says, adding that acting has been a dream “ever since I was a little girl.”

It’s a dream not many will achieve, says Paul Petersen, founder of the child-actor advocacy group A Minor Consideration and himself one of the biggest child stars of the 1950s and 1960s.

“A fairly small percentage will even get a theatrical agent,” says Mr. Petersen, who was precocious son Jeff Stone on TV’s long-running “The Donna Reed Show.” “The common thread of those who succeed is a level of talent that is extraordinary.”

That doesn’t mean, he adds with a rueful chuckle, that any of them will stop coming to Hollywood and, in turn, to Oakwood, which has capitalized on the niche and helps the young hopefuls meet legitimate casting directors and get valuable advice on such concerns as finding honest agents.

“When they recognized the true nature of their client base, kids coming out for a chance at the gold ring, they stepped up to the plate,” Mr. Petersen says of the complex’s managers.

So at the end of the day, after grueling, often disappointing auditions, $100-an-hour acting lessons and expensive photo shoots, young actors can live like stars, enjoying volleyball, tennis, swimming, parties and other amenities.

If they want, they can gaze at the walls of Oakwood’s offices for inspiration; checking out head shots of former residents, including Hilary Duff and Jennifer Love Hewitt. Mitchell Musso of “Hannah Montana,” Frankie Muniz, Kirsten Dunst and, going back a few years, actor-director Fred Savage, whose breakout hit was the 1980s show “The Wonder Years,” also stayed there.

But there are plenty more who don’t score hits.

As he prepares to pack up and return to Florida, Michael Coates expresses some disappointment that although his 15-year-old daughter, Amber Rose, landed several auditions, she didn’t come away with a part.

“Still, she’s gotten a taste of just how difficult this business may be to break into, and that’s good,” Mr. Coates says, adding that they may be back next year.

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