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Where Dreams Live
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000
TOLUCA HILLS, Calif. -- It's not something most people have to practice. But T.J. Beacom was working hard learning how to fall down.
T.J. knew this brief bit would be an opportunity to stand out -- even though this was just an acting workshop for up-and-coming young thespians.
He was going to play a vampire in a scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In it, Buffy -- played by another child -- would break his neck.
After a little experimentation, he settled on a sprawling, near-pratfall that came after her attack. It wasn't an Olivier moment, but for a gutsy preadolescent kid hoping to make an impression with just a few lines, it would do.
"I love this stuff . . . especially when you get work," said T.J., who eventually earned an audition for The Bold and the Beautiful through a different workshop performance. (He didn't get the role.) "I especially like meeting new people. It's just a great job."
More remarkable than the opportunity was its location: a small auditorium in the apartment complex where T.J. lives and pursues his acting ambitions.
This isn't your typical apartment complex. Located a stone's throw from Hollywood's biggest TV and film studios, its reputation drew T.J. and Debbie from their home in Redington Shores, along with parents and children from every corner of the nation.
Its roster of past tenants -- including The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment, Malcolm in the Middle's Frankie Muniz and The Wonder Years' Fred Savage -- reads like a who's who of kiddie Hollywood.
Its name: the Oakwood. A place where showbiz dreams meet Hollywood's reality.
Founded more than 30 years ago, this Los Angeles apartment complex -- one in a nationwide chain that offers monthly rentals to business types and others -- boasts a sprawling pool, well-furnished rooms and electronic gates with an on-site security force.
But it has also become an important resource for kid actors -- connecting tenants to casting directors, agents, managers, photographers, dance instructors, tutors and more through its Child Actors program.
The rent starts at $1,549 a month for a furnished studio apartment (without maid service, of course). The odds young actors face are long; the Screen Actors Guild says the average child will go on 49 auditions before landing a role.
But the Oakwood's value in helping aspiring youngsters reach for their dreams might be priceless.
"I always say the Oakwood is a learning ground, not a playground," quipped recreation director Rose Forti, a curious mix of den mother and drill sergeant for the families seeking fame and fortune at the complex.
"The first year they come is always a learning experience . . . learning where the casting calls are, forming support systems with other parents," she added. "And sometimes, the families you least expect are the ones that make it all happen."
Maybe T.J. could make it happen. By the time he did the vampire pratfall, he had already learned a central tenet of life at the Oakwood: Success takes perseverance, preparation and talent.
And a fair amount of cash.
A jumping off place
T.J.'s mom, Debbie Beacom, met June Kittay last summer on the Orlando set of the James Woods movie Race to Space, where T.J. and Kittay's 13-year-old son, Marc, played kiddie bullies.
Together, the two women had a brash idea -- to test their sons' acting dreams in Hollywood.
"I think, sometimes, it feels like I'm about to step off a balcony," said Debbie, a single mom who spent much of her savings to finance the trip west with T.J. "What little resources we have are gone. But I wanted to give my son an opportunity he might not otherwise have."
With a rail-thin figure and wide smile, Kittay, 50, of Tampa could be an actor herself (friends often tease her about her passing resemblance to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman star Jane Seymour). She has even thought of taking a few classes alongside her son.
For her, the trek to Los Angeles was a trial balloon, scheduled during Marc's vacation break at St. Mary's Episcopal Day School in Tampa, to gauge his chances for success in show business.
"You look at people . . . the teachers, the agents, the managers, and you ask, "Is my child the child?' " said Kittay, also a single parent, who started Marc in show business via a part in the Sarasota Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.
"Everybody tells me . . . nobody knows who has the talent," she added. "Nobody knows who's going to make it. It's a shot in a million. But then you realize, somebody's got to make it. . . . Why shouldn't it be your child?"
The two moms rented studio apartments at the complex; each is a tight, 406-square-foot space with a bed that folds into the wall and fully-equipped kitchen.
But the Oakwood's value lies not in its amenities but in its schmooze factor: here, aspiring actors like T.J. and Marc can rub shoulders with established names such as Osment and Muniz, who still visit the complex occasionally.
"Most of my friends who work (on Malcolm) still live there. . . . I lived there for three months last year," said Muniz of the Oakwood. "It's fun to just hang out there with kids my age. I guess, they understand a little more about (acting in Hollywood). You don't have to explain what you do."
Not every star has such rosy memories. Small Soldiers star Kirsten Dunst told the Los Angeles Daily News last year she hated the veiled competition and insincerity among many kids at the Oakwood.
Still, the Oakwood makes sense for some kids -- especially those from far away. St. Petersburg resident Phyllis Rogers is a four-year veteran of the Oakwood, where daughters Elyse, 15, and Erika, 10, are immersed in a showbiz society they could never find in Florida.
"(In Florida), they don't understand when you say, "I have to fly to California for two months to audition for parts and not get them,' " said Rogers, 38, who coordinates the kids' search for fame in California while dad, Ken, works in Florida as a mechanic for Delta Airlines. "Out here, she's in her element. . . . Everybody understands because they're all doing it."
The Rogers' story rings true in Florida, where the level of film and commercial TV production, particularly at Disney/MGM Studios and Universal Studios in Orlando, allows young children a shot at acting jobs they might not find elsewhere.
Eventually, the talented ones may try their luck in Hollywood, often with mom carting the kids west while dad stays behind, working a job that pays the considerable expenses involved.
"It would be nice to get at least one job that pays . . . to justify all this," said June Kittay, sighing. Like many Oakwood kids, Marc is bright, charming and at ease with adults, but still hasn't had his big break ("I'm getting used to the whole rejection thing," he joked).
"Right now, we're doing all the outlaying of money," his mom continued. "It would be nice to get one job and say . . . at least the kids earned some of that money back."
Not everybody makes it
To understand Rose Forti's role in all this, look at her office walls.
Covered with hundreds of head shots from hopeful Oakwood residents, Forti's tiny space is visible proof of the complex's success in attracting kiddie stars.
For nearly 30 years, she has served as recreation director at the Toluca Hills Oakwood, a sprawling facility that's walking distance from the Burbank TV and film studios operated by Warner Bros., Disney and Universal.
Though kid stars have flocked to the Oakwood for much longer, Forti began developing the complex's child actors' program about seven years ago. That's when executives realized how many young actors and parents were already staying there while auditioning for TV series pilots from January to May.
"Everyone comes here thinking they're going to be the next new face . . . and you can go on 100 auditions and never get a call back," said Forti, 52, who cautions parents to expect at least three months of pounding the pavement before the town opens up.
"I tell people, "Run it like a business, do your homework and be prepared,' " she added. "When you audition, know who the role is for, what they're doing. Always have head shots and a resume handy. You never know when or how things will happen, and you've got to be ready."
One of the biggest stresses for families is financial, Forti acknowledged. In a flash, she can do the math: Oakwood rooms cost $1,500 to $2,700 each month; head shots (by independent photographers) cost $150 to $300; classes/workshops are often $30 per session or $100 for four sessions; tutors (the same teachers who school stars on TV and movie sets) cost $150 per week.
When it's all done, a family can easily spend $10,000 for a three-month stay, and never get a single paying acting job.
"You hear people talk about stage moms . . . but they're usually just trying to do something for the kid that they want . . . just like (other moms) do soccer or baseball," she added. "Most families see this as an avenue for (financing) a college degree."
But there's a dark side to this fairy tale, which is why Forti occasionally taps experts like Paul Petersen.
Petersen, who played straight-arrow son Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show in the '50s and '60s, in 1991 founded A Minor Consideration -- a non-profit group dedicated to helping current and former child actors, many of whom lost fortunes to abusive parents or scheming managers.
"If children come here accompanied by parents who are not taking a leave of absence from a good job, they're at risk," noted Petersen, who says his mother forced him into acting. "If parents have good jobs . . . careers, some experience with money management . . . then the kids don't feel like they're the only hope for the family."
Petersen criticizes parents who sign too quickly with shady managers, arguing that they're not needed until an actor has a career to manage.
He'll confront families who spend their children's college money chasing stardom ("Instead of spending $3,000 on a chancy dream, why not spend it on your own career?" he tells them. "Wouldn't that help the family more?")
And he can be brutal when assessing the odds of success, even for gifted kids.
"Most kids who come to Hollywood never get a job . . . and of those who do get work, statistics tell us one in five are gone in a year," Petersen added. "I support children in this business, (but) when a 6-year-old tells you she wants to be in show business, you have to take a step back. Because no 6-year-old makes a decision like that on their own."
A real live stage mother
That attitude rankles Gail Pyfrom, whose children all have worked as actors in TV and film.
The Pyfrom clan could be a poster family for the Oakwood. They stayed at the complex during their first few visits to Hollywood before moving to a cheaper, one-bedroom apartment years ago.
While husband Flip Pyfrom works in Tampa as a physical therapist's assistant, Gail, son Shawn and daughter Amber spend 10 months a year in Los Angeles. Though Shawn, 14, has earned roles on 7th Heaven, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Touched By an Angel and the film Pay It Forward, the kids still bunk on a fold out couch and trundle bed in the small apartment.
With a no-nonsense attitude and sharp focus, Gail Pyfrom is mom-as-CEO, working the industry from a home computer and fax machine perched on a tiny card table in the corner of their living room.
She's also chauffeur and tutor, ferrying the kids to auditions (sometimes up to five a day) while home-schooling both youngsters. Flip Pyfrom visits every two or three months.
"My gut feeling is that if the kids didn't like it, once they went behind the casting director's door, it would show," she said (parents are rarely allowed in the same room when children audition). "Casting directors can tell. If the child is successful, he or she really wants to keep doing it."
The room was crowded and stuffy, but June Kittay was trying to stay upbeat.
She and son Marc had come to this casting workshop, dubbed To The Top, with modest hopes: pick up a few pointers, maybe make a contact or two.
They had already paid $125 for six classes here -- a frenetic, disorganized space shoehorned inside two tiny rooms of a crumbling office building at a legendary showbiz address: Hollywood and Vine.
They came expecting an audience with an experienced casting director affiliated with Alliance Films.
But a last-minute cancellation forced the company to find a substitute; an independent producer whose past projects included such highbrow fare as The Mother Goose Workout.
With the hiss of a breathing machine in the background -- a relative of one aspiring actor observing the class was in a wheelchair, breathing with help from a respirator -- Marc learned the lines to a short scene and ran it with a pal for the producer.
It didn't even matter whether the producer liked Marc's work. Since the guy doesn't use union actors, Marc couldn't work on one of his productions without risking his Screen Actors Guild membership.
"We're not too happy right now," a visibly disappointed June Kittay admitted after leaving the session. "The (classes) are usually better than this."
Debbie Beacom said she learned long ago to avoid such setups (the Oakwood doesn't guarantee the services of any company -- even To The Top, which places fliers in the complex to solicit clients).
"You read the schedule and it says "Casting director from so-and-so,' then you get there, and it's their secretary. . . . Sometimes you feel like they're hoodwinking you," Beacom added. "It's a way to make money off the people who are new in town."
Thanks partly to the bitter strike by actors' unions against TV commercial production (often the best entry-level acting job in Hollywood), both boys found little prospects for summertime work.
By late August, the Kittays had headed back to Tampa, just in time for Marc to start seventh grade at St. Mary's. They hope to return next year.
But T.J. and Debbie Beacom remain at the Oakwood, encouraged by a recent audition for Touched By an Angel and a small part on Malcolm in the Middle.
T.J. has cleared an important hurdle by getting an agent and manager, whom he found partly through connections at the Oakwood. The Beacoms hope the coming pilot season and recent resolution of the strike will bring more work.
"There have been times I've wondered . . . "Is this happening because I'm leading the way? Am I doing this to fulfill my own dreams through my child?' " Beacom said.
"But when I see how much he enjoys it, I realize . . . maybe it is me, but it's also him," she added. "And if I can give my son an opportunity to be in a profession that can make his life easier, or give him something he enjoys, I have to do it."
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