She wants to be famous like the kids on Glee. So, along with hundreds of other child actors staying at the Oakwood Toluca Hills apartment complex, Isabella Balbi — a 12-year-old girl from Miami with enormous brown eyes — has left her life behind to come out to Hollywood for TV-pilot season. Before she arrived in L.A., an agent told her she’d never work in this town with braces. So those had to come off early. And her father, Roger, lost his job in the mortgage industry and had to tap into his retirement funds to pay for the trip. On their second day in California, the Balbis’ house in Florida was burglarized and they lost everything from the plasma TV to Mom’s wedding ring. ”But we’re on a mission,” says Roger. Isabella smiles nervously next to him. During their first week at Oakwood, she signed with Coast to Coast, an agency that has represented Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin.
If Hollywood is the city of dreams, then Oakwood is the school-cafeteria heart of all that energy and yearning. Pick any former child star — Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams, or Miley Cyrus, say — and it’s a safe bet that they spent some of their formative years living in one of Oakwood’s clean and blandly furnished month-to-month rentals. It’s February when I visit — the peak month of casting for new television shows — and two current residents, both teenagers with guest-starring roles on Disney Channel shows on their résumé speak of it as hallowed ground. ”All I know is Zac Efron stayed here,” says one girl. (He didn’t, but he did film a pilot here.) ”And the fact that Kurt Cobain stayed here is kind of a plus too.” Her friend nods her doll-like head: ”They stayed here when they recorded Nevermind. It was on their E! True Hollywood Story and everything. Everybody starts out at Oakwood.” Nobody brings up tragic Corey Haim, who was driven out of Oakwood in an ambulance in 2010.
Oakwood Worldwide is a corporate housing giant with 25,000 temporary-living locations throughout the world. The Toluca Hills outpost, perched on a hill between Hollywood and Burbank, was never intended to be a destination for aspiring child stars. When Oakwood’s activities director, Rosie Forti — a 64-year-old former seamstress with bad knees and a dramatic swoosh of white across her short black hair — first joined the company back in 1973, her job was to amuse a population of swinging singles. ”It was just a free-for-all,” recalls senior property manager Brett Hughett. That changed in 1988, when the Fair Housing Act added an amendment that made it illegal to deny housing to families with children.
Presented with a sudden opportunity to drum up new business, Oakwood started sending out letters to talent managers and agents, encouraging them to funnel young talent its way. The apartment complex sits less than a mile up the hill from major networks and studios such as Universal and Warner Bros. When not venturing out to meetings or auditions, overwhelmed families new to Los Angeles could comfortably nest behind Oakwood’s security gates, availing themselves of the many on-site conveniences: a store; a hair salon; a dance floor; a dry cleaner; two pools; two gyms with private trainers; basketball, tennis, and volleyball courts; and a rental-car service. ”Plus,” says Hughett of the company’s pitch, ”we had Rosie.”