The model home as theater? After three successful “shows” in which a team of actors posed as a family of four while home buyers browsed the model, Centex Homes' Los Angeles/Ventura County division is ready to embrace the novel concept and make it into a road show. The question is will it play in Sheboygan? After all, this is Hollywood, not Wisconsin.

“We see a lot of benefits,” says Amanda Larson, the division's marketing director. “We like it, and people like it because they can picture themselves in the home and learn more about it. From what they're telling us, it's been a positive experience.”

The idea for the model home improv came from the division's advertising and public relations agency, Roddan Paolucci Roddan—which Centex charged to come up with a fresh way to warm up the largest model at the company's Milestone community in Santa Clarita, some 40 miles north of Tinsel Town. But Centex, “looking for an out-of-the-box idea,” embraced it and ran with it. “We thought it would be a good opportunity because it was so new and different,” Larson says.

Truth be told, although models often are outfitted to the hilt with stunning furniture and jam packed with options and upgrades, they are devoid of life and are rather static. Only occasionally does even the best trained sales agent leave his or her desk to tour with visitors, even when there is little or no traffic. And nobody uses hostesses anymore.

MODEL FAMILY: Danny Devon (daughter), Jason Simmons (dad), Colin Robert (son), and Camille Chen (mom) are the cast of Centex Home's “HomeLife.” “The traditional way is a little cold,” says Jim Garfield, the Palos Verdes, Calif., agency's senior publicist. “Our idea was to show that this house could really be a home. Yes, it goes against the norm, but we think builders need to take one extra step because people need to see themselves in the house. Not just picture themselves in the house in their minds but actually see themselves in it.”

To integrate entertainment with real estate, the agency first came up with a scene: Mom's surprise birthday. The “family” spends time baking a cake, listening to music, making dinner, and watching television. In other words, all the things real people are probably doing when they are sitting around the house on a Saturday afternoon.

The show, called “HomeLife,” was cast just like a TV show. But these actors wouldn't be just any actors. They had to fit the demographics the Dallas-based, New York Stock Exchange–listed builder was aiming for at Milestone, where the three to five-bedroom homes were priced from $513,000 to $665,000. The median for Los Angeles County in April was $540,000.

Eventually, Jason Simmons, a 35-year-old professional actor who had a three-year run as a lifeguard on “Baywatch,” was cast as the father. Camille Chen, who has a bunch of credits in TV commercials, was picked as the mom, and a brother and sister team from the local theater company played the fictitious couple's kids.

The “family” members were given enough information about the property to answer basic questions while playing their characters and were encouraged to not only field questions from visitors but also ask them as well. “Like models at auto shows,” says Garfield, who sees the actors as walking, talking amenities. “We wanted them to interact with visitors, have a back-and-forth conversation with them. And if the actors couldn't answer a question, someone was nearby who could.”

The show was originally set for a two-time run, once in May to correspond with Milestone's grand opening and again in June. But it was so successful that Centex took it on the road, playing in July with a new set of actors to help introduce a new model at Westerly in the master planned community of RiverPark in Oxnard, Calif., where the prices range from $623,000 to $706,000. And now, division marketing manager Larson says she's likely to do it again, perhaps at the company's next grand opening.

“‘HomeLife' is intended to bring to life some of the experiences that might exist” within a Centex home, says Larson. “We love the way our homes live, and now our home shoppers can actually experience it, too.” One visitor told Garfield she never would have known the big Milestone model could hold the 30 to 35 people who went through the house every hour had she not seen it for herself. “Otherwise, she would have had no feel for how spacious this house really is,” the publicist says.

Centex's Larson is hard pressed to attribute any sales directly to the promotion, especially because the properties are consistently selling out. But it “cost a lot less than a newspaper ad—pretty much hiring actors for a day, that's about it—and that's nominal in the grand scheme of things,” she explains.

“We're still trying to determine whether ‘HomeLife' was the No. 1 factor in someone buying a home,” the marketing executive says. “It may be a little bit of a stretch” to go that far, she adds, “but I believe it has contributed.”

By the way, if there was a drawback to ‘HomeLife,' it's that everybody wants to be in show business. “We had so many volunteers, we could have had a cast of thousands,” says Larson. “Everybody wanted a walk-on.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.