"We told him even if you get cast as a tree," says his mother, "that's a big deal because this is Goodspeed."

Eli went into the rehearsal room, sang "Electricity" from the musical "Billy Elliot" — with an English accent — and "Gary, Indiana" from "The Music Man."

"Before he even started to sing, he had this great big smile," says Goodspeed music director Michael O'Flaherty in a phone interview recalling the audition. "Then he showed the goods and that's when you just go, 'Wow,' and you just know. Eli was also so comfortable and looked like he knew exactly what he's doing and that's so rare in a child."

"He comes out of the building," says his mother, " and he has this pile of pages — I didn't even know they were called 'sides' — and he says, 'Mom, I have to learn these lines and go back in 10 minutes.' So he sits down and memorizes them and then in 10 minutes he goes back in. A little later they call me in — it felt just like 'American Idol' and Michael O'Flaherty asks me, 'Are you ready for this?' I said, 'Ready for what?' "

The next step was for Eli to go to New York where Goodspeed was auditioning children — many of them already seasoned performers from the casts of shows such as "Billy Elliot" and "Mary Poppins" — for the key role of young Patrick in the musical. Eli was cast in a smaller role but also as understudy for the role of Patrick. "This was so much better than a tree," says his mother.

But when the young actor playing Patrick became sick one day midway through the rehearsal period Eli filled in and so impresed the creative team they decided Eli should have the role.

"He felt terrible for this little boy," says his mother. "I asked them couldn't they split the role? And they said — and I'll never forget this as long as I live — Jessie, it's show biz. Get over it.'

For the first two weeks of performances, Eli felt exhausted and sick but persevered. "He was non-Equity so he was working 16-hour days doing eight shows a week but he loved every single minute of it or else I would have pulled him off the stage."

"It was a dream come true to me," says Eli. "It was better than I thought it would be, having the audience clap specifically for you. As soon as one show was over I couldn't wait for the next."

During the run of "Mame," Baker also started auditioning for other shows in New York, was a finalist for the role of Randy in Broadway's "A Christmas Story," and was sought but deemed too short for a role in "Matilda." After the run in "Mame" he got a role in a stage reading and a short film.

TV Land

In January, the Bakers heard that NBC was auditioning for the TV pilot but the role was for a 14-year-old. But his agent — Eli finally got his wish — convinced the Bakers to submit a videotape on a Thursday in January.

On Friday, the family went on a skiing trip when Eli's agent called to say the TV producers loved the tape. That night there was another call — they wanted Eli to fly Sunday to Los Angeles to audition in person.

"When he found out he started crying because his emotions overwhelmed him. He was happy. He was scared. He said, 'What does that mean? What am I supposed to do now?"

"But I was also psyched," adds Eli.

On Saturday, he finished up the short movie he was filming and the next day they were off to L.A.

"We had Saturday morning to Sunday to review an 18-page, seven-year contract that we had to sign and the clock is ticking," says Eli's mother. "And we're both lawyers." (Jesse Baker was a trial attorney and now does pro bono work. David Baker is chief compliance officer and group general counsel for The Travelers Companies, Inc.

Also on deck for the role were three other young actors "with way more experience and one had a starring role in major film."

But unknown to the Bakers was a startling fact: The creator of the show had originally named the leading young character "Eli Baker." (Network execs asked for a change because the dog in the series was named Elvis and the names "Eli" and "Elvis" were seen as too similar." Eli's character is now Henry Fisher.)

After Eli and his mother returned to Connecticut on that Thursday, Eli got the call.