The sign over the door read Willow Lane School, which thoroughly confused a woman who drove up a few days ago.
She was looking for Mar Vista Elementary School, and she was sure this was it. She had never heard of Willow Lane School and could not imagine how it had materialized overnight in this Westside neighborhood.
Perplexed, she drove around the building three or four times. Finally, she went inside. Sure enough, it was Mar Vista. Like millions of others, the woman had been fooled by Hollywood.
The unfamiliar stone sign over the school was not stone at all, but a painted plastic fake created in an NBC studio workshop.
Before dawn that day, an NBC crew had begun "dressing" the Mar Vista school to look like a fictional school in Chicago. Mar Vista was playing the part of Willow Lane in a pilot episode for "Kowalski Loves Ya!," which the network hopes will become a hit TV series. The show stars former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus as a retired gridiron great who stays home with the kids while his writer wife goes to work. An air date has not been set.
This is, after all, Los Angeles, where the real routinely becomes the reel.
Like the beach at Malibu and downtown's skyscrapers, Los Angeles-area schools constantly appear in films, TV shows and commercials, mostly because of their proximity to the studios.
Not Always Simple
Although filming in schools is not always as simple as ABC, film makers regularly call upon local schools to serve as locations for everything from bright, bouncy fast-food commercials to sleazy teen-age slasher pictures. For their part, many schools regard the entertainment industry as a relatively innocuous source of extra income, more important now in this era of austere education budgets.
Shooting in the schools tends to be seasonal, said Matt Spies, an administrator in the business office of the Los Angeles County Office of Education. Peak season is summer when the office receives two or three inquiries a week. Spies tells callers which of the county's 95 school districts has facilities for lease. Occasionally, he is happy when he can't fill a request. Last year, a representative of Steven Spielberg called, trying to find a battered, shabby-looking school. "We weren't able to find them anything," Spies said. "Most of the schools in the county haven't reached that state of disrepair."
The Pasadena Unified School District receives half a dozen requests a year from film makers, said Donna Overton of the district's permit office. Rates vary according to what is being shot, but usually average about $1,000 a day. Companies are not allowed to film during school hours and must leave the site as they found it.
Todd King, who is scouting locations for a low-budget comedy called "Night School," found the school of his dreams, or at least part of it, in Altadena. King said "Night School" is about a slob among snobs whose life is changed by attending night school at "the most beautiful, elegant high school in the world."
King found the perfect exterior at Charles W. Eliot Middle School in Altadena. The makers of "Night School" plan to shoot from 4 p.m. to 6 the next morning. The school has a "very regal and Ivy League" appearance, King said. Even better, because it is in Altadena, the company will have to pay only about $100 for a county film permit, not the $480 daily filming fee charged by the city of Pasadena.
King found the elegant school interiors he sought at John Burroughs Senior High School in Burbank, where classroom scenes will be filmed. Locker room scenes will be filmed in the
South Bay at R. K. Lloyde Continuation High School in Lawndale. Like many others, the Centinela Valley Union High School District doesn't allow movie making to interrupt the educational process. But the district was able to accommodate "Night School" because it will be filmed at night.
"There isn't a week that goes by that one of our schools isn't used for a film, TV show or commercial," said Robert Niccum, director of real estate for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The district charges film companies $1,000 for an eight-hour day. For each additional hour (many film makers work a 12-hour day), the charge is $100. If shooting takes place after 5 p.m., on weekends or holidays, the company also pays $14 an hour for custodial overtime.
In comparison, Beverly Hills Unified School District, which is often asked to lease handsome Beverly Hills High School and collegiate-looking Beverly Vista Elementary School, charges $1,000 for every four hours. According to Bernice Skolnick, administrative assistant for business affairs, the district accommodates two or three requests a year. Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District has charged $2,500 a week for the Excelsior High School building in Norwalk, a closed school where much of "Grease II" was made in 1982. (The building is now leased by a Korean church.)
According to Niccum and his staff, the Los Angeles district's most popular site for filming is the San Pedro-Wilmington Skills Center, an adult education facility with an ocean view on the grounds of Ft. MacArthur.
'Most Popular Site'
"It would kill the film industry if we razed these buildings," Principal Richard Belman said recently. "We've got these bunkers that look like you're on another planet. This is the most popular site in the world."
Goldie Hawn's "Private Benjamin" and two recent TV miniseries--"Fatal Vision" and "From Here to Eternity"--were among the projects shot there.
Other schools popular with film makers include Van Nuys and Ulysses S. Grant high schools, both in Van Nuys, John Marshall High School in Silver Lake, Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades and John Burroughs Junior High in the Wilshire district.
Movie cameras are so common in district schools that a dozen companies, including Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and the TV networks, have had blanket leases for decades that allow them to film at short notice, Niccum said.
During 1985-86, the school district made $273,306 from filming. The money is used to help buy portable classrooms and otherwise relieve crowding.
Like students, film makers must follow the rules. They must carry at least $1 million in insurance against accidents and property damage. They must supply their own electrical power. And they are not allowed to reveal the actual name of the school being filmed. Thus, only insiders and sharp-eyed locals know that Rydell High, John Travolta's and Olivia Newton-John's alma mater in "Grease," was actually a composite of John Marshall, Huntington Park and Venice high schools.
The principal of each school decides on the terms for filming. Some bar shooting during school hours, for example.
Susan Lio Arcaris is principal of Dorris Place Elementary School, probably the most filmed elementary school in the United States.
Dorris Place in Elysian Park has elegant brick work and dark wood trim that says "East Coast" to location managers ever alert for Los Angeles facilities that appear to be somewhere else.
During the 1985-86 school year, Dorris Place starred in commercials for Purina, the California Lottery, the Mormon Church, Burger King, the National Education Assn. and Kleenex. The school has also been used for feature films and television shows.
One third-grade classroom, Room 2, is filmed so often that teacher Leone Pippin had a floor plan of the room professionally drawn so that clean-up crews would know exactly where each piece of furniture should be put back. (She also had the desks numbered.)
When shooting is going on in Room 2, the class goes on a field trip paid for by the visitors. In the interests of fairness, students from a less photogenic classroom also take the trip.
Of the filming, Arcaris said: "The only time it becomes difficult is when the production company doesn't take the time to sit down with me and tell me what's going to be happening." The makers of the Purina commercial, for example, alerted her before they began carting cages of cats into the school.
Shooting is not very disruptive most of the time, Arcaris said. However, a film crew once arrived at dawn and commandeered every available faculty parking space. Another time she chided a crew member who began popping champagne corks for the traditional wrap party while the children were still in school.
But overall, Arcaris said, the school benefits from the experience. Companies usually make a donation directly to the school in addition to the fee paid the district. Dorris Place received $4,400 from film makers in 1985-86. The money was used to buy computers, software and uniforms for the school's winning basketball team.
One company further sweetened the deal by buying cookies for every child in the school.
Many principals ask to see scripts.
"I don't want the school to be seen in anything I wouldn't approve of for myself or my children or the children here at the school," Arcaris said. The makers of the TV movie "The Atlanta Child Murders" got permission to use the school only after Arcaris had "asked a lot of questions and was reassured."
Tom Rayburn, an assistant principal at University High School, is equally vigilant. Uni, a charming older school in West Los Angeles, receives between $5,000 and $15,000 annually from companies that shoot on campus. But Rayburn would never have approved Uni's appearance, which happened before his tenure, in Roger Vadim's 1971 film "Pretty Maids All in a Row." In the film, Rock Hudson portrayed a lecherous assistant principal.
"I couldn't believe that was my school," Rayburn said.
Although individual schools can set limits on sex and violence, the district itself does not require script approval. According to Niccum, the district requires only that any potentially offensive scenes be shot out of public view. As a result, not everything filmed in Los Angeles schools has redeeming social value.
The makers of "Return to Horror High," for example, shot their $1-million comic shocker in two closed schools, John Hughes Junior High in Woodland Hills and Clark Junior High in Glendale.
Greg Sims, the executive producer of "Horror High," said it's about a film company that is making a low-budget movie in a closed school that was once the scene of a series of grisly, unsolved murders. High schools have been regarded as particularly apt settings for horror, at least since the 1976 film "Carrie," and Sims described his film as a gory but witty exploration of reality and illusion.
The characters in "Horror High" include a deranged principal and a sadistic biology teacher played by actor Vince Edwards. The film, which is being distributed by New World Pictures, was originally given an X rating for the climactic scene in which the biology teacher is dissected like a frog. Some judicious editing resulted in an R rating instead. Of the final product, Sims said fondly, "We've had a lot of repeat business. A lot of people say they want to drag their biology teachers to see it."
According to Sims, both school locations worked well for his company. The Glendale site has interior corridors with lockers, something that many California schools lack. And because the script called for a closed school, the film makers didn't have to spend too much of their minuscule budget dressing the buildings, which left more money for fake blood.
Schools within the so-called "studio zone," which lies within a 30-mile radius from the intersection of Beverly and La Cienega boulevards, are particularly attractive to film makers. Under union contract, companies that shoot within the zone do not have to transport cast or crew at company expense or pay for overnight accommodations.
Schools within the zone that look as if they were teleported from New Hampshire or Kansas are always in demand. The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, a private prep school with a New England aura, is a popular location.
But the makers of "Daddy" wanted a school with a San Fernando Valley flavor for their ABC-TV movie about the high cost of teen-age pregnancy.
"We kind of see the Valley as Everywhere, USA," said "Daddy" producer Steve McGlothen. "There's something about it that says, 'American Teen--1987.' "
"Daddy" found a near-perfect location in Oliver Wendell Holmes Junior High School in Northridge, a school with an athletic field, an attractive flag pole area and a closed wing.
"We used the rooms and the desks and brought in everything else . . . our own chalk, our own posters," McGlothen said.
Despite the presence of hundreds of handy adolescents, the company also imported its own teen-agers. As often happens, the film makers avoided dealing with the child-protection laws that, among other restrictions, limit the number of hours underage actors can work, by hiring actors 18 and older. McGlothen is confident that viewers won't notice that the senior class in "Daddy" is a bit long in the tooth, any more than they will realize that the hallway gossiping and background banging of locker doors is actually simulated so it won't appear on the sound track.
Most filming in schools goes off without a hitch, say school and industry personnel. In the last 25 years, Los Angeles Unified School District has had to bring legal action only twice against companies that failed to meet the terms of their lease.
Filming can be a boon to the schools, especially when closed facilities are leased, inconveniencing no one. Director Carl Reiner spent six weeks this fall at Hughes Junior High in Woodland Hills shooting "Summer School," which will be released this summer by Paramount. The filming earned the school district more than $30,000, in addition to free repairs made at Hughes by the movie company, including several thousand dollars worth of new windows.
According to David Salven, the picture's location manager, Hughes served admirably as the high school where actor Mark Harmon is supposed to be a beach-loving teacher. People who see the comedy will be led to believe that the school is right on the beach, perhaps on the Palos Verdes Peninsula or in Malibu, where filming was also done, and not in the landlocked San Fernando Valley. The company was also able to use the empty school almost as a production facility, showing dailies in the former library, for instance.
Salven thinks filming is a great part-time business for the schools to be in. "We're the only industry that doesn't pollute," he said. "We don't leave chemicals behind. All we leave behind is money.
"If we donate $2,000 to a school, that's a lot of basketballs."
Yet film makers are not always treated well in their own home town, he said, even in the schools. Some location managers said the schools charge too much, although even pricey Beverly Hills charges less than the owner of a photogenic estate in Chatsworth that is leased for as much as $10,000 a day. Some educators also believe that film makers have infinite amounts of money, and press for more even after a deal has been struck. No such problems arose with the Woodland Hills filming, Salven said.
Location manager C. Robert Holloway criticized the Los Angeles Unified School District for complicating filming. Getting into a district school, Holloway said, "is like having an interview with the Pope."
Whatever glitches have developed elsewhere, filming at Mar Vista proceeded smoothly. As she waited outside the school, Karlene Gallegly, location manager for "Kowalski," said she is asked to find suitable high schools more often than elementary schools. After all, high schools are the natural habitat of movie ticket-buying teens.
Mar Vista satisfied several of Gallegly's requirements. It was recently painted but it's not a new school. Butkus' character "went to this school and now his children go here, so we needed a certain vintage," said Gallegly, whose finest hour was finding a location in Oxnard that successfully passed for a Louisiana bayou.
The neighborhood was also a consideration. The house in which the Kowalskis supposedly live is actually in Woodland Hills in a neighborhood similar to Mar Vista. "This could be a block away from the Kowalskis," Gallegly said, pointing to nearby homes.
Gallegly said areas with schools are often easier to shoot in than strictly residential ones. Not a single homeowner called to complain after Gallegly notified the neighborhood that a film crew would be arriving early in the morning.
People who live in a neighborhood with a school are already accustomed to noise at 7 a.m., she said.
About 30 Mar Vista fourth- and fifth-graders were chosen by a team of mothers as extras to play schoolmates of the Kowalski children.
"All the girls washed their hair last night," said one of the mothers. The children and five chaperones were paid $40 and treated to a catered lunch ("And we're not talking 50-cent cafeteria meals," one adult noted.) While the children waited--and waited--for their second of stardom, the mothers shushed them and chatted among themselves.
Principal Garcia said NBC's visit was good for the school because it exposed the children to the many skills involved in making movies. "It's been as smooth as a regular day," Garcia said. "I know we shouldn't do this every month, but I welcome this. It's a different school, the school of life."
Mar Vista received $750 for its cooperation in making "Kowalski." Garcia said she has her eye on a new public-address system. The production company also threw in the Willow Lane School sign, which will be auctioned off at a Mar Vista fund-raiser. When art director Ginny Randolph asked if she could have a mural Mar Vista children had made, the principal said yes--if Randolph would come back to the school and teach an art class. Both parties felt they got a bargain.