Schools With Class Have a Shot at Career in Show Biz

Times Staff Writer

The sign over the door read Willow Lane School, which thoroughly confused a woman who drove up awhile back.

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 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!” The TV 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.

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.

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 cannot 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.

School of His Dreams

Todd King, while 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 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 does not 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.)

Most Popular

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.

“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 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.

‘East Coast’ Look

Dorris Place in Elysian Park has elegant brickwork 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.

Ask to See Scripts

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.