'Franco's Kids' Pay Tribute

Times Staff Writer

Abel Franco, actor and drama coach extraordinaire , had center stage. All eyes were on him as he peered through the lights at a sea of faces and, strictly unrehearsed, delivered his entry line: "What the hell is this?"

A chorus of about 150 voices yelled, "Surprise!" Champagne corks popped as drama students from the classes of 1961 through 1987 toasted their favorite teacher, the man who had instilled in them not only a love for the theater but also had, as Lewis Rothbart, class of '63, put it, "made us be as good as we possibly could. He pushed us to our limits."

After 26 years as drama teacher at Pasadena High, Franco was retiring to devote full time to acting and writing. For three months, his one-time pupils had planned this tribute, a party Saturday night at the Bel-Air home of scriptwriter Cynthia Whitcomb (class of '69). Reminiscences were dished up along with lasagna.

The celebrants had gathered from the East Coast, from Europe, from Hawaii. Among them were a doctor, a lawyer, a psychotherapist, writers--and actors.

"He's definitely the raddist guy around," said Maria Robles, a student at Pasadena High. From the perspective of another generation, actor Kevin Tighe (class of '62) put it a little differently: "He was very hip, very alive, he had lots of soul."

'Totally in Shock'

Franco, who was "totally in shock," savored each moment, each "remember when," all the while wondering where the 26 years had gone. He looked around the room, smiled and said, "There are guys here tonight who are balder than I am."

Name tags proclaimed that these were "Franco's Kids." Among them were playwright Susie Burke ('70), in the kitchen dishing up institutional-sized pans of pasta. Burke thought a moment about Franco and said: "He was one of those remarkable teachers who passes by once in a lifetime. Through the theater he taught us philosophy, literature, history."

Actor Michael Dunnagan ('69), a regular on the "Newhart" show and the principal reunion organizer, said of his career: "It's all because of this guy here (Franco)."

Annie Erikson ('61), who now lives in Honolulu, appeared in Off Broadway musicals before retiring to become a full-time homemaker. She remembers being in the first graduating class at Pasadena High, the "energy" of this new drama teacher whose classroom was a temporary bungalow in a "mudhole" on the new campus.

One of "Franco's Kids" at the party was Mark Franco ('74), who does special effects for commercials. He looked around and said, "Some of these people have known me since I was a little boy. I'm 31. It's kind of a shock, I guess. . . ."

Mark Franco did not take drama classes at Pasadena High. First, there would have been the embarrassment of being teacher's son. And, he explained, "You have a father as an actor and you see it's not really a lucrative career--unless you teach too."

Abel Franco managed to do both. He's been in films including "El Norte," "The Falcon and the Snowman" and "Three Amigos" (he played the mayor of Santo Poco). He appeared on stage in "Zoot Suit" in both Los Angeles and in New York, taking a year's leave from teaching.

On Friday, 168 of "Franco's Kids" signed a full-page ad in Daily Variety, a salute to Franco, "a great and inspiring teacher. You gave us your passion, you gave us the theater, you gave us your dreams. We haven't forgotten anything. Thank you. We love you."

The signers included Paula Peach Lahaie, a junior and one of Franco's current students, who hopes to be an actress. She came to the party because Franco, her mentor, is "one of God's better ideas." Officially, Franco will be gone in a month, when he wraps up his last semester, but Lahaie is certain, "He'll always be around."

Ron Piller, who's now in the discount clothing business in Eagle Rock, had come to the reunion because, as he was telling Franco, "You touched me, you really did." Piller still recalls that magical day in the '60s when Abel Franco introduced his class to a new word-- existentialism .

Cynthia Whitcomb was to go on to a successful career as a TV writer with credits including a PBS adaptation of the life of Mary Todd Lincoln and, coming soon, a CBS-TV thriller, "Body of Evidence." But she still remembers, "When I was a freshman at UCLA, Franco hired me to write a play--$25 in advance, $25 on completion."

The play "Here"--a spoof on "Hair"--was never produced. "It got censored," she said.

Yes, Franco was always a bit avant-garde. He didn't dish up the standard bland fare.

"We were doing 'Waiting for Godot,' 'Don Juan in Hell,' 'The Madwoman of Chaillot,' 'Becket,' " Whitcomb said.

Andy Anderson ('70) introduced himself as "Mr. Franco's least-talented drama student," recalling that his teacher had once said "he'd never seen a worse performance than mine" in "The Investigation." And, Anderson acknowledged, he was right. Today, Anderson is a librarian at USC and one of the few former students who still call Pasadena home.

David Bosell ('68) came from San Francisco, where he owns a nail salon. He'd skipped his 10-year high school reunion, he said, but wouldn't have missed this.

Television actor Wesley Thompson, class of '74, ("The Pursuit of Happiness," "Hill Street Blues" "Fatal Vision") was remembering his first meeting with Franco. A friend had suggested he do his Cagney, Wayne and Ed Sullivan imitations. Franco had listened and had told him, "You're terrible" but had admired his chutzpah.

"His class was like a respite from the rest of high school, which was very regimented then," said Tom Barnes, now a doctor of emergency medicine at Brotman Memorial Hospital, "a place where you felt like a person. . . .He opened up our minds."

Guests gathered around the TV to watch videotapes sent by former classmates Lauren Chapin (formerly of "Father Knows Best") and Denise Koch, now a television anchorwoman in Baltimore.

Franco enjoyed every minute. "This is wonderful," he said. "Everywhere you look, you see my kids."

It had been a long, circuitous route that had brought Abel Franco to this moment--from early years in a Latino neighborhood of El Paso and childhood in East Los Angeles. "When I started school," he said, "I didn't even have a survival word of English."

Teaching at Pasadena High had been something of a fluke. He had been substituting for another teacher for three days when, responding to his students' petition, the administration had asked him to stay on.

He was hesitant. He was, after all, an actor. He shrugged, looking back, "They said they needed me. That was the right word to use."

He never gave up the acting. He smiled and said, "Sometimes I got sick, so I could do a television show." The morning after the party, he was off to San Antonio to film a commercial.

Abel Franco felt good. Not bad, he decided, "for a little Chicano boy from the Eastside of L.A."

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