From the front, Falcon Studios looks like an old, abandoned storefront. Dark wood covers the sides of the dingy, white brick structure, and its dusty windows are riddled with bullet holes.
In fact, the studio blends so well with the other run-down buildings on the 5500 block of Hollywood Boulevard that it is hard to believe it was once considered the area's prime performing arts school.
But it was, says Jonathan Polansky. He said some of motion picture's greatest swashbucklers--including Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone--practiced their fencing techniques at the Falcon, under the instruction of the late Ralph B. Faulkner, a two-time Olympian who opened the rehearsal center in 1944.
Tried to Buy Falcon
Black-and-white photos of Faulkner on location with performers like Douglas Fairbanks and Alexis Smith, taped inside the front window, attest to that claim. So do the celebrity handprints and autographs of movie greats cast in a concrete pathway in the back yard.
When Polansky learned in February that the owners of the studio intended to raze it and build a mini-mall, he was outraged. He tried to purchase the Falcon so that it could be restored. However, he said, owners Paul and Tep Tan refused to negotiate.
So Polansky mustered the support of friends and celebrities who studied at the Falcon and persuaded the City Council in July to designate the studio a landmark, giving him six months to work out a deal with the Tans.
But the 6-month deadline is rapidly approaching, and the Tans, who bought the studio for $550,000, have refused to accept Polansky's offer of $740,000.
The council is expected to reconsider the landmark designation next month, and Hollywood Councilman Michael Woo said he will try to determine whether Polansky and the Tans have been negotiating in good faith.
"If I find that the owners of the studio are not bargaining in good faith, that gives me good reason to vote in favor of Polansky and vice versa," he said.
Polansky, a television writer who lives less than two blocks away from the studio, said he and his partner, Anthony Polk, have tried to persuade the Tans to accept their bid.
The Tans, who a run a liquor store in West Hollywood, refused to comment.
"I'm going to keep trying. I won't give up," Polansky said, inside the foyer of his home, where photographs of the Falcon line the walls. "The Falcon played such an important role in Hollywood. I'm obsessed with it."
The obsession began after a walk in his neighborhood one brisk February morning.
"I saw a 'For Rent' sign in the window, but the building didn't look like much. Then I looked in a window and saw all these photos of great actors from the 1920s and '30s," he said. "I roamed around back and saw a cement pathway with dozens of handprints and signatures. Then, I peeked through the windows of a big, tin building out back and there was this treasure--a huge rehearsal hall with dark wooden floors and mirrors along the walls."
Polansky ran home and called the number on the For Rent sign. The person who answered told Polansky that the building was not for rent. It was going to be torn down.
"I stayed awake all night, thinking about the studio and called again the next morning," he said.
A real estate agent agreed to show the studio to Polansky.
"The place really blew me away," he said. "There were huge rehearsal spaces, beautiful glass doors and handprints of actors like Anthony Quinn and John Barrymore."
Studied Famous People
Polansky camped out in a public library for a few days, studying the famous people who learned to dance, act and fence at the Falcon. He discovered that prominent ballet companies, such as the Bolshoi and the London, had practiced in the corrugated-tin dance hall.
He called the Tans again.
"I pleaded with Paul not to tear down the studio, and he hung up on me," Polansky said. "So, I called City Hall and asked if there was any way to save the Falcon."
Polly August, who sold the studio to the Tans, was one of Faulkner's most successful fencing students, having participated in the 1952 Olympics. She eventually became Faulkner's right-hand in running the Falcon, and inherited the shabby center after his death in 1987.
"I spent most of my life at the studio. It doesn't seem fair for some stranger, who never studied at the Falcon and never knew Mr. Faulkner, to come in and decide how the place should be used," she said.
The spry, petite, 65-year-old woman proudly shows off her portraits of the princely fencing master and speaks of him fondly, as if he were her father.
"I think he would be quite upset about people letting that dumpy old building represent him. He was a proud man, who considered himself a champion," she said. "People loved him, not the building.
"Mr. Faulkner is dead, and nothing can be done to save the Falcon," she said. "It's an ugly building in an ugly neighborhood. People would not want to go there to practice, let alone bring their children."
Besides, she said, any events of historic importance happened at one of Faulkner's previous studios, two blocks south of the site under debate.
That building, now a furniture and appliance shop, opened in the mid-1930s, August said. It is a much larger structure than the Tans' building, but it was also much more expensive. August said Faulkner could not continue to pay the mortgage on the studio, so he renovated the nearby storefront complex and began teaching classes there.
"But none of the big stars really came to the new studio, except for a couple of lessons here and there," August said. "It was never as grand as the old place."
Other celebrities who studied at the Falcon disagreed.
Alexis Smith, a leading lady of the 1940s, said she studied with dozens of prominent actors at the storefront studio.
"We literally spent our lives at that place, practicing from early in the morning, until late at night," she said.
MacDonald Carey, longtime star of the soap opera "Days of Our Lives," said he studied at the Falcon after World War II.
"The studio's importance is not just sentimental, it represents an opportunity to renovate that neighborhood in the brightest sense," Carey said. "It would return some status to the neighborhood because, right now, it's in terrible, miserable condition."
Dancer Sylvia Lewis, who studied ballet under Faulkner's wife, Edith Jane, said, "I saw Ralph in the studio a few months before he died, and I was amazed that nothing, not one stick of furniture had changed. It was very emotional because I literally grew up there, and now those bozos just want to tear the whole thing down."
Save the Memories
But former Falcon student Marrietta Hayes said it is the memories of the Falcon, not the building, that should be saved.
"We were all like one big family at that school. We all have fond memories, but we can't save Hollywood by saving the Falcon. We have to let it go," she said.
Even though his fight sometimes seems fruitless, he said, "all I have to do is walk down to the corner and see how this area has died, and I get emboldened. I dig deep to find another day's worth of energy, and another, and another."
August called him a dreamer. Polansky said all he wants is the chance to prove just how realistic his goals are.
"Everyone can sit back and say this is a bad area, but that's the wrong attitude," he said. "It just takes one group to go in there, take a chance and succeed."