Pee-Wee Herman tap-danced across cafeteria tables and Ultra Violet worked the school switchboard. Theater students rehearsed Chekhov in a cow pasture.
“It was Juilliard on drugs,” recalled one student.
The professors were avant-garde artists who threw conventional training out the window.
“No grades, no degrees, no institutional hours,” a music teacher said. “I told my students, ‘Why should we meet every Thursday at 9:30 in the morning? Why not meet at my house at 5:30 in the afternoon when I’ve had a Scotch-and-soda and you can pick my brain.’ ”
CalArts opened in 1970 as a daring experiment and a joyously chaotic scene. Physically, it looks much the same today. The Valencia campus, celebrating its 20th anniversary, is marked by strange artwork everywhere. Dogs run loose. Students dance and drum and recite out loud in the halls. CalArts, largely because of its unconventional bent and the success of many of its alumni, is one of the most respected art schools in the nation.
But prominence has not come easily. This institute that grew out of the 1960s and sought to make its own rules has often been troubled by self-doubts.
Less than two years after the doors opened, reports of sex, drugs and nude swimming on campus overshadowed artistic exploits. Later, administrators complained that the unstructured approach had careened out of control. According to newspaper reports, members of Walt Disney’s family, who founded CalArts, grew so frustrated and embarrassed that they offered USC, and then Pepperdine, $10 million to take the institute off their hands.
Some people say that a history of struggle has made CalArts strong and determined in its goals. Others insist that conflict has scared administrators and teachers away from the tradition-be-damned attitude that made the school revolutionary in the first place. They argue that CalArts has grown increasingly sedate over the last 15 years.
“When you look at the history of CalArts,” said current president Steven Lavine, “there is the continual drama of change.”
The drama began with Walt Disney who, during his last years, drew initial plans to found a futuristic “Caltech of the arts.” He envisioned a place with no walls between the various arts. Students would invent new forms of creation by blending the old ones--music with painting, film with dance. Disney died in 1966, but family and friends kept “Walt’s dream” alive.
“Walt’s death was such a shock to all of us and our sense of loss so great, that we all latched onto the school as an outlet to express our appreciation for all that Walt meant to us,” Donn B. Tatum, former director of the Walt Disney Company, said at the time.
Some $36 million was spent to begin construction on a starkly modern campus amid barren hills north of Los Angeles, at McBean Parkway and the Golden State Freeway.
Beyond that, the family had little idea how to proceed. Neither did the people enlisted as CalArts’ board of trustees. The board hired two educators and gave them free rein. Robert Corrigan, dean of the art school at New York University, was chosen president. Second-in-command was Herbert Blau, who had quit the Lincoln Center Repertory Company after a brief and stormy tenure as co-director. Both men were liberal and disillusioned with traditional institutions.
“The greatest challenge facing the arts and education,” Corrigan said at the time, “is how to navigate the perilous course between adventure and discipline.”
CalArts’ course steered nearer to adventure as Corrigan and Blau assembled their faculty: Mel Powell, the jazz whiz kid and campus rebel at Yale’s electronic music studio; Allan Kaprow, inventor of the hippie events called Happenings; John Baldessari, a leader in the Conceptual Art movement; and radical sociologist Maurice Stein.
“It was the Disneys giving their conservative money to an institute with an avant-garde agenda,” said Blau, now an English professor at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
Corrigan and Blau tried to hire Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, but the Disneys threat ened to withdraw their bankroll.
If that incident foreshadowed trouble, no one took much notice. A more pressing dilemma was at hand. Labor strikes and bad weather had delayed completion of CalArts’ 60-acre campus. The maiden class of 659 students arrived to no classrooms.
So the institute raised camp at Villa Cabrini, an abandoned Catholic girls school in Burbank. The scene was Bauhaus mixed with ‘60s-radical and California-crazy. Barefoot students and babies. Blue-jeans and tie-dye. Opera and Indian ragas .
Classes included tai chi , basic auto repair and sutra meditation. Some faculty and students saw no sense of order to CalArts, no evidence of teaching or learning, and some quit in the first months.
“No hard feelings,” Mel Powell said, at the time.
The Disneys felt differently. “They were saying, ‘What kind of monster have we created here?’ ” recalled Harrison Price, then chairman of the school’s board of trustees. Blau and Stein were fired at the end of the first year.
CalArts’ second year began with excitement as the Valencia campus opened. But troubles soon continued. A faculty member who supported nude bathing on campus disrobed in front of the trustees. Another board meeting was visited by students dressed as giant penises.
“Those people really pushed us to the brink,” said Patty Disney, wife of Walt’s grandson, Roy Jr., in a recent interview. “They were enormously insulting to us.”
More important, the institute was running up a huge deficit and the administration, comprised of artists, had little idea how to manage money.
“We used to giggle a lot, because we’d be making decisions about things we knew nothing about,” Powell said.
No one could have known that, amid all of this chaos, CalArts was nurturing a promising student body.
John Baldessari’s art classes included Matt Mullican, Ross Bleckner, David Salle, Kate Ericson, Eric Fischl and James Welling--all of whom have since earned national reputations.
“I remember Baldessari would come back from Europe with a suitcase full of art books and magazines,” Mullican said. “He’d empty the suitcase in the middle of the room and we’d all devour the stuff. We were learning the language of the art world.
“I wouldn’t say that we thought we were all going to become famous,” Mullican said. “All I can say is that we worked hard. It was tremendously competitive. We pressured ourselves.”
In the theater department, Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-Wee Herman) rehearsed with Laraine Newman, Katey Sagal of “Married With Children” and David Hasselhoff of “Baywatch.” Ed Harris, who went on to star in “The Right Stuff” and “The Abyss,” arrived in 1973.
Other departments harbored students who are now successful film makers, dancers, animators and musicians.
“Whether its graduates are actually more thoroughly schooled and self-conscious, or whether the art world has wanted to accept a CalArts degree as a badge of intelligence, students have swarmed over both coasts like a pack of elite professional soldiers,” wrote Richard B. Woodward in the New York Times.
Asked about such success, CalArts alumni speak of the school’s cross-pollination of the arts, its free-form structure. Leda Siskind, a theater graduate, recalled a performance where the ushers were nude. Robert Fernandez, a music graduate, told of a percussion concert that lasted until sunrise.
“I remember we did an experimental ‘Macbeth’ with African dancers and music,” Harris said. “It was fairly embarrassing but, what the hell, we had nothing to lose. We were there to give anything a try.”
Institutes, however, cannot survive solely on promising students and experimental work. By 1972, enrollment had fallen from 1,000 to 650 and money woes threatened to close the place.
The Disneys, who couldn’t pay anyone to take their school, stepped in again.
Corrigan was fired and replaced by William Lund, a 40-year-old economist and Walt’s son-in-law.
Lund arrived amid a “bushy-headed, bra-less and barefoot student body,” according to a story in The Times. As temporary president, he promised no major changes. A month later, he changed his mind.
“We’ve got to become more traditional in our approach,” Lund said, using words like “weirdo” and “X-rated” to describe the institute.
Fifty-five of CalArts’ 325 faculty and staff were fired. Structured schedules were introduced. Classes were trimmed back with one exception--the Disney studio was having trouble finding qualified animators so CalArts established an animation department. Within a year, the institute was operating on budget.
Some credit Lund with saving CalArts. Others see his tenure as the end of an idealistic experiment.
“It really became an uninteresting school without the freedoms that were there before,” said Robert Blalack, an alumnus who won an Academy Award for special effects in “Star Wars.” “The school fell way short of its vision.”
Said Reubens: “The only damage that was done by the nude swimming and wild parties and long hair was that it reflected on the Disney image. With a well-placed publicist, they could have deflected the bad publicity rather than changing the school.”
For good or bad, CalArts persevered. In 1975, Robert Fitzpatrick took over as president.
Ambitious and only 34 years old, Fitzpatrick had been a Baltimore city councilman and dean of students at Johns Hopkins University. Time magazine listed him among the country’s “200 rising leaders.” CalArts was calm when Fitzpatrick arrived, but he quickly stirred things up with his trademark combination of bluntness and idealism.
At a trustees meeting--held on the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive at Disney headquarters--the new president delivered a do-or-die ultimatum: either pour $10 million into the institute or shut the doors.
“It wasn’t a bluff,” Fitzpatrick said in a recent phone interview from Paris where he now heads Euro Disneyland, a $2-billion resort project under construction outside Paris. “I told them that if CalArts could not do what it does well, then it should cease to exist.”
CalArts got the money.
Fitzpatrick then persuaded several board members to resign and brought on names like wealthy businessman Jon Lovelace and Edie Wasserman, wife of MCA chairman Lew Wasserman. And he did the unthinkable--he told teachers to start giving grades.
“Think of it as the Reagan years at CalArts,” recalled Cathey P. Edwards, a film school alumna.
Said Fitzpatrick: “I’m sure those early years at CalArts were a wonderfully euphoric period. But it couldn’t have lasted and it shouldn’t have lasted. At some point, faculty has a responsibility to teach and students have a responsibility to learn.”
Next, Fitzpatrick turned his sights outward.
On any given night, he would show up at two or three parties around town to “carry the word” about CalArts. He was famous for working a room. When he attended theater or concerts he would arrive at the very last moment so the entire audience witnessed his entrance.
“I’ve never been notorious for my humility,” he said.
Over the course of 13 years, Fitzpatrick raised $58 million for the institute. He recalls courting Wasserman, who agreed to donate $100,000 if Fitzpatrick wouldn’t smoke during their meeting. He immediately put out his cigarette.
Having arranged scholastic and financial matters to satisfaction, Fitzpatrick accepted directorship of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival. Such festivals had traditionally run a disastrous second to the athletic events, but Fitzpatrick turned Los Angeles’ festival into a rousing success. His image was boosted immeasurably, and CalArts rode the coattails of that success.
“It was a nice coincidence of timing because a lot of things happened at once,” Fitzpatrick recalled. “John Baldessari began to become well-known. A lot of earlier students, the Matt Mullicans and David Salles, began to have a startling impact on the art world.”
Some students and faculty contended that Fitzpatrick neglected his duties on campus while seeking acclaim elsewhere. Nevertheless, in a relatively short time CalArts had risen to financial stability and prominence. And in 1987, Fitzpatrick left for Euro Disneyland.
“For 13 years I had one of the most interesting jobs on the face of the earth,” he said. “I was the orchestra conductor, if you will. . . . what an orchestra.”
This spring, CalArts has hosted a series of anniversary events, including a 950-person dinner last month. Celebrations and commemorative performances will continue to the end of April. Looking back, Patty Disney sometimes wonders why the family kept the institute going.
“Anyone who would start an arts school in the late ‘60s had to be crazy,” she said. “But, damn, Walt wanted that school. I guess we stuck with it because of Missouri stubbornness and because it was such a wonderful idea.”
These days, the family can boast of its creation. CalArts is respected and, more important, respectable . The likes of Barry Diller and Michael Eisner are trustees. Enrollment again approaches 1,000.
A year and a half into his presidency, Lavine has received high marks from faculty and people outside CalArts, such as MOCA’s Richard Koshalek, for his ambitious project to expand the school’s Euro-American traditions by inviting Latin, Asian and African artists to teach on campus. He is quieter and more scholarly than Fitzpatrick, but people seem to have taken to this persona.
Despite CalArts’ growing success, or perhaps because of it, alumni from the early years continue to worry that the institute has sold out--what with regularly scheduled classes and grades and structured curriculums.
“The idealism is still there,” Lavine argues. “But now it’s underpinned with a kind of realism about how to get things done.”
Powell, who has been with the school since its first day, believes that early ideals still resonate through the campus. The founding concepts of social consciousness and mentorship--students working closely with accomplished artists--remain intact. CalArts continues to turn out artists wary of mass media and popular modes.
And predictably, there are still rumblings of discontent. Some students and faculty complain that Lavine’s intercultural program is nothing more than expensive window dressing.
Struggle and discontent are perhaps inseparable from artistic creation. If so, it’s fitting that these elements remain a presence on the campus that Walt Disney wanted so badly to be, if nothing else, an artists’ community.
“CalArts has, built into its bones, the necessity for upheaval and change,” Lavine said. “CalArts will always have that.”