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Red Letter Day for Founder of Hollywood Schoolhouse

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Times Staff Writer

Each morning, Ruth Pease stands on her balcony, watching as children arrive at the school next door, the school she started generations ago. They see the smiling woman with the snow-white hair and call out, “Hi, Grandma,” or “How are you, Miss Ruth?”

At the Hollywood Schoolhouse on Highland Avenue, everyone knows this small, sprightly woman, who wears shiny gold sneakers and pink and purple beads and whose hazel eyes seem to dance when she laughs, which is often. She’s as much an institution in the neighborhood as the centerpiece of the campus, a little red schoolhouse.

On Wednesday, all 240 students, from the 2-year-olds to the eighth-graders, lined up to wish her a very happy 95th birthday. In a way, they were celebrating the school’s birthday too.

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The schoolhouse with its storybook bell tower creates a time warp that turns heads on an otherwise industrial strip of Highland.

Pease started the school in 1945 out of the bungalow where she lived with her late husband. Back then, the Red Cars traveled on tracks up and down Highland, a quiet street lined with tidy cottages like the Peases’. Mothers who went out into the workplace in the postwar boom were desperate for safe places to leave their children.

So the Peases hung a sign from their house announcing -- in alphabet-block letters -- the Small Fry Nursery School. Six boys made up the class, and she charged $50 a month. Before long, Pease’s daughter Debbie was a preschooler in the house, which they had to tear down in 1968 to rebuild the school to modern codes.

The Peases, who had saved for years to buy a house on the next block, had to sell their home to pay for the little red schoolhouse. So they moved back onto school property and never quite left.

Now, Debbie Wehbe is the director of the Hollywood Schoolhouse, which has grown into a block-wide campus, with a cluster of buildings, a 50-foot swimming pool, a computer lab and a dance studio. Wehbe and her husband, Ferris, expanded the school as their own four children grew -- adding first an elementary school and then a middle school. The Wehbes live in a house between the pool and the main classroom block. Pease lives with them, in her own apartment.

On Wednesday, she walked about 50 steps from that apartment to an assembly room, where she sat on a stage in a high-backed armchair draped with a gauzy green scarf to look like a throne. Above her in red letters, a white banner read, “Thank you Grandma Ruth for opening the doors to a wonderful school.”

The crowd included students and many old friends. Pease’s boyfriend, 89-year-old Chuck Windsor, with whom she goes dancing twice a week, beamed at her from the front row. In the back row sat Larry and Sharon Toller, who lived in a house behind the school for 40 years before moving to Long Beach last year.

“Kids playing is always a lovely sound,” said Sharon Toller, 62, nostalgically. To open the formal celebration, Debbie Wehbe placed a pink paper Happy Birthday tiara on her mother’s head and talked proudly about all her mother had taught her.

Then Ruth Pease, whose birthday was actually Jan. 30, thanked her daughter right back.

“It’s a joy to see things carried on as you’ve done it, so beautifully,” she said. “What a joy. You can’t describe it.”

Pease was new to Los Angeles when she started the school. Born in Nebraska and raised in the small town of Atlantic, Iowa, she’d had a hard childhood and always dreamed of something different. The older daughter of two deaf parents, she had taken on adult roles early, often being the interpreter for her parents.

“I’d always dreamed of going to California,” she said. After their marriage, she and her husband, Bob, slowly bumped their way out west, soon with a young son in tow.

“We were just a little family trying to find some roots,” Pease said.

Her husband wasn’t so set on California. He said wives there ended up working, and couples ended up divorced. Other people warned her, “That’s the place where the streets divide and all the cars fall in,” she recalled, laughing hard.

When Ruth Pease laughs, she tilts her head way back. She lifts a hand in front of her face, hiding behind a fan of fingers as her whole body shakes. The old stories make her laugh. She has a lot of them.

She describes how the neighborhood men would gather when busty bombshell Jayne Mansfield leaned over the school’s front porch to tell her daughter Jayne Marie it was time to go home. She tells of a quieter, more small-town Hollywood.

“It was not the hustle bustle that we have today, all the jostling. You could take the time to say, ‘Good morning,’ ” she said.

Pease held court for almost two hours as the schoolchildren took turns wishing her a happy birthday.

Before long, her lap was full of roses, boxes of chocolates and piles of handmade construction-paper birthday cards.

“School is special today because it’s Miss Ruth’s birthday,” said 6-year-old Hamoudi Dugally, as he hopped up and down in front of her, waiting to be noticed.

“She’s special to the school,” piped in fellow kindergartner Vivienne Acuna. “She’s the one who found it.”

Seated on her throne, Ruth Pease held her arms out to the children and laughed and laughed.


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