Hollywood High Was a Launching Pad for Celebrities
Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney mulled over arithmetic problems together. Lana Turner ditched typing class and got discovered as she sipped a Coke across the street. And Carol Burnett wrote and edited the school newspaper.
Hollywood High School will turn 100 years old next month. In its day it had enough stars in its auditorium to rival an Oscar-night gathering, but it has also graduated an honor roll of achievers who were never on camera: John Aiso became the first Nisei -- second-generation Japanese American -- appointed to the federal bench, and Warren Christopher became secretary of state.
William Shockley won the Nobel Prize for co-inventing the transistor, then sparked public protests with his controversial theories correlating race with intelligence. Journalist and best-selling author Adela Rogers St. Johns left the school’s hallways to give bragging rights to Hearst Newspapers as “the World’s Greatest Girl Reporter” and “Mother Confessor of Hollywood.”
Hollywood High has had so many famous graduates and not-quite graduates that, in 1988, John Blumenthal wrote a book about it: “Hollywood High: The History of America’s Most Famous Public School.”
But movies weren’t even remotely the local industry when the town of Hollywood incorporated in 1903 with a population of 700. Hollywood Union High opened its temporary quarters in a former bakery on Highland Avenue, with 56 students and three teachers.
Two years later, work was begun on a three-story Roman temple-style school at Sunset Boulevard and Highland -- the intersection where Hollywood High stands today. Farmers nearby termed the $67,000 structure “a ridiculous piece of extravagance.”
The school was known, not only for its odd architecture, but for its emphasis on drama and its winning debate team. Each year, the senior Latin class donned togas and staged a Roman-style banquet, while lowerclassmen costumed as slaves washed their hands and feet. Such events would soon draw Hollywood talent scouts hoping to make discoveries.
Child stage actress Ruth Roland was one of the first students. She commuted to school on horseback. She spent a lot of time on the athletic field playing football with the boys -- and in detention for chattering in study hall -- and she sang in the glee club. Roland would become Hollywood High’s first student to break into the movies.
In 1911, a year after Hollywood became part of Los Angeles, David Horsley became the first film producer to settle in the community, turning a deserted tavern and barn at Sunset and Gower Street into Nestor Studios. Roland began hanging around there and was discovered.
In three years with Horsley and other producers who followed him, Roland churned out more than 200 movies, many of them westerns filmed in the hills above Sunset.
She became known as the “Queen of the Serial Thriller,” but she said she made more money during four years selling Los Angeles real estate than she did in 16 years starring in movies.
Most of the school’s famous students didn’t take center stage until long after graduation: Edward Dmytryk, class of 1926, became the school’s first award-winning film director with “The Caine Mutiny” and others. But his work was overshadowed by his decision to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951.
Physicist Norris Bradbury, whose early interest at Hollywood High was chemistry, helped build the first atomic bomb, and a later student, Laurence Johnston, “set the charges” on the bombs that were dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
With the studios came wealthy movie stars, moguls and their children. Jason Robards Jr. was an all-around athlete who witnessed his actor-father’s declining career and had no intention of following in his footsteps. Robards wanted to become a journalist.
He graduated in 1940, attended college and did a stint in the Navy. Then, in 1947, he made his New York stage debut, costumed as the back end of a cow. Less than a decade later, he received the first of eight Tony nominations for his stage role in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which he repeated on film in 1962. He made more than 60 movies in his career -- finally playing a journalist in 1976 as Washington Post Editor Ben Bradlee in “All the President’s Men,” for which he won an Oscar as best supporting actor.
Mike Farrell, class of 1957, the son of a movie studio carpenter, was junior class president -- perhaps presaging his political activism -- and a cheerleader. He would later play Capt. B.J. Hunnicutt for eight years on the TV series “MASH.”
Sally Kellerman, who graduated two years before Farrell, starred as the original operating room vamp Maj. “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the 1970 film version of “MASH.”
Football heroics held as much appeal at the school as film stardom. In the 1920s, a sportswriter dubbed the team the Sheiks, for the characters portrayed by Rudolph Valentino in silent-screen desert dramas. The school newspaper was called the Sheik Press and, later, a dashing image of Valentino would adorn the school auditorium in a mural.
But from the moment 13-year-old Warren Christopher entered Hollywood High, he knew he wanted to be, not an actor, but a lawyer. He earned money delivering the Hollywood Citizen News and won a citywide debate championship.
For his part in the war effort, he designed a radio show broadcast over loudspeakers during the lunch hour, informing students of war news.
When Japanese American classmates were rounded up and sent to internment camps, Christopher recalled for Blumenthal’s book, “I wasn’t mature enough to criticize the policy, but I was very saddened by it.”
In 1945, actor James Garner briefly re-enrolled at Hollywood High to play varsity football. He was introduced to show business by his coach, who heard that the Jantzen sportswear company was looking for an All-American boy to model its swimwear.
Garner refused to consider the job until he heard it paid $25 an hour -- far more than the coach’s salary. Garner got his big break in 1957, when he was chosen to star in the TV series “Maverick.”
For all the famous students whose stardom fell into their laps, there have been thousands of immigrant students, including adult school graduates, who led ordinary lives. In the same auditorium where Tuesday Weld, Ricky Nelson, John Ritter, Linda Evans, Gloria Grahame and Stephanie Powers attended assemblies, day laborers and grandmothers have rustled down the aisles for their crowning achievement after years of sacrifice: a high school diploma.
Hollywood High’s adult school teachers tell of an unkempt bag lady who finally read her first sentence unaided: “The cat sat on the mat.” She returned the next day, bathed, combed and in clean clothes, her whole attitude turned around.
Hundreds of set and lighting designers, writers, directors, actors, hair and makeup artists have learned the ethics and essence of their future professions under the tutelage of Jerry Melton, a legendary theater arts instructor who taught at the school from 1968 to 1992.
In plays and musicals -- from “Hello, Dolly!” to “Macbeth” -- Melton established a tradition of excellence that brought Hollywood High’s theater program national renown.
His productions not only swept up plenty of awards -- taking first place 16 times out of 20 in the city’s annual Shakespeare festivals -- but an audience. People have stood in line all the way to Hollywood Boulevard, just to get one of the 2,500 seats.
In the late 1970s, students Michael Sloane and Frank Darabont happened upon Melton’s class, where they first discovered the magic of make-believe. Darabont went on to direct such films as “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.” Sloane wrote the script for “The Majestic.”
The school auditorium was renamed the Jerry D. Melton Theatre in 2002.
Shadows of stardom linger in the corridors, and a lavish WPA-style mural in the library depicts the greatness of Hollywood, from theater to filmmaking to the Hollywood Bowl. Photographs and memorabilia from many of the campus’ famous former students hang on the walls of the Hollywood High School Alumni Museum.
Today, the cramped school operates year-round to accommodate its 3,000 students, who speak nearly two dozen languages. Three-fourths of them are poor enough to receive free lunches.
The school’s 1936 Streamline Moderne administration building, once the science building, remains a cultural icon. Festooned with bas-reliefs of scientists and poets, it bears inscriptions describing the timeless importance of education:
“To Live Is to Think.”
“Science Is Truth Found Out.”
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