The palm trees are made of construction paper, the waves of shiny fabric. The actors wear straw hats, sunglasses and loud Hawaiian shirts.
They lean back in lawn chairs, legs too short to touch the ground. One holds a goblet, the other a picture book. In the background, Madonna sings of “La Isla Bonita.”
“Action!” the director calls out. Then, “Drink from your cup, Dyana, drink, drink, drink. Abel, read, turn the page.”
The shooting schedule has been grueling, especially given that the talent can’t stay on task for more than 10 minutes.
“Like an Alphabet” may be the most ambitious project yet for Arturo Avina, unabashed “Madonnaholic” and kindergarten teacher extraordinaire.
In it the children are tackling all 26 letters of the alphabet, A to Z, each with its own scenes and song.
Today is V is for vacation, time’s almost up and they still have another segment to film — complete with a costume change into grass skirts.
Kindergartners, Avina says, learn best when they’re fully engaged. “They need more than just paper and pencil and sitting at a desk. They need movement, they need music, they need drama, they need an experience.”
So two years ago, he picked up a video camera.
The first big effort — kindergartners performing Madonna’s “Vogue” — got more than 280,000 hits on his YouTube channel. He’s since videotaped kids acting out children’s books and performing music videos, including “Downtown” and the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
Avina works at a Los Angeles public school practically in the shadow of L.A. Live. The playground of Olympic Primary Center faces the sleek, blue Ritz-Carlton tower. But the 110 Freeway that separates them might as well be an ocean.
In Westlake, the median household income is below $27,000. Every child at the pre-K and kindergarten-only school receives a free or reduced lunch, said Principal Deborah Henry. Ninety-five percent are English learners, still getting comfortable with a language different from the one most often spoken at home.
Henry wants the kids to dream big. Ivy League pennants decorate the school’s small auditorium. With money hard to come by for regular arts instruction, Avina’s endless creativity is a boon. He has a knack for making learning feel like playing make-believe.
A Sony Handycam, a small tripod, a laptop editing program — it doesn’t sound like much. But with thrift-shop finds and paper cutouts, whole worlds come to life: Astronauts peer out of rockets. A metal fence in the school courtyard becomes the bars of a zoo cage, from which elephants and lions peer out.
“He’s a visionary,” says teacher Katey Bolanos, Avina’s alphabet project co-director.
Together they created themes for each letter — C for candy, R for radio, Y for yoga — and scenes to go with each one. For Y, the children stretched their arms and legs, executing a downward-dog pose, to one of Madonna’s spiritual numbers, “Shanti/Ashtangi.”
Learning letters became an opportunity for the kids to soak up much more.
Some, for instance, at first didn’t know anything about vacation. So Avina explained it and got them to toss out related words and phrases: “wear sunglasses,” “relax,” “play in the sand.” He wrote their ideas on a chart. Then he shaped the V video scenes around them.
Avina, 35, says his own favorite primary-school moment was when his fifth-grade teacher at Corona Avenue Elementary in Bell decided to make a class movie.
It was during the heyday of the DARE program. The film was an anti-drug message. He got to play a hero, confronting big, bad dealers. He grabbed their drugs, threw them on the ground, stomped on them and delivered a “this is your brain on drugs” speech.
It may sound corny now, but “I had the best time making it,” he says, remembering Mrs. Saville as “the best teacher ever.”
After nearly two months of filming, “Like an Alphabet” is ready. Parents are invited on a Friday morning to gather for a screening. The event starts with an alphabet fashion show, in which the children parade on stage wearing vests made of brown paper bags. They are decorated on the front with construction-paper letters of the alphabet. On the back, the kids have glued corresponding images.
“Here is L, dressed in lollipops, lemons and lips,” says Avina, who serves as emcee. “Turn around and take a bow. Thank you, letter L.”
When “Like an Alphabet” plays on a screen, the children watch themselves wide-eyed. U is for umbrella includes a Busby Berkeley moment — umbrellas spinning, shot from above.
At the sight of it, children and adults burst into applause, as little voices form a chorus: “See me?” “Look at me!” “That’s me!”