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As Stars, Schools Are in Class of Their Own

February 26, 1987|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

The sign over the door read Willow Lane School, which thoroughly confused a woman who drove up a few days ago.

She was looking for Mar Vista Elementary School, and she was sure this was it. She had never heard of Willow Lane School and couldn't imagine how it had materialized overnight in this Westside neighborhood.

Perplexed, she drove around the building three or four times. Finally, she went inside. Sure enough, it was Mar Vista. Like millions of others, the woman had been fooled by Hollywood.

The unfamiliar stone sign over the school wasn't stone at all, but a painted plastic fake created in an NBC studio workshop.

Before dawn that day, an NBC crew had begun "dressing" the Mar Vista school to look like a fictional school in Chicago. Mar Vista was playing the part of Willow Lane in a pilot episode for "Kowalski Loves Ya!" which the network hopes will become a hit TV series. The show stars former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus as a retired gridiron great who stays home with the kids while his writer wife goes to work. An air date has not been set.

This is, after all, Los Angeles, where the real routinely becomes the reel.

Like the beach at Malibu and downtown's skyscrapers, Los Angeles-area schools constantly appear in films, TV shows and commercials, mostly because of their proximity to the studios.

Although filming in schools isn't always as simple as ABC, film makers regularly call upon local schools to serve as locations for everything from bright, bouncy fast-food commercials to sleazy teen-age slasher pictures. For their part, many schools regard the entertainment industry as a relatively innocuous source of extra income, more important now in this era of austere education budgets.

"There isn't a week that goes by that one of our schools isn't used for a film, TV show or commercial," said Robert Niccum, director of real estate for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The district charges film companies $1,000 for an eight-hour day. For each additional hour (many film makers work a 12-hour day), the charge is $100. If shooting takes place after 5 p.m., on weekends or holidays, the company also pays $14 an hour for custodial overtime.

In comparison, Beverly Hills Unified School District, which is often asked to lease handsome Beverly Hills High School and collegiate-looking Beverly Vista Elementary School, charges $1,000 for every four hours. According to Bernice Skolnick, administrative assistant for business affairs, the district accommodates two or three requests a year. Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District has charged $2,500 a week for the Excelsior High School building in Norwalk, a closed school where much of "Grease II" was made in 1982. The building is now leased by a Korean church.

According to Niccum and his staff, the Los Angeles district's most popular site for filming is the San Pedro-Wilmington Skills Center, an adult education facility with an ocean view on the grounds of Ft. MacArthur.

"It would kill the film industry if we razed these buildings," Principal Richard Belman said recently. "We've got these bunkers that look like you're on another planet. This is the most popular site in the world."

Goldie Hawn's "Private Benjamin" and two recent TV miniseries--"Fatal Vision" and "From Here to Eternity"--were among projects shot there.

Other schools popular with film makers include Van Nuys and Ulysses S. Grant high schools, both in Van Nuys; John Marshall High School in Silver Lake, Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades and John Burroughs Junior High in the Wilshire District.

Movie cameras are so common in district schools that a dozen companies, including Warner Bros., Universal, Paramount and the TV networks, have had blanket leases for decades that allow them to film at short notice, Niccum said.

During 1985-86, the school district made $273,306 from filming. The money is used to help buy portable classrooms and otherwise relieve crowding.

Must Follow Rules

Like students, film makers must follow the rules. They must carry at least $1 million in insurance against accidents and property damage. They must supply their own electrical power. And they are not allowed to reveal the actual name of the school being filmed. Thus, only insiders and sharp-eyed locals know that Rydell High, John Travolta's and Olivia Newton-John's alma mater in "Grease," was actually a composite of John Marshall, Huntington Park and Venice high schools.

The principal of each school decides on the terms for filming. Some bar shooting during school hours, for example.

Susan Lio Arcaris is principal of Dorris Place Elementary School, probably the most filmed elementary school in the United States.

Dorris Place in Elysian Valley has elegant brickwork and dark wood trim that says "East Coast" to location managers ever alert for Los Angeles facilities that appear to be somewhere else.

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