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A Tradition of Tradition-Be-Damned : CalArts at 20: It sprang from a Disney family gift and has grown from its euphoric beginnings to respectability

April 15, 1990|DAVID WHARTON

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.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 22, 1990 Home Edition Calendar Page 99 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Disney relation--An April 15 article on CalArts referred to Roy E. Disney as grandson of the late Walt Disney. Actually, he is Walt's nephew, son of the late Roy O. Disney (Walt's brother and co-founder of the Walt Disney Co.). Roy E. Disney is vice chairman and head of the company's animation department.

"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.

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