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Studio to Rescue : Movie Set Helps Financially Strapped School

May 09, 1991|LORI GRANGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Los Feliz Hills School, it was a last-minute rescue that was straight out of the movies.

Earlier this year, administrators of the financially strapped private school were afraid they would have to shut down before the end of the school year. Then came Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., which wanted to rent the site for a huge movie set.

Now, where the school's football and soccer field used to be, atop a bluff on Russell Avenue, there is a life-size replica of an Oakland neighborhood, set in 1972.

School officials are hoping for another rescue: Passage of a June 4 bond measure that can pull the school out of bankruptcy by allowing Los Angeles officials to buy at least part of the campus for a city park.

If the measure fails, creditors probably will foreclose and the school will shut down in July, administrators and parents said.

"This doesn't rank with what happened in the Middle East or what happened in Bangladesh," said Glenn Silber, a parent of two children at the school and a former member of the board of directors. "But it's important to the community and critical to parents and teachers here."

About 100 children in preschool through eighth grade attend the campus, built in 1960 on 6.5 acres on a hill near ABC Studios and the Shakespeare Bridge. A handful of octagonal buildings, designed by Los Angeles architect John Lautner, sit on about 2.5 acres. The football field and a parking lot take up four acres.

The school in November, 1989, filed for reorganization under bankruptcy laws that have allowed it to try to solve its financial woes instead of shutting down.

The school owes nearly $2 million to its creditors, a debt that administrators and supporters agree was created in the 1970s when the school was closely tied to the Church of Scientology. The relationship broke up in 1984 because of differences over finances and power, Headmaster Chris Geissmann has said.

Earlier attempts to sell part or all of the property were unsuccessful. Initial offers by a Jewish school, a Japanese business and nearby ABC Studios fell through, Silber said.

More than a year ago, neighboring residents and school officials tried to garner $2.2 million in private, city and state funds to turn the campus field and parking lot into a park, allowing the school to pay off its debt and remain at the site.

The plan failed last summer when Los Angeles City Council members said they could not provide any money. But the community's lobbying of then-Assemblyman Mike Roos produced a $400,000 gift from the state that can only be used toward creation of a park at the site, Silber said.

Los Angeles parks officials say they are hoping to combine that money with a proposed $3.5-million slice of funds from the upcoming Proposition 1, a $298-million parks bond measure, to buy part or all of the campus for parkland.

The measure, which requires approval by two-thirds of Los Angeles city voters, would provide funds for parks, cultural facilities, open-space acquisition, senior citizen centers and recreation areas throughout Los Angeles, said Frank Catania, director of planning and development for the city's Department of Recreation and Parks.

"We've been looking at the Los Feliz Hills School site for a couple of years," Catania said. "It's valuable because in that part of the city, it's really the only large piece of open space available."

Proposition B, a similar, countywide parks bond measure on last November's ballot, failed to win the two-thirds vote needed for approval. But about 63% of Los Angeles city residents supported it, prompting officials to introduce Proposition 1 on the city ballot, Catania said.

Meanwhile, parents and teachers are preparing alternate plans for the next school year in case the measure fails and the school closes.

Parents are trying to relocate the preschool, kindergarten and first and second grades to local churches. There are no plans to relocate the third- through eighth-graders. Some teachers of older students have begun to look for jobs elsewhere, said Claudia Vianello, the school's treasurer and Silber's wife.

"Once we had to announce that we couldn't guarantee a program here next year and that we could not plan a summer program, of course some families started to look elsewhere," Vianello said. "But a lot of them feel like something else will be second best."

Parents and teachers were at the campus on a recent Sunday to help with "Studio Sunday," a fund-raising auction and tours of the Fox movie set. Sales of items such as hand-painted T-shirts, belly dancing lessons and hockey pucks signed by the Los Angeles Kings brought in about $7,500, Vianello said.

Fox began filming "Jack the Bear," starring Danny DeVito, on the set in late April. The company replaced the goal posts on the field with a paved road, sidewalks, nearly a dozen houses, trees, flowers and lawns. Old Chryslers, Mercurys and other cars, campaign stickers for McGovern and Nixon, posters of John F. Kennedy and other materials were added to help date the set.

After scouting for sites throughout California, Fox reportedly chose the Los Feliz Hills School campus on the recommendation of a production designer who once considered the school for her son, a company spokesman said.

"It is just uniquely situated," said producer Bruce Gilbert, whose films include "On Golden Pond" and "9 to 5."

"It has a lot of trees, and the surrounding hillsides are such that they lend themselves to a feeling of the Bay Area," Gilbert said. "It's a little movie magic--being able to create the illusion . . . out of what once was a soccer field and what will again be a soccer field."

Filming will continue through May. Fox will restore the field once filming is completed, Gilbert said.

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