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Schoolhouse rock

Garfield alums Los Lobos plug in to help the auditorium that unites a neighborhood.

September 29, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

The arson fire that destroyed the historic auditorium at Garfield High School earlier this year all but obliterated the framed portraits of illustrious alumni that had hung on a now-charred wall of fame. It was as if the blaze had tried to snuff out their identity and achievements, leaving only blackened and blistered images like specters of the success that means so much to this East L.A. campus and its blue-collar community.

Somehow, one of the images survived almost unscathed. It was a portrait of Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, the famed East L.A. band, wearing his characteristic dark glasses and impassive expression, like a silent witness to the destruction. He's not calling it a miracle, but the musician took the sparing of his portrait as an omen for the band.

"It's a calling," said Rosas. "It means we're on a mission from God to try to help."

Los Lobos will do just that next month at a benefit concert to raise funds for the reconstruction of the classic school auditorium that was gutted in the May 20 fire, sustaining an estimated $30 million in damage.

The band, whose original four members are all Garfield graduates from the early 1970s, will headline a bill with other Chicano artists -- Tierra, Little Willie G of Thee Midniters and El Chicano -- representing the classic "Eastside sound" that marked a musical era. The Oct. 14 event at Gibson Amphitheatre also features the legendary Tex-Mex band Little Joe y La Familia as well as Upground, Garfield's hot new upstarts playing a fusion of salsa, ska, R&B and rock.

The campaign to rally around the school reflects the loyalty and pride that Garfield graduates carry with them for the rest of their lives, passed on from one generation to the next. They're not nicknamed Bulldogs for nothing. They're tough and protective of their turf. Just ask the rival Roughriders at Roosevelt High in Boyle Heights, representing a school rivalry as traditional in Southern California as the one pitting USC and UCLA.

But rivalry could have turned to warfare if the arsonist had turned out to be from another neighborhood. So school officials breathed a sigh of relief when police arrested a suspect in the case this month: a 16-year-old Garfield freshman who lived within walking distance of the school. The student was reportedly angry at a teacher, said Principal Omar Del Cueto, grateful that nobody was hurt in the early morning blaze.

Instead, the victim was the school's creative soul. This now-hollow auditorium once resonated with the artistic spirit of students spanning more than three-quarters of a century.

Garfield did not just lose a building. East L.A. lost a piece of its heart.

"This little mixed-up kid, God forgive him," said Rosas. "He's just too immature to realize the damage he's caused."

By chance, the school's loss dovetails with themes reflected in the latest album by Los Lobos, "The Town and the City," in which songwriter Louie Perez reflects on the fading memories of his childhood in East L.A. Time and gentrification have taken their toll; the old movie palaces have closed and that corner barbershop has been replaced by a Starbucks. Now, this grand auditorium is gone too, with its handcrafted wooden chairs, ornate molding, wrought-iron chandeliers and domed ceiling.

"I feel like, 'Wow, another part of me that can never be re-created,' "said Perez, who lives in Yorba Linda. "When something like this is tragically taken away from you, you feel robbed."

On Friday, the band members and former schoolmates, including David Hidalgo and Conrad Lozano, ventured into the damaged structure for the first time since the fire. The eerie scene resembles a bombed-out building from World War II, with charred bricks exposed on the high walls, deep crevices where the floor used to be and a tangled lattice of twisted metal beams suspended overheard and silhouetted against the open sky where the ceiling collapsed.

Hidalgo, lead singer and songwriter, entered through a hallway, stage left. He surveyed the empty shell of the auditorium and shook his head in dismay. "Hijo, it's terrible," he muttered. "Man, this is awful."

A protective asbestos curtain, once considered a potential health hazard, salvaged some items behind the stage. Now, a smudged and crinkled charro hat, once the proud prop of some mariachi, sits discarded on the stage near the charred hulk of a sound board. A few rows of salvaged wooden seats are piled on top of one another. Velvet curtains still hang in place, sooty but intact.

Crews have reinforced the walls with steel beams and state officials have tested bricks to see if the heat had changed their composition. No date or cost has been set for reconstruction, which will be covered primarily by insurance minus a $500,000 deductible paid by the district. The fundraiser, with backing from the Garfield Alumni Foundation, will allow the school to upgrade equipment beyond what insurance will buy to meet modern entertainment industry standards, said Del Cueto.

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