Main > Series > Articles/Interviews > TV Guide February 26, 1983

Where is the feel of books? The smell of chalk?

A teacher at New York's School of Performing Arts admires 'Fame's visual excitement, but questions the show's authenticity.

By Bel Kaufman

"Is this the school where Coco goes?" asked a father who recently brought his daughter to the School of Performing Arts, propelled to its door by the TV series Fame. He is not the only one misled into thinking that the Hollywood version, the so-called "School of the Arts," portrays the real school-- PA, as it is familiarly known. I have taught at PA for many years; I love the school. As a member of its advisory commission, which has worked faithfully to preserve its identity and integrity, I regret that Fame, no matter how entertaining, has created this confusion. And entertaining it is. For all its faults, it is far superior to those TV school series in which teachers are stand-up comics and students overgrown vulgarians. It offers a balance to the prevailing picture of school as a blackboard jungle. It shows decent kids and caring teachers. It exposes the viewer to original choreography and music and to exuberant dancing by professionals. But it is not PA, although it has become identified with it as closely as the film from which the series sprang. The school has received so many inquiries that it had to print a form letter. "Contrary to what the TV series, Fame, has led the general public to believe..." explaining that it's a public school, open to applicants, in 8th and 9th grade who reside in New York and who pass auditions in one of three departments: drama, dance or music. It's a small, intimate school of some 600 students, chosen from thousands who apply, housed in a shabby building, in a sleazy Times Square area. Inside, dedicated teaching is going on, and learning: pliés under peeling plaster, rehearsals in the drafty basement, orchestra in the music room, book reports in English, experiments in science. Walk through the halls of PA, awash with youngsters at change of classes. Step into the freshman ballet class: see the children at the mirror straining to pull in tummies still baby-soft. Look in on the basement where instead of crowded jam sessions portrayed in Fame- you're likely to see a few drama seniors, white and black, reading a scene from Euripides. Children from various backgrounds, economic, social and racial, work together in the true democracy of the arts. This is one quality Fame has vividly captured. Next year, PA is moving, with the High School of Music and Art, into a new $50 million building equipped with the latest facilities, in the Lincoln Center complex. Yet the old building was good enough for its illustrious alumni: Al Pacino, Liza Minnelli, Ben Vereen, Pinchas Zukerman, Eartha Kitt, and many others. "You want fame?" asks the dance teacher in the preface to each episode in the series. "Well, fame costs, and right here is where you start paying." But we don't see the payment in terms of its relentless daily grind. We see the spirited weekly production numbers that appear to be spontaneous, like in those films of the '30s where an unknown steps into the dance lead at a moment's notice and gives a flawless performance, or a composer strikes a note on the piano that develops into an instant symphony. "I'm gonna make it to heaven/Light up the sky like a flame," goes the theme song of the series. Fame is a Hollywood goal, a TV concept. It is not necessarily the motivation of PA students. They are there to develop their potential, perfect their craft, become employable in the performing arts or-- more realistically-- to go on to college, as the majority of its graduates do. For some children, PA means not lighting up the sky but getting out of their tenement and slum. These are talented youngsters Who could never afford private lessons, who otherwise would have been lost in the crowded corridors of their neighborhood schools, or dropped out into the violence of the street, or graduated into hopelessness. I have taught in such schools, where students have nothing to look forward to in school or out. "Being young does me no good," a boy told me. "My future is down the drain." Whatever their private dreams when they enter PA, its students are realistic and sophisticated. A PA student would never (as one does in Fame) get a job as a busboy in a restaurant in the hope of meeting Johnny Carson, thrilled that Carson says: "Buzz off, kid." A PA dance teacher would never (as one does in Fame) dance on the street in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to attract the attention of a "celebrity" so that he might address the students. Many part-time teachers at PA are celebrities themselves; in my day there, Sidney Lumet and Vinnette Carroll taught drama and Robert Joffrey ballet. It's unfair to compare life and fiction; life is often more dramatic. At PA the drama lies not in such plots as appear in Fame (girl with multiple sclerosis, boy who pops pills, tearful reconciliation between parent and child) but in daily struggles, setbacks, triumphs and the gradual growth of a raw freshman into a poised professional. In its guise of PA, Fame misses the point of the school's existence. Where is the feel of books, the smell of chalk? Occasional brief glimpses of academic classrooms remind the viewer that it's supposed to be a school. Much of the action takes place in dance class, which is run as a kind of rehearsal hall. Drama is slighted, music is mostly electronic, dance is primarily rock-jazz. In PA, half of the school day is devoted to academic subjects, half to drama, music or dance-ballet or modern. Jazz is offered only to seniors, once a week. There is no cross-over by students or teachers among the three departments, such as constantly appears on Fame, where the dance teacher is also involved in drama; the English teacher is involved in everything and everyone; and only the music teacher, Shorofsky, played to the hilt by Albert Hague, keeps his center of gravity and is the most credible and interesting character on that ersatz faculty. Publicity for Fame describes its school as one "where dreams encounter reality," but the series seems to be getting further and further away from reality. A half-naked belly dancer suddenly whirls into the EngIish classroom. A dance teacher takes her entire class singing and dancing down the streets of New York, colored balloons blooming overhead, led by musicians who look like frenzied Pied Pipers. Visually exciting, realistically absurd. As an English teacher, I was baffled by the English teacher in Fame who worked painstakingly to help a black student perfect his speech for a role in "Othello," even though the play itself was jazzed up -with musical production numbers TV("Desde-Desde-Desdemona" wails the chorus) because the students wanted "to put a couple of laughs into this turkey." That is not the school I know. I remember teaching "Hamlet" to my seniors at PA, among whom were Richard Benjamin, Jessica Walter, Suzanne Pleshette and Michael Kahn (today the eminent director of Shakespeare), as well as others who were able to appreciate the play without debasing it. In her book, "With Malice Toward Some," Margaret Halsey speaks of English women's shoes that look as if they had been made by someone who had often heard shoes described, but had never seen a pair. This can be said of the school in Fame. Never at PA would a hall monitor penalize a girl by making her "do extra assignments" and forbidding her to appear in a play. Never at PA would students put on a show for parents. The only time their performance is open to the public and critics is at the annual concerts given by each of the three departments. Students and teachers at PA enjoy a warm, friendly relationship. The line between friendliness and familiarity is a thin one; teachers in Fame often trample upon it. "Fame is not a documentary; it's entertainment," is the stock response to criticism. True. Its formula is sure-fire: like a ship or a Grand Hotel, school is a setting for human-interest problems. In its first year, Fame won several Emmys. But its inaccuracies and absurdities are damaging because they are attributed to a real school that serves as a model for other schools in this country and abroad. It may mislead those teen-agers for whom the show has become almost a cult, They want to go to the school where Coco went-but for the wrong reasons. PA is a school where go many unsung, unheralded youngsters who never achieve fame or even its pale facsimile, success, but who have been given a sense of their worth, an appreciation of the arts and hope for the future. PA is much more than meets the TV eye.

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