HISTORY

A Brief History of a Unique School

A DEEP DIVE INTO THE VARIED HISTORY OF THE SCHOOL, FROM ITS ORIGINS AND INSPIRATION TO ITS EVENTUAL CLOSING. MANY NAMES PASSED THROUGH ITS DOORS AND MANY MEMORIES WERE MADE. 

About this History

Many Names, One School

The following history traces a private school that had three different names. It started in Hollywood, California, as Professional Children’s School, changed its name to Lawlor Professionals’ School, and then changed ownership and name to Mar-Ken School. Later Mar-Ken School moved to Sherman Oaks, in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, California.

Although we’ve completed much research, there are still some knowledge gaps about the schools. Your writer, Alan Simon, attended Mar-Ken School in 1955-56 when it was located in Sherman Oaks. Elsewhere on this website is a collection of yearbooks, photos and other school memorabilia listed by class years. The viewer will also find alumni and faculty lists containing photos, notes, Internet links and contact information when available. We would appreciate input from anyone having historical information, articles, photographs, or anything about the school.

Mar-Ken Main Building

Mar-Ken School – Sherman Oaks

1. SETTING THE STAGE

IN LOS ANGELES

Stage Children's School NYC 1916

First graduation Stage Children’s School – New York – 1916

Children who worked as actors were often thrust into their role by parents who included them in their own stage acts, or who saw their child as a means of earning a living. Often this occurred at a very young age, just two or three years old. As formal schooling was not required at that age, no thought was given to providing a formal education as the child matured and continued to work. The child grew up, and if lucky, crafted a living out of show business while doing his or her learning in the theaters and on the road by observing adults. There were usually few contacts with children not in show business, and play and peer group interaction was not part of their experience.

Although our Hollywood story starts with Professional Children’s School, the story of schooling show business youngsters starts with another school by the same name in 1913 New York. Today, the well-known and respected Professional Children’s School in Manhattan tells the story of its origins on its website.

As the New York Professional Children’s School history indicates, the silent movie industry was moving west — settling in Los Angeles. Selig Motion Picture Studio started the ball rolling with a studio at 7th and Olive in downtown Los Angeles in the spring of 1908, and others soon followed. Although Los Angeles had an established public school system that was very impressive, it required attendance and was not flexible to work around studio shooting schedules. The studios were cost driven and children as well as adult actors were expected to be there working whenever they were needed. Attempting to attend school with this pressure was impossible and impractical, as an actor absent from the set would be replaced by one who was available — end of career — end of income for the parents.

Whether there were other schools that formed to address the problem of educating child performers in Los Angeles in those early days, your writer does not yet know. However, one very famous school did rise up to meet the need: the Hollywood Conservatory of Music and Arts.

Headshot from a casting book

Although our Hollywood story starts with Professional Children’s School, the story of schooling show business youngsters starts with another school by the same name in 1913 New York. Today, the well-known and respected Professional Children’s School in Manhattan tells the story of its origins on its website.

As the New York Professional Children’s School history indicates, the silent movie industry was moving west — settling in Los Angeles. Selig Motion Picture Studio started the ball rolling with a studio at 7th and Olive in downtown Los Angeles in the spring of 1908, and others soon followed. Although Los Angeles had an established public school system that was very impressive, it required attendance and was not flexible to work around studio shooting schedules. The studios were cost driven and children as well as adult actors were expected to be there working whenever they were needed. Attempting to attend school with this pressure was impossible and impractical, as an actor absent from the set would be replaced by one who was available — end of career — end of income for the parents.

Whether there were other schools that formed to address the problem of educating child performers in Los Angeles in those early days, your writer does not yet know. However, one very famous school did rise up to meet the need: the Hollywood Conservatory of Music and Arts.

Headshot from a casting book

Gladys T. Littell was a graduate of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Arts. She taught piano there and later at the Rector Institute of Music Study. An ad that she took out on September 21, 1920 shows that she was offering piano and harmony lessons at 5444 Hollywood Boulevard (although she lived at 850 South Alvarado, where she also maintained a studio). For the next several years she was the Music Department Director at the Page School for Girls at 4511 Pasadena Avenue (corner of 45th Street) in Los Angeles. On August 21, 1921 Mrs. Littell filed a Certificate of Fictitious Name with the County of Los Angeles: “Hollywood Conservatory of Music and Arts.” She listed her residence at 850 South Alvarado.

At the time it was said that she founded the school of music with a large unit of her own piano pupils, adding department after department as the work grew. The school was located at first in the same location as her piano studio, 5444 Hollywood Boulevard. By 1927, the Los Angeles City Directory shows that the school had moved to the location it retained until it closed in 1985, on the corner of Serrano in that same Hollywood Boulevard block; 5400 Hollywood Boulevard. Although the official name of the school remained the Hollywood Conservatory of Music and Arts, it did business for most of its years as the Hollywood Professional School, through Mrs. Littell’s directorship and after it was sold to Bertha Mann in 1944.

Hollywood Professional School under both Mrs. Littell and Mrs. Mann seems to have followed the scheduling introduced in the New York Professional Children’s School, with morning classes only and time in the afternoon for rehearsals, auditions and studio work. If a student was involved with a production, whether movie, sport, or theater, accommodations were made.

Hollywood Boulevard 1922

Hollywood Boulevard 1922

Early photoshoot

I might note in passing that the Conservatory also had a branch in the San Fernando Valley, at least in 1925 through 1927 with Hazel C. Penny as Director. At first it was located at 312 1/2 Sherman Way, Van Nuys. Later it was listed at 6324 Van Nuys Boulevard, Van Nuys. Although I have not researched it, these may be the same location, as part of Van Nuys Blvd. was once known as Sherman Way. My guess is that this was a small operation where music lessons were given.

Gladys T. Littell was married to Francis M. Littell, an ironworker. Their daughter, Loretta, married E. Milton Hagener in June 1930. Gladys died on July 15, 1977 in Los Angeles at the age of 84. Her personal papers are in the Gladys T. Littell Collection at the Frances Howard Goldwyn Hollywood Regional Library, Special Collections Room, 1623 North Ivar Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90028.

Bertha Mann owned the Hollywood Professional School until her death in October, 1984. Her family ran the school thereafter until it closed in 1985. Captain Larry Stuppy began helping Mrs. Mann when he returned from Viet Nam in April 1972. He served as director, and later as principal of the school until the summer of 1984 when he left Hollywood Professional School to work as an airline pilot.

Your writer has found many stories purported to be early incidents at Hollywood Professional School, but which in fact did not occur there. There was fierce competition between schools vying for the child performer, and often the same actor or actress attended many schools, moving freely from one to the other. With each move the new school would claim credit for attendance. The alumni list on this website is no exception, with dates of attendance indicated when known for clarification.

2. THE START OF SOMETHING

PROFESSIONAL CHILDREN’S SCHOOL

1929-1931

With the Hollywood Conservatory of Music and Arts (the Hollywood Professional School) slowly transitioning from a music school to more of an academic institution in the early 1920’s, a dynamic woman arrived with her family from New York: Mrs. Viola Foss Lawlor. She and her husband — who became Freight and Passenger Representative (Agent) for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Los Angeles — brought their daughter Muriel and established their residence at 823 N. Laurel Avenue.

By 1929, the Los Angeles City Directory shows that Viola F. Lawlor was the Superintendent of the Professional Children’s School located at 5402 Hollywood Boulevard. This school, although using the same name, had no connection with the Professional Children’s School operating in New York. However, it catered to the same clientele, utilizing the same type of schedule as both the New York School and the Hollywood Conservancy of Music and Arts, which appears to be at virtually the same address (5400 vs. 5402 Hollywood Blvd.). Both addresses are at the corner of Serrano and in the same two-story building that occupied the site. Your writer has been unable to find any connection between the two schools, nor between Mrs. Littell and Mrs. Lawlor, although undoubtedly they knew one another. If anyone has a clue to this mystery, I would love to know it.

Clippings from 1931 Hollywood Filmograph

Pages from the 1931 Hollywood Filmograph

Hollywood Boulevard in the 1930s

Hollywood Boulevard in 1930

Art Deco Pattern

We do know through an interview of Mrs. Lawlor conducted by Rockwell D. Hunt, and published in 1930 in “California and Californians” (The Lewis Publishing Company, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Vol. 4, p. 162) that Mrs. Lawlor wanted to give her musician daughter the kind of education that she later provided in the Professional Children’s School, but was not able to locate a school that met her expectations at a “reasonable figure.” “Finally she opened her present school in order to give her daughter the advantages she wished her to have, and to give to other people’s children the same opportunities,” Dr. Hunt writes.

Dr. Hunt continues:

“Mrs. Lawlor has long been interested in the stage and has a wide acquaintance and friendship with stage people, and it was her knowledge of the problem that led her to give stage children a school where they could secure an education and yet have the time to carry on their artistic work, whether it was music, dancing, motion pictures or other diversions. She also realized that each child should be treated as an entity, not en masse, so, while her school meets the requirements of the educational laws of the state, the pupils have more freedom in mental and physical development. She trains her pupils from first grade through high school work, and she has an enrollment of nearly three hundred, all that she can accommodate, but she is already making arrangements for expansion. As rapidly as the child is capable of receiving it, she gives intensive individual training.”

It is likely that Mrs. Lawlor’s concept of the school she had in mind originated at the New York School whose name she used, as she had recently come from there. Whether she had any direct connection to the New York institution your writer has been unable to discover so far.

We do know that after the school was opened, her daughter Muriel did attend. Muriel later changed her name to Elaine Hammond (not sure if that is a married name) and performed professionally as the Banjo Girl.

Banjo and music notes

3. A NAME CHANGE

LAWLOR PROFESSIONALS’ SCHOOL

1931-1937

As is apparent from the (perhaps exaggerated) student number that Dr. Hunt cited in the passage in the previous section, the school thrived. The 1930 Los Angeles City Directory shows that Viola F. Lawlor (internal link) and May Ely were the school Directors. By 1931 there is a name change, and Viola Lawlor is shown to be the Principal of the Lawlor Professionals’ School. Did someone object to the school having the same name as the one in New York? At that time in 1931, it was still located at 5402 Hollywood Boulevard, along with Hollywood Professional School.

Then in March 1935, Ma Lawlor’s (as the school was affectionately called) moved west from the southwest corner of Serrano and Hollywood Boulevard to 5751 Hollywood Boulevard — the house that later would become actor/aviator Reginald Denny’s Hobby Shop.

Lawlor Professionals' School

Lawlor Professionals’ School – 5751 Hollywood Boulevard – Corner of Taft Ave, Hollywood California

In 1937 another move took the Lawlor Professionals’ School to a large house at 6107 Franklin Avenue, Hollywood, between Gower Street and Carmen Avenue. Here the school continued to flourish, attracting many young actors and actresses and ice-skating superstars.

6107 Franklin location of the school

Lawlor Professionals’ School – 6107 Franklin Avenue – Hollywood California

Judy Garland as a young girl

Judy Garland

There is a persistent story that circulates through the Hollywood community that Hollywood Professional School was started in 1935 when M-G-M’s Louis B. Mayer was having trouble employing Judy Garland due to the school district insisting that she attend classes. It was said that he asked Bertha Mann to open a professional school for performers, a prep school which would schedule its classes to accommodate the young star’s work hours — thus starting a new concept in schools. As we now know, this story is completely false, as the concept started in New York in 1913, and even Hollywood Professional pre-dated Mrs. Mann’s involvement by over twenty years. The rumor may well have originated within the Hollywood Professional School itself as the people involved in these schools were all star struck and spent much of their energy linking themselves with celebrity children. More about this later, but first a look at Judy Garland to set the record straight.

The Gumm family came west from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, to get their children a better opportunity in show business. Not being able to find a theater to buy in Los Angeles, they moved to Lancaster, California where they owned a small legitimate theater — the only one in this very rural town located in the desert about sixty-five miles from Hollywood. There the Gumm sisters, Jane, Virginia and the baby, Frances, performed on stage with their song and dance routines. The sisters’ parents, Ethel and Frank Gumm, recognized that Frances had a talent beyond that of her sisters, and Ethel moved into Hollywood to get her well-positioned for better billings. For a full story of Frances’ transformation into the legendary Judy Garland, I urge the reader to read Lawlor Professionals’ School alumna Diana Serra Cary’s (Baby Peggy’s) wonderful book, Hollywood’s Children, An Inside Account of the Child Star Era. (Southern Methodist University Press)

Early photoshoot

1935 School Memorabilia

Mrs. Cary tells about Judy Garland’s first day at Lawlor in 1934, and how Frances Gumm, as she was then known, was an instant hit with Baby Peggy, Mickey Rooney, Frankie Darro, the other students, and Ma Lawlor, as she belted out “Blue Moon” with her mother at the piano. The book also has many other insights into life in Ma Lawlor’s School. 

This account, along with Mickey Rooney’s, establishes that Judy and Mickey met and performed their first pieces together at the Lawlor Professionals’ School, and that the rumor about this occurring at Hollywood Professional is simply an urban legend.

Viola Lawlor continued to build her school, but a problem with her eyesight forced her to give it up. Today, her severe cataracts would be treatable, but in the late 1930s they forced her into retirement. Minnie Ethel Bessire had worked for Mrs. Lawlor as an assistant administrator for many years. And, although I cannot find any true documentation of it, students do recall her as a stern woman, and remember her name because, behind her back, they would jokingly change her name to Mrs. Brassiere. The last reference I found before she appears heading Mar-Ken School is in the 1931 Los Angeles City Directory where she was in real estate: Bessire & J.D. McAlpine, 546 N. Western Avenue, Los Angeles.

1935 student headshots

1935 Student Headshots

4. A SHIFT TO COLLEGE PREPATORY

THE MAR-KEN SCHOOL

1937 – 1960s

On November 8, 1937, the State of California issued corporation papers for Mar-Ken School. Thus, the Lawlor Professionals’ School transitioned to a school that emphasized academic achievement, but retained its focus on show business children. Minnie Ethel Bessire was the President of the new corporation, and it continued operation at 6107 Franklin Avenue, Hollywood.

The mystery of the name Mar-Ken was solved by alumna Gerry Morgan. She learned of the name’s origin from alumna Martha Burnett who was a friend of alumna actress Martha O’Driscoll. When Mrs. Bessire took over the school from Mrs. Lawlor, Martha O’Driscoll’s mother was a financial partner in the school. Mrs. Bessire’s son’s name was William Kent Bessire. The two women decided to name the school after their children — thus the MAR came from MARtha, and the KEN came from KENt.

VanNuys Location

The Mar-Ken School – 9562 Van Nuys Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, California

California Educational Seal

The Mar-Ken School Seal 1937

Minnie Ethel Bessire, was affectionately called “Mrs. B.” She was born Minnie Ethel Piper in Illinois on March 10, 1890. Her husband, Paul B. Bessire, was born on July 17, 1884 in Illinois and passed away in Los Angeles on November 4, 1964. He retired from his job as a salesman, and then supervisor at Sears Roebuck and Company, to work at the school. He was cook, bottle washer and chauffer, as well as the person that everyone at Mar-Ken went to with their troubles and needs.

The Bessires lived at 506 N. Bronson, Hollywood. In the late 1940s they moved to the San Fernando Valley on a 3.5 acre ranch at 5435 Kester Avenue, Van Nuys, California. They continued to live on the ranch until they moved into the Buck Jones home around March of 1951.

After the Lawlor era, the school continued as a success, attracting many children who were movie stars or competition ice skaters, and others whose parents were in the entertainment industry. 

It maintained the same flexible scheduling, with classes in the morning hours. Alumna Gloria Vauges (Mohr) recalls the school as a “little house where chemistry was taught in the basement.” A college program was added that had classes for the 13th and 14th grade, with the first (and perhaps, only) Junior College student attending in 1950. The high school curriculum was set on an academic, college preparatory course. A “Mar-Ken School Bulletin of Information for 1939-1940” sets out in great detail the impressive program offered to its students.

The house that served as the school on Franklin Avenue burned down in 1948/49, taking all the school records with it. With the Hollywood site gone, the Bessires moved the school in 1949 to a rented home at 4562 Van Nuys Boulevard, Sherman Oaks.

The San Fernando Valley, especially along the southern foothills, had become the bedroom community for the movie industry, and moving from Hollywood to Sherman Oaks was an opportunity to be close to the Bessires’ ranch and in the neighborhood of their clientele. The school sat on the west side of Van Nuys Boulevard, just opposite of where Hortense Street intersects Van Nuys Blvd. A sign in front of the school facing Van Nuys Boulevard traffic announced: “New Location — Mar-Ken School — College Preparatory — Accredited — Co-educational.”

Buck Jones house

The Mar-Ken School in former Buck Jones House – 14050 Magnolia Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, California

In March 1951, another move was underway to a larger facility, and on June 26, 1951, the City of Los Angeles issued Mar-Ken School a use permit to operate a school at the former home of cowboy movie star Buck Jones and his wife Odille, at 14050 Magnolia Boulevard, Sherman Oaks.

The Jones house was now being called the “Hacienda de la Escuela,” or alternatively, “The Mar-Ken School and Ranch,” as there were still stables with horses out back, along with other various farm animals, which the Bessires moved from their Kester Avenue ranch property which they sold. The Sherman Oaks location allowed for a small number of students to live on the property. Students ranged from junior high school grades through high school, with the emphasis on college preparatory work.

Drawing from yearbook

Handdrawn art from the 1954 Class Yearbook

Page from yearbook

From the 1954 Class Yearbook

In March 1951, another move was underway to a larger facility, and on June 26, 1951, the City of Los Angeles issued Mar-Ken School a use permit to operate a school at the former home of cowboy movie star Buck Jones and his wife Odille, at 14050 Magnolia Boulevard, Sherman Oaks.

The Jones house was now being called the “Hacienda de la Escuela,” or alternatively, “The Mar-Ken School and Ranch,” as there were still stables with horses out back, along with other various farm animals, which the Bessires moved from their Kester Avenue ranch property which they sold. The Sherman Oaks location allowed for a small number of students to live on the property. Students ranged from junior high school grades through high school, with the emphasis on college preparatory work.

In 1953, a building was added to the grounds to serve as a science building classroom. (See photo of the groundbreaking ceremony.) Prior to the added space, chemistry classes were often conducted outdoors on a table in the patio area. In fact, many classes during the Sherman Oaks days of the school were conducted outside. If the weather was nice, it was common to gather on the front lawn, or go to the beach, or to a dozen other favorite get-away spots. Everyone appreciated being treated as mature enough to learn while not confined to the rigidity of a classroom. Alumnus Glen Rogers recalls, “Mar-Ken was certainly an interesting school. I remember Mr. B at breakfast time, Kent and some of the teachers — the whole experience of sitting informally in groups, in the living room, on the lawn, going to the beach and the long discussions in the humanities classes. Even the problem solving approach to geometry and trig made the math interesting. A ‘Summerhill’ like experiment, the school made learning an exploratory experience, and prepared me well for the next 50 years of an education that never ends. Kent deserves some recognition for what he was attempting in some kind of low-key approach to a more open classroom.”

M. Ethel Bessire continued as the director of the school. Her son, William Kent Bessire (born in Illinois on May 8, 1919) was a graduate of the University of Southern California. Although he had a teacher’s credential and had taught classes at both the Mar-Ken Hollywood and Sherman Oaks sites, Kent’s real love and ambition was dancing and acting. Upon his mother’s sudden passing on February 10, 1954 at the age of 63, Kent found himself the director of the school. He taught classes and made all the arrangements for the many outings and events that made the school such a special educational experience as Glen Rogers noted above.

Mar-Ken School ceased to exist in the early 1960s, shortly after Kent sold the Jones property in 1959 to Rose Hopgood. A nursery school occupied the Jones home for about ten more years. The buildings, consisting primarily of the main house, the added science building, a barn and an out-building, were demolished in March 1980 to make way for the enormous apartment (condo) complex that today occupies the site on the southeast corner of Magnolia Boulevard and Hazeltine Avenue, Sherman Oaks, California.

William Kent Bessire passed away in San Diego, California on June 30, 1993.

Yearbook Collage

From Photo Collage Yearbook Pages

Thoughts about the school
Alumni Memories
Acknowledgements

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