By Helen Cook
New York, May 11 (efe-epa).- Long before Glee or Billy Elliot, 1980s blockbuster Fame captured the imagination of millions with a story about young artists who longed to be admitted to New York’s legendary High School of Performing Arts, an institution that 40 years since the movie’s release is still thriving.
With over 3,000 students, the school, now called Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School after merging with another institution in 1984, has been described by alumni as a “lifesaver” and “the best place on the face of the Earth”.
“You have to love what you’re doing to want to go there. And you have to work really hard once you are there. Not everybody goes on to become an actor or a singer or an artist,” Zoe Schneider, director of the Alumni Association of LaGuardia Arts tells Efe.
It is the school that inspired American producer David De Silva to create Fame, released on 12 May 1980 with a riveting plot and a catchy soundtrack later transformed into a six-season television series which was hugely successful.
The film told the story of aspiring dancers and actors Coco Hernández (Irene Cara), Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri), Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean) and Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) to show the experience of tens of thousands of people who have waltzed through LaGuardia’s classrooms.
Some of its most high profile alumni include Jennifer Aniston, Adrien Brody, Nicki Minaj and Sarah Michelle Gellar, and younger stars like Timothée Chalamet, Ansel Elgort, Azealia Banks, Awkwafina and Zazie Beetz.
In the 40 years since LaGuardia became the most famous high school in the US, the college has never shied away from its connection to Fame and even uses the cult soundtrack as its music on hold on its phone number.
Founded in 1936 by then-Mayor of New York Fiorello H. LaGuardia, the institution has always had an outstanding education in the arts at the heart of its ethos.
“What’s so important is having an arts education,” Schneider says.
“Studies all prove that studying art or studying music helps the brain and helps you learn how to do other things, it helps you with all sorts of critical thinking,” she adds.
Students dedicate half of their day to academic subjects and the other half to developing their arts practice.
Schnieder, who graduated from LaGuardia in 1989, says the film gives a fairly realistic view of what life is like for students but recalls the film is a “drama and not a documentary.”
“People are not cutting class the same way, they’re not being disrespectful to their teachers. That’s what’s different in the movie,” Schneider adds.
The director of the Alumni Association manages over 160 funding streams financed by former students and used for covering the costs of live music for dance and singing classes instead of using recorded music.
What has changed, for LaGuardia Spanish teacher Angelo Valerio, are the aspirations of students.
“Perhaps at the time of Leroy, there were more students who wanted to be singers and as soon as they finished high school they wanted to go to castings and get a job and never went back to studying. Now they are all a little more pragmatic because parents want them to have something to fall back on,” he says.
Valerio says languages are very important to actors and uses Chalamet as an example, saying he probably wouldn’t have been cast in Call Me By Your Name had not known how to speak French.
The vibrant atmosphere in the hallways and classrooms at the school does resemble the 80s film.
“Sometimes I think I have Leroy in my class,” the teacher adds.