A Shift to College Preparatory: Mar-Ken School
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.
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 chauffeur, 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.”
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.
Next, read the Thoughts About the School.