Some Thoughts About the School by Alan H. Simon
It seems clear that the concept of providing a specialty school for children performers to allow them to work and get an education originated in New York in 1913. When Mrs. Littell founded the Hollywood Conservatory of Music and Arts, the focus was primarily on the music and arts, and not on academic achievement. As more children became involved in the demanding schedules of the motion picture industry and their time on the movie sets clashed with the mandatory education laws and an intolerant public school schedule, the need for a stronger academic component became necessary. It is possible, although no evidence has yet surfaced, that Mrs. Lawlor’s search for an academic setting for her daughter, with the flexibility of only morning classes, brought her to open her school in the same building as the Conservatory. It may well be that in the beginning she provided the strong academic component that the Conservatory was weak in, with the two schools complementing each other and actually sharing students.
We know that there were many other schools that functioned in the Hollywood area, not the least of which was “Meglin’s Kiddies,” and they provided the music and arts education only. Mrs. Lawlor, with her interest in the theater arts, would have been familiar with the New York Professional Children’s School, and probably used it as a model, even initially using the same name. Later, the Conservatory, seeing a missed opportunity, strengthened its academic classes, changed its name to Hollywood Professional School, and competed more directly. Mrs. Lawlor then moved down the boulevard, and later to the Franklin Avenue site.
It appears that Lawlor Professionals’ School, Mar-Ken School, and Hollywood Professional School each had the same driving force behind it — that of celebrity. None of the directors seemed to be as interested in making a profit as they did in being associated with starlets or other celebrity children or parents.
Pat Conlin tells of being on an unknown scholarship that paid her and her sister Dolly’s tuition. Pat was making movies, Dolly was not acting. As soon as Pat graduated, the scholarship for Dolly’s tuition ended, forcing her to attend public school, and she transferred and graduated from Hollywood High School.
Edith Fellows tells of her struggles in public primary school, being harassed by the other kids and the teachers. One particularly bad day, she had to go to school with her hair all fixed up in curlers to be ready for a movie she was acting in. The other kids teased her and the teachers insisted that she couldn’t wear her hair like that in school. Mrs. Lawlor heard about it and called her grandmother, telling her, “That girl can’t stay in public school, bring her to my school.” Her grandmother told Mrs. Lawlor that she couldn’t do that because she didn’t have money to pay for it. Mrs. Lawlor assured her that was okay. Later, Mrs. Lawlor took her grandmother to court for owed tuition money, and won. Her grandmother paid the tuition as Edith by then was making money.
Edith Fellows attended Lawlor and Hollywood Professional, but she concluded her high school work under the private tutelage of a wonderful teacher, Lillian Barkeley, on the 20th Century Lot. When she finished the 12th grade, Ms. Barkeley said, “Edith, you can’t graduate here in this little room with no one but the studio writers in the next room. You need to graduate with a class.” With that, she approached Mrs. Mann at Hollywood Professional and asked her to have actress Fellows graduate with the Hollywood Professional class, even though she had not attended the school in many years. The idea was heartily endorsed.
John Barrymore graduated from Mar-Ken School. He was seldom there as he was working most of the time, but special arrangements were made. As alumnus Frank Kesling tells it, “He is and was at the Van Nuys Blvd. ‘schoolhouse’ several times in 49/50. He did not attend regularly, but was given assignments and tested in each grade until graduating.” In the 1950 Mar-Ken Yearbook, “Mid-Century,” it is explained this way: John Barrymore Jr. is Mar-Ken’s other special student. Although he is not attending Junior College, John is fulfilling his high school level training here and on location with his tutor while making recent pictures. He is most interested in furthering his education and continuing with his promising future in the theatrical world.
Arrangements such as this were common; the important thing was to identify with the famous. Of course this also accommodated the busy child performers and allowed them to continue their work, satisfy the School Board, and get some education.
Over the years there appeared to be a lot of kids on tuition scholarships, but how they were paid for is still a mystery. This continued almost to the end of Mar-Ken’s existence.
The casual approach to education was a stimulus and relief to many students who were suffocated by the more rigid public school approach. There were formal classes, but as noted above, often they were held out of the classroom.
Such classes were supplemented with many outside experiences, especially in the Mar-Ken years, with routine trips to the USC film classics, the Chinese Cultural Society for dinner lectures, the theater and opera, and guest lecturers at the school such as the great Shakespearean Scholar, Dr. Frank Baxter. And for the students who were fortunate enough to go, there were wonderful summer school sessions in Mexico. Not a week went by without extracurricular learning experiences for those who wished to engage.
In interviewing alumni, the majority had a positive learning experience at Lawlor and Mar-Ken. For many, it turned their lives around, allowing them to continue their education and preparing them well for the lives that followed their schooling. As with any small organization, the personal intrigues were many, and the rumors rampant — in my search for the facts, many stories turned out to be false, others probably true. However, on balance, the school offered much and played an important positive role in many students’ lives. Those memories have driven people to encourage me with this project. I hope those who read these pages take away a positive feeling for the efforts of the educators involved for improving the lives of their students.
A footnote to the creation of Mar-Ken is something that I ran into in researching the Littell collection in the Los Angeles Public Library. There was a newsprint dated November 1, 1937 (the same week that Mar-Ken School was incorporated) from the Ken-Mar School of Music. The newsprint was Volume 1, Number 1, so Ken-Mar School of Music must have been new. Is this a coincidence? None of the names were familiar. The school was founded by Mary McCabe Yerke and Kenneth S. Yerke, both musicians and music teachers. It was located at 1544 N. Hayworth Avenue, Hollywood, California. The only other piece of relevant information in the four-page newsprint was that it was formerly known for four years as the Ken-Mar Salon, which apparently sponsored recitals. If anyone knows anything about Ken-Mar we would love to hear about it.
Next, learn about the Alumni Memories.