Lawlor Professionals’ School
As is apparent from the (perhaps exaggerated) student number that Dr. Hunt cited in the passage on the previous page, the school thrived. The 1930 Los Angeles City Directory shows that Viola F. Lawlor 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, 5751 Hollywood Blvd., corner of Taft Avenue, 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.
Lawlor Professionals’ School, 6107 Franklin Avenue, Hollywood, California
Here the school continued to flourish, attracting many young actors and actresses and ice-skating superstars.
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 Professional 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)
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.
Next, learn about The Mar-Ken School.