Fairfax High School, whose history reflects the changing Jewish demographics of the Fairfax District, has evolved over the decades as a diverse place of learning, mirroring Los Angeles’ racial tensions and triumphs in the process.
On Oct. 6, Friends of Fairfax celebrates the high school’s rich 88-year history with its Legacy Gala at the Wilshire Ebell, which will honor Fairfax graduates Annette Familian Shapiro (1949), founding board member and president of Beit T’Shuvah; Broadcom co-founder Henry Samueli (1971); philanthropist Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer (1953); and musician and A&M Records co-founder Herb Alpert (1953). The gala’s cornerstone will be a concert by Alpert and his wife, singer Lani Hall.
“The Fairfax alumni we are honoring are all incredibly successful, compassionate, giving human beings,” Friends of Fairfax’s Joyce Kleifield said. “We consider them role models for our students today and are confident that their stories will have a positive impact on our school community.”
Located at Melrose and Fairfax avenues, Fairfax High opened in 1924 as an agricultural and mechanical school in what was then the nation’s largest agricultural county. The 28-acre campus’ educational emphasis included landscape gardening, agronomy, arboriculture, architecture and forestry. A decade later, Los Angeles’ Jewish population had grown from 40,000 to about 70,000. Fairfax’s surrounding neighborhood caught the Jewish community’s westward migration from its original Boyle Heights cluster, with Fairfax Avenue becoming the new Brooklyn Avenue (Canter’s Deli included).
At least two decades have passed since the school contained a sizable Jewish demographic. By the 1990s, Fairfax’s once-robust Jewish population dwindled to a Russian-Jewish contingent that included actress Mila Kunis and athlete Lenny Krazelburg.
“The school was about 75 percent Jewish [in the late 1960s] … and much, much less so when I left [in 1987],” said Donald Michael Platt, who began teaching such courses as AP European history and creative writing at Fairfax in 1967.
At its 2006 peak, Fairfax’s student body, which includes the Magnet Center for Visual Arts, numbered 3,174. Today, the student population is about 2,800. According to 2011 figures, Fairfax’s ethnic makeup breaks down to 40.8 percent Hispanic, 27.4 percent African-American, 21.5 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 8.6 percent Caucasian and/or Jewish, and 0.4 percent Native American.
Kleifield, a 1972 Palm Springs High grad, got involved with Fairfax in 2007 as she prepared to send her youngest son there.
“Education today sometimes gets caught up in the quest for higher test scores and improved data,” she said. “At Fairfax, we want to be sure the whole person is nurtured ... teaching the importance of being a contributing member of society.”
“Contributions to society” is not an overstatement in Fairfax’s case. Among its alumni are nine-term congressman/erstwhile presidential candidate Jack Kemp, who attended with Eisenberg-Keefer back when she was Joyce Goodman.
Eisenberg-Keefer has contributed millions to myriad Jewish organizations and medical institutions as president of the Ben B. and Joyce E. Eisenberg Foundation. She helped establish Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and contributed to Friends of the IDF and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. She has donated $14 million to Israel Tennis Centers for over 30 years and plans to donate a gift to the 2013 Maccabi Games.
“I actually hated school,” Eisenberg-Keefer said. “I asked [Friends of Fairfax], ‘What are you honoring me for? I wanted to get out of school.’ ”
As a teen, Eisenberg-Keefer worked at Prudential Life Insurance on Wilshire Boulevard between Fairfax and La Brea avenues, as well as at two Thrifty Drug stores on Wilshire.
Today, Alpert, who donates to more than 350 music-related causes annually, has subsidized Fairfax’s music department.
But in 1952, Alpert performed at parties and clubs for date money.
“We had a little band called the Colonial Trio,” Alpert recalled. With drummer Norm Shapiro and pianist Fred Santos, his musical outfit won a local TV “Talent Battle” contest. The high school’s Jewish demographic was so prevalent back then, Alpert said that Kemp used to joke that Fairfax’s non-Jewish students just held a meeting ... in a phone booth.
Alpert’s family lived near Fuller and Rosewood avenues when the budding jazz musician drove his ’47 Chevy convertible to school. Although he loved playing trumpet, he had no aspirations to be a professional musician until he played in the Army band while at Fort Knox, where he found inspiration among his peers.
“I met a lot of trumpet players who were as good as or better than me,” said Alpert, who added that he was determined to succeed rather than dwell on his shortcomings. Inspired by Louis Armstrong, Harry James and Miles Davis, Alpert continued playing in the Sixth Army Band while stationed for 18 months at the Presidio.
“I had to come up with my own identity, my own sound,” he said. “When I was discharged, I pursued that.”
Alpert started his band, the Tijuana Brass, in 1962, and together with Jerry Moss, he founded A&M Records (Alpert & Moss). “We started it with a handshake in 1962,” Alpert said.
Rami Jaffee (1987), another descendant of Fairfax’s formidable musical fraternity, remembers cutting demos with his band, the Wallflowers, at A&M’s studios. As a youth, the keyboardist found the Tijuana Brass’ rare feat with “The Lonely Bull” impressive.
“These guys hit the chart with an instrumental,” Jaffee said. “There were no vocals!”
Alpert was one of myriad famous Lions. Actors Mickey Rooney, Ricardo Montalban, Carole Lombard, David Janssen, Timothy Hutton, Demi Moore and David Arquette attended Fairfax, as did TV producer Quinn Martin (then Irwin Martin Cohn).
Sports is well represented, too, including Olympics swimmers Mark Spitz and Krayzelburg and Major League Baseball’s Mike Epstein, Larry Sherry and Norm Sherry (whom Eisenberg-Keefer dated). Zev Yaroslavsky and Peggy Stevenson join Kemp on Fairfax’s roster of politicians, while “M*A*S*H” creator Larry Gelbart, Janet Fitch and James Ellroy are among its writers.
If Fairfax has an unofficial magnet program, it would be in music, an industry to which the school has contributed disproportionately with some of the world’s biggest acts. In addition to Alpert, satirist Allan Sherman, Leiber and Stoller’s Jerry Leiber, Warren Zevon and producer Phil Spector all attended Fairfax. Considered one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, Slash (né Saul Hudson) of Guns ’N’ Roses is an alumnus, as are L.A. Guns’ frontman Tracii Guns (né Tracy Ulrich), Jermaine Jackson and opera singer Jerome Hines.
The founding members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, including Michael “Flea” Balzary, considered rock’s premier bassist, and Jack Irons (who later drummed for Pearl Jam and recently joined the Wallflowers) met at Fairfax.
Platt, an erudite, professorial teacher who wore blazers with elbow patches, left such an impression on students that Red Hot Chili Peppers lead singer Anthony Kiedis mentioned him in his memoir, 2004’s “Scar Tissue.”
Now retired in Florida, author Platt (“A Gathering of Vultures”) recalled Irons as “androgynous” and Balzary as “a slacker.”
“Tony was popular, Balzary followed his lead,” Platt said. “Tony was … grateful I pointed him toward doing a report on Uriah Levy. He was not averse to studying. Tony got A’s in all four of my classes. Balzary did a report, word for word, about Albert Schweitzer from a book published before he won the Nobel Prize.”
Platt does not don rose-colored glasses looking back at his Fairfax years and is not shy about discussing the warts, from unprepared faculty to counselors who discouraged students from taking AP classes.
“On the positive side, I made many lifelong friends among the students I taught and saw them succeed, both as human beings and at whatever endeavor they chose,” he said.
Students such as Eric Dyson (1987), an accomplished cameraman/director of photography who worked on Fox’s “24.”
“This was a place that was an urban blend of cultures and styles,” said Dyson, director of the upcoming feature “Park After Dark,” “a time when the racial landscape of the school was in transition.”
Sala Iwamatsu and Lara Morris Starr also graduated Fairfax 25 years ago.
“I was enriched in many ways ... at Fairfax,” said Starr, a Bay Area resident working in marketing at Chronicle Books. “I had opportunities to thrive academically in AP classes … interact with kids from wildly diverse backgrounds. My respect for the teachers and administrators has grown exponentially as I’ve become an adult … more fully appreciating the enormity of their jobs.”
Iwamatsu, an East Coast-based theater actress who played in Broadway productions of “Miss Saigon,” “Rent” and “Avenue Q,” remembered, “At the time ... there were a lot of cuts to the arts department. I did not participate in any drama or music programs. I was already studying privately and working at East West Players.”
While her Fairfax experiences did not directly inform her career choice, “My involvement with student council and what I learned under the guidance of [American government teacher George] Zografos has been invaluable in my adult life. He taught me how to run meetings, organize fundraisers, speak in public and prioritize. He was such a great teacher, and his humor and enthusiasm made us all want to do our best.”
Iwamatsu, Starr and Dyson attended at a time when the school experienced drama mirroring the L.A. racial turmoil of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1986, an African-American Fairfax grad visiting campus to notify his teachers of his college acceptance was gunned down by gang members. The tragedy rocked Fairfax, which reacted by installing metal detectors.
Today, those detectors are gone, as is any inkling of gang-related tensions, according to students interviewed by the Jewish Journal last week.
Their issues now center on a sandals-and-tank tops ban instituted by incoming principal Carmina Nacorda and a truncated summer due to a restructured school year.
Eleventh-graders Deshay Thompson and Jessika Yamahiro socialized with friends following a shortened day. Thompson and Yamahiro, who plays on Fairfax’s reigning female basketball team, confirm that racially diverse Fairfax is largely friction-free.
“Everyone hangs out together,” Thompson said.
Senior Georgina Pardo, who ran in Hispanic and Armenian circles at Bancroft Middle School, says she likes that more cultures are represented at Fairfax. As a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance, Pardo feels her school reflects diversity beyond racial lines. A Fairfax legacy preceded by her sisters, Pardo said, “They told me the education is better and I should take advantage of that,” she said.
“The greatest influence [Fairfax] gave me was exposure to people’s differences and acceptance of others,” Dyson said. “As a filmmaker/storyteller, I am constantly calling upon memories of people I knew during those years … as templates for characters.”
While some older alumni nostalgic for a largely Jewish school may lament the ethnic turnover at today’s Fairfax, younger graduates see the experience differently.
As Starr put it, “My son will be in high school next year, in a largely white, upper-income suburban community, and I struggle with the differences between his experience and mine. He’ll no doubt get a good education that will prepare him for college. But will he be prepared for life?”