NEW YORK — EVERYONE secretly dreads it: the school concert where even supertolerant parents cringe at the far-from-unanimous opening notes, the awkward shuffling on-stage, the jittery soloist who reaches for a high C and ekes out a painfully flat squawk. The other night's performance by a couple of dozen fourth- to 12th-graders should have been no different. But as soon as the kids seized the stage, you could see the difference: poise, sparkle, panache. And when they belted out the opening number, you could hear the difference: flawless, assured, projecting-to-the-back-of-the-balcony voices, the kind people pay money to hear.
``Written, conceived, and directed by Martin Charnin,'' director of ``Annie,'' the program notes said. Was this a school production or a hit Broadway musical? It was both, sort of, for it was the 75th anniversary celebration of New York's Professional Children's School.
The PCS, founded in 1914 to educate children working on the stage and in vaudeville, claims to be the only school in the world that offers a college preparatory education to young working performers and those studying for careers in the arts - a claim that's hard to refute. Its 200 students, including actors, dancers, models, and musicians, come from nine countries and 21 states.
``Professional Children's School is salvation,'' says Martin Charnin, whose daughter attended the school, ``because it allows children who have goals in life other than academic ones to maintain their education while indulging their artistic bent and competing in the work force.''
PCS's alumni roster, which must make voting for ``most likely to succeed'' a nightmare, reads like a Who's Who in the arts: Merrill Ashley, Fernando Bujones, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Beverly Sills, Amy Irving, Sidney Lumet, and Donald O'Connor, to name just a few in the star-studded lineup.
Although its graduates and current enrollees are highly visible under the klieg lights, the school is strictly academic and sees its role as distinctly backstage. EVEN at schools like the Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School of the Arts which provide pre-professional training, mandatory attendance precludes an active career. But at PCS, ``At a moment's notice, if an actor gets a call, he can ... leave without apologizing to anyone,'' says headmaster Jeffrey Lawrence. Sixteen-year-old ``Cosby Show'' veteran Tempestt Bledsoe doesn't even show up at school until she finishes working in April. The PCS system of independent ``guided study'' allows her to complete assignments via user-friendly textbooks.
Mr. Lawrence tells of hearing the 17-year-old violin prodigy Midori, who performs all over the world and drops in at PCS four times a year, play a difficult Paganini piece at Tanglewood.
When Lawrence went backstage, Midori, surrounded by a camera crew taping a documentary, blurted out, ``I'm in deep trouble in algebra.''
``I had just heard her play one of the most amazing pieces in the violin repertory,'' says Lawrence. ``That was on a Saturday night, and on the following Monday in August we had a teacher in school with her working on math.''
Fluctuating attendance makes teaching at PCS a challenge. ``If you've planned an absolutely marvelous lesson,'' says science teacher Nancy Munno, ``like a terrific lab everybody will adore, and nobody's there, you have to face that with good humor and do it for the two people that came that day.''
The difficulty of educating students who are in and out of school while working grueling schedules is lessened by the fact that these kids are often precocious and that most are self-disciplined.
Leslie Hibbard, who has been modeling for nine of her 13 years, pestered her mother relentlessly to take her to agencies. Watching commercials as a three-year-old, she insisted, ``I can do that. I can do that better than they're doing it.''
``The level of interest is what I find particularly fascinating,'' says Roberta Kosse, a music teacher. She cites her sixth-grade students' love affair with opera as evidence of their passion for the arts.
One boy asked her, ``Do you know what a Deadhead is? It's a groupie for the Grateful Dead. Well, I'm a Mozarthead. I just love Mozart.'' STUDENTS who might be considered oddballs in a regular school find a haven of respect and commonality at PCS. ``At my old school,'' says Jen Rudin, a 16-year-old actress, ``I was this special person. When I came here I found all these people who understand theater and callbacks and stress and the desire to be successful.''
According to actor-alumnus Miles Chapin, ``The best thing PCS does is to shield students operating under professional pressures at such an early age from the nastier aspects of the business. It's an anchor to windward.''
The ups and downs of a career in show business makes PCS's charge of educating performers all the more imperative.
At the school's 75th birthday party, Milton Berle, another alumnus, told students, ``You'd better do your homework, because you're not always going to be a performer.''
This sense of realism permeates the school. ``We know there are a lot of variables that go into whether they'll have a career,'' says Mary Gray Bozanic, director of admissions. ``Our whole mission is to make sure that students not forgo academic possibilities even though they may not at present see the need for alternatives.''
And how good is the academic foundation provided at PCS? ``The education was always very superior,'' says Rosalie Spar, who attended PCS in the '40s while acting in the theater, films, and radio. ``We started French in kindergarten and, at my commencement, did Corneille's `Le Cid' in French.''
While commencement exercises are often dull, the diplomas at PCS are handed out by megawatt talents like Arthur Mitchell of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Dustin Hoffman.
Actor Christopher Walken received his diploma, along with a dazzling smile, from Gypsy Rose Lee (``She was gorgeous,'' he remembers).
Graduating seniors might perform a piano concerto, a pas de deux, or a Shakespeare monologue. ``When they perform and you see the fruits of your labor in providing them with an education,'' says teacher Paul Chalmers, ``you feel good.''
A 1946 benefit program entitled ``3 Rs for Tomorrow's Stars'' sums up the school's 75 years. ``I'm a better artist for having been taught how to learn there,'' says the renowned ballerina Suzanne Farrell, ``and how to love learning.''