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A High School for Show-Biz Kids

By Carol StricklandSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 1989


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.

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``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.''