PHAME comes to San Diego school at last

Exterior of PHAME center at Patrick Henry High School (Photo: Shor Masori)

Exterior of PHAME center at Patrick Henry High School (Photo: Shor M. Masori)


I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly
I’m gonna make it to heaven
Baby, remember my name!
— From “Fame” by Irena Cara

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO –In 1980, Christopher Gore inspired performing arts teachers throughout the nation with his movie FAME, a drama about New York City high school students from various backgrounds whose talent as singers, actors, dancers and musicians and the tutelage of their high school faculty enabled them to transcend adversity and even catapult them into professional careers.  The movie was so successful that FAME was made into a television show that aired for 136 episodes between 1982 and 1987.

Gore died in 1988, too early to see how his vision inspired educators in San Diego.  Among those who whole-heartedly endorsed the message that with proper teaching and facilities, students can blossom in ways that even they couldn’t imagine was Katherine Nakamura, who served as a trustee of the San Diego Unified School District from 2002 to 2010.

Former opponents Kevin Beiser (left), Katherine Nakamura, with current school board president Michael McQuary.

Former opponents Kevin Beiser (left), Katherine Nakamura, with current school board president Michael McQuary.  (Photo: Jessica D. Harrison)

In the District B area that Nakamura represented was Patrick Henry High School, serving the mostly middle class communities of Allied Gardens, Del Cerro and San Carlos.  The high school was built in 1968 without a proper auditorium.  Instead, it was provided an outdoor amphitheater, which was often made unsuitable as a performance venue by heat in the day and the cold at night.  So many Patrick Henry productions had to be staged in the school’s “cafeterium” – a long space with a flat floor and a small stage at one end.  The cafeterium was a cafeteria first and a performance space second, complicating rehearsal schedules. Late afternoon and evening performances often were accompanied by left-over odors from the daily lunch serving.  Worse still, there were few unobstructed views to the stage from the long flat floor.

This is not to say that talent was unable to flourish at Patrick Henry.  Among the school’s best known alumni is actress Annette Bening who graduated in 1975, and went on to perform at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, and later in San Francisco and New York’s Broadway.  She went on to make her mark in films, winning Academy Award nominations for her roles in The Grifters, American Beauty, Being Julia, and The Kids Are All Right.  A more recent break-out Patrick Henry alumnus is jazz pianist Michael Sanchez, a 2010 graduate who competed during the current TV season in The Voice.

Their leaps to fame was in spite of the facilities at Patrick Henry High School, certainly not because of them.  How very inadequate the cafeterium was came home to Nakamura in 2008 when her own son, William, a polished tuba player and at that time a senior class member, performed there.  Nakamura’s husband Kotoro, an architect, after taking his seat, “hissed” at her – how could the school board allow such woefully inadequate facilities?

Thus was the genesis of PHAME—the pun on the movie and TV show intended—which is an acronym for Patrick Henry High Arts, Media and Entertainment.  Nakamura envisioned building a true entertainment venue, which would not only be an auditorium with elevated seating for 500 people but which also would have dressing rooms, rehearsal spaces, administrative offices, and other accouterments of a full-blown theater.  It would serve as a performance venue not only for Patrick Henry High School but for the cluster of elementary and middle schools whose students eventually will attend Patrick Henry.  Additionally, it would be rented on other nights to community groups, providing the school an additional source of revenue.

What might have been a fatal blow to Nakamura’s vision came however in 2010 when she was defeated for reelection by Kevin Beiser, who had been named San Diego’s math teacher of the year in 2009.  Beiser, however, graciously endorsed Nakamura’s vision, and the two former opponents worked closely together thereafter, becoming something close to a mutual admiration society. To foster the idea of PHAME, Nakamura formed the Cowles Mountain Community Foundation, named for the nearby peak which at 1,593 feet is the highest point within the city limits of San Diego.

On Tuesday evening, November 29, the dream was transformed into reality. A happy crowd of performers, donors, faculty, and community members celebrated PHAME’s official opening, with the presentation of colors by Patrick Henry High School’s ROTC followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony originally intended to feature San Diego School Superintendent Cindy Marten, Trustee Beiser, Patrick Henry Principal Listy Gillingham, and Music Director Matthew Kalal.  But the list of honorees in the ribbon cutting ceremony swelled, along with the crowd’s elation and pride, to include other members of the San Diego School Board, including John Lee Evans, Michael McQuary, Richard Barrera, and Sharon Whitehust-Payne; student leaders, and, yes, of course, Nakamura, for whom it was announced PHAME’s Planning Workshop would be named.

Patrick Henry High School principal Listy Gillingham cuts the ribbon to open PHAME.

Patrick Henry High School principal Listy Gillingham cuts the ribbon to open PHAME.  (Photo: Shor M. Masori)

Smiling as he walked into the new facility, school board president McQuary recited the statistics.  It cost $16 million.  It has 20,000 square feet, including the 500-seat auditorium.  It was part of a $40 million modernization project.

PHAME was financed by school bonds, by contributions including large ones from actress Bening and another from the family of David Wax, co-owner of Waxie Sanitary Supply; as well as by the “sale” of seats in the auditorium at prices ranging from $300 to $1,000.

There was on that Tuesday night the palpable sense that history was being made, that everyone who performed in the opening night program at PHAME would someday be bragged about by their descendants.  The program, emceed by school principal Gillingham, was designed to showcase programs that are expected to flourish at PHAME, among them Patrick Henry High School’s band, orchestra, bel cantos ensemble, drama, dance, and alumni brass quintet.  The ebullient crowd happily overlooked some opening night snafus – a sound system that went on and off during performances, and a mysterious crash behind the curtains.

Matthew Kallal conducts the PHHS Band in very first performance at PHAME (Photo: Shor Masori)

Matthew Kalal conducts the PHHS Band in very first performance at PHAME (Photo: Shor M. Masori)

The school’s current music director Matthew Kalal was given the honor of conducting the band in the first performance – a rendition of Robert W. Smith’s fanfare  “On Eagle’s Wings.” The high school’s very first music director, David Amos, who during his 1968-1971 tenure had composed the school’s fight song and alma mater, next conducted the PHHS orchestra in two short pieces: a movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Concert in A Minor, featuring soloist Kalos Chu; and a selection from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.  Amos went on to found the Jewish Community Center orchestra in 1974, which was transformed in 1995 into the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra (TICO).  Sharlene Berman, a fellow congregant at Tifereth Israel Synagogue, has announced a capital campaign via www.cowlesmountain.org to raise $20,000 in Amos’s honor and to name PHAME’s orchestra pit for him.   Amos has guest conducted and recorded with professional orchestras around the world, and also serves as a music critic for San Diego Jewish World.

 

David Amos acknowledges applause after conducting the PHHS orchestra. Third from left is violin soloist Kalos Chu.

David Amos acknowledges applause after conducting the PHHS orchestra. Third from left is violin soloist Kalos Chu. (Photo: Shor M. Masori)

Next on the program was the Bel Cantos Ensemble conducted by Kristin Love and featuring solos within the African folk tune Betelehemu by Melissa Balka, Grace Peterson, Emily Hyland and Abigail Bock.  The same ensemble unaccompanied by any instruments, also sang Harry Simeone’s arrangement of Do You Hear What I Hear, which, like the Nutcracker Suite, heralded the upcoming Christmas holidays.

The Bel Canto Ensemble

The Bel Canto Ensemble  (Photo; Shor M. Masori)

Very much in the news today is the Broadway play Hamilton thanks to a member of the cast lecturing U.S.  Vice President-elect Mike Pence about the need to respect diversity, and President-elect Donald Trump subsequently tweeting that he felt the post-performance lecture from the stage was rude.  At Patrick Henry High School (named for a Revolutionary War contemporary of Alexander Hamilton), Christine Carr directed a scene in which Hamilton was urged to “take a break” from his labors helping to forge a new country.

hamilton

Scenes from Hamilton (top) and the Little Mermaid were enacted by members of the PHHS drama program (Photos: Shor Masori)

Scenes from Hamilton (top) and the Little Mermaid were enacted by members of the PHHS drama program (Photos: Shor  M. Masori)

Carr subsequently directed a bite-size selection from the Little Mermaid, in which performers Meredieth Yokoyama and Annie Barrack were both dressed as Disney’s “Arielle” version of the Hans Christian Andersen character.

Between those two dramatic pieces came an energetic, highly synchronized dance directed by Terri Clark based on Gwen Stefani’s “Wind it Up” and choreographed by Kyndall Foote.

PHHS dance troupe performs "Wind It Up." (Photo: Shor Masori)

PHHS dance troupe performs “Wind It Up.” (Photo: Shor M. Masori)

The evening of performances moved on to alumni with the Patrick Henry High School Alumni Brass Quintet performing Movement 1 of Victor Edwald’s Brass Quintet No. 3.  Among quintet members was tuba player William Nakamora, whose parents finally could see him perform in Patrick Henry’s auditorium, and not its cafeterium.

Patrick Henry High School Alumni Brass Quintet (Photo: Jessica Harrison)

Patrick Henry High School Alumni Brass Quintet (Photo: Jessica D. Harrison)

The grand finale performance was by The Voice contestant Michael Sanchez singing in Spanish and in English “What A Difference A Day Made” by Marie Grever.  He accompanied himself on a Steinway Grand Piano donated to the school by the family of its principal Listy Gillingham.

Jazz pianist Michael Sanchez closed PHAME's inaugural program with a bilingual rendition of "What A Difference A Day Made."

Jazz pianist Michael Sanchez closed PHAME’s inaugural program with a bilingual rendition of “What A Difference A Day Made.” (Photo: Shor M. Masori)

Between the performances short speeches of tribute and ongoing fundraising for instruments and other equipment were delivered by Gillingham, Marten, Beiser, Katherine Nakamura, Student President Riley Gilbertson, and Alumni Association President Kevin Carlson.

The American patriot Patrick Henry is perhaps best remembered for his stirring speech in which he exhorted his countrymen in colonial Virginia to “give me liberty or give me death.”   However, Nakamura noted that in another part of that same speech, the revolutionary war hero commented “The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave,” and so too, she said, goes the credit to the many community members, school officials, parents teachers and students who held onto their dream of PHAME.

*
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

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