Comeback of football at Hollywood High is right out of the movies

October 14, 1990|By Gary Klein | Gary Klein,Special to the Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES Just as it is in the community for which it is named, reality at Hollywood High School is sometimes blurred by the fantasies of filmdom.

This is a school that adopted its nickname, the Sheiks, from characters portrayed by Rudolph Valentino in silent-screen desert dramas of the 1920s.

The legend goes that actress Lana Turner, a former student, was discovered by director Mervyn LeRoy at Schwab's Pharmacy. But Hollywood alumni say the fateful meeting actually occurred at an ice cream parlor across the street from the Hollywood campus at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

Jason Robards, Carol Burnett, James Garner, Nanette Fabray and David and Ricky Nelson are among the many students who graced the Hollywood High stage before they moved on and achieved success in the entertainment field.

It's a tradition of excellence that rarely has spilled over to the nearby football field.

In 1949, for example, Hollywood muffed the opening kickoff of the Los Angeles City championship game, and Fremont recovered in the end zone for a touchdown. Before a second had ticked off the clock at the Coliseum, Hollywood was on its way to a 59-0 defeat the most lopsided championship game in city history.

Hollywood has not returned to a title game, failing even to reach the playoffs since 1978.

For three seasons, starting in 1987, the Sheiks lost all their games.

But like the change in the ethnic makeup 25 languages are now spoken at the school and the environment of the community around the campus, the Hollywood football program is enjoying a dramatic turnaround.

Under third-year Coach Dave Loera, the Sheiks ended their 27-game losing streak with a 23-6 victory over Jordan in their season opener. And, they won two more games before suffering their first loss of the season last Friday.

The team's success has galvanized a school with a student body as diverse as the United Nations. Students, faculty and even alumni are beginning to turn out and cheer or watch in disbelief as the rejuvenated marching band and pep squad lead them through spirited renditions of "Hooray for Hollywood!"

Suddenly, it's chic to be a Sheik.

"Last year was really dead," cheerleader Desiree Woolen said. "Now that we're winning, everybody wants to be a part of it."

The auditorium where some of Hollywood's future Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy award-winning entertainers cut their teeth features a giant Valentinoesque Sheik, who peers down upon the school's track and football field from behind the east end zone.

The historic Roosevelt Hotel, built in 1926, shadows the west end zone, and the spires of Mann's (formerly Graumann's) Chinese Theater can be seen from the 50-yard line.

"Hollywood High is a very charmed school," said Joe Montgomery, the school's band director. "But over the years, the tinsel has kind of changed color a little bit as the community has, too."

About 66 percent of Hollywood's 2,400 students are foreign-born and many arrive on campus only a short time after emigrating from their native lands to the United States. The school's population is 60 percent Hispanic and 27 percent Armenian, with most of the remaining 13 percent from Southeast Asia, the Philippines and other foreign countries.

"You talk to our student body and you say, 'football,' and they think of soccer," said Dick Rippey, an assistant principal who coached the varsity football team in 1974-83.

Hollywood has been handicapped in all sports by its role as the City's Ellis Island. Many students enroll in school, then move to the suburbs when their families gain their financial bearings.

"We've had so much transiency, kids are here for one or two years and then they're gone," said Art Kasparian, who has coached the "B" football team for 12 years.

Like all city schools, Hollywood was hit hard by the Los Angeles Unified School District's no-fail rule, which was adopted in 1983 and excluded students from participating in sports if they failed a class. Under the rule, 50 percent of Hollywood's students were ineligible.

Last year, the rule was amended by the school board. A student receiving a failing grade can stay eligible by maintaining a C average every 10 weeks. The new rule has increased the eligibility rate at Hollywood to 65 percent.

Loera knew it would be tough when he took the job at Hollywood in 1988.

"Everybody said, 'You're crazy for going over there. They've lost their tradition; you have nothing but ESL [English as a Second Language] kids, and nobody wants to play,' " Loera said.

Even so, Loera was confident that his 14 years as a football and track coach in the district at schools such as Lincoln and Jefferson had prepared him for the challenge.

Loera's first act as coach was to start a weight-training program and he believes the reason for the success of this year's team can be found in numbers that were byproducts of the regimen.

In 1988, the average bench press for the team's 22 players was 125 pounds. The Sheiks finished 0-9, scoring only four touchdowns all season.

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