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Men of the Old School 

A thin gray line regroups

Wednesday, May 9 2001
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They belonged to a Los Angeles that exists now only on microfilm and in school yearbooks. Last weekend 150 of them returned to what remains of their alma mater to reminisce and conduct silent roll calls to learn who remains among the living. The men of the Black-Foxe Military Institute gathered at the school‘s last surviving buildings -- the erstwhile kindergarten and headmaster’s quarters -- of the long-closed academy on Wilcox Avenue just below Melrose. The Harry Hayden Whiteley--designed Mediterranean Revival structures are city-designated historical monuments and today form the home of David Aguirre. Aguirre, who hosted the reunion, is the Magic Castle maitre d‘ who bought the property five years ago and rehabilitated it from a homeless squat to its former glory.

The school, established in 1929 by two retired Army majors, Harry Black and Earle Foxe, closed in 1968, the victim of rising costs and falling attendance during a time of anti-military a sentiment. (During the same year, St. John’s Catholic Military Academy shut its doors in Chatsworth and the Harvard School for Boys ceased being a military academy.)

In its heyday the institute served about 200 boys from kindergarten through high school, boys who held military ranks throughout their education, with the school‘s “officers” graduating with decorative sabers. The school was known for its Hollywood names, which included the sons of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Bing Crosby, Bette Davis, Joe DiMaggio, Jerry Lewis and Bob Cummings. Robert Wagner attended school here, as did Michael Douglas and Gene Wilder. But Black-Foxe wasn’t just an exclusive school for celebrity kids. Its graduates included the future president of Panama, Guillermo Endara; the onetime presidential candidate of Mexico‘s National Action Party, Manuel J. Clouthier; and the music director of both the Mexico City Philharmonic and the Pasadena Symphony, Jorge Mester. Black-Foxe also provided California colleges and high schools with many athletes and coaches, and the future captains of the city’s business and legal establishment; if the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the car dealerships and law partnerships of L.A. were first dreamed up at Black-Foxe.

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“We were normal people, we didn‘t have problems with military discipline,” said Tom Waters (Class of ’41). Waters sat at a shaded lawn table with George Marshall (‘42) and Tito Krohn (’41). The three old-timers still remember how, when the Marine Corps son of the school‘s longtime headmaster, Major Harry Gaver, was killed aboard the Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, many of the eligible students enlisted as Marines in his memory.

The kids who attended the school in its early years did so during the Great Depression, when Americans harbored a reflexive suspicion of uniforms. (This was, after all, a time when newsreel images of strikebreaking cops and soldiers torching the Bonus Marchers’ camps remained fresh in the public‘s mind.) But Pearl Harbor changed all that, and the boys who marched on the parade ground between the Los Angeles Tennis Club and Wilshire Country Club would become men well-trained for World War II.

But it wasn’t all war and remembrance at the reunion.

“My roommate and I were dating Harold Lloyd‘s daughters at the time,” recalls Krohn. “We were called in and told we couldn’t do that, but Mrs. Lloyd came down to the school and she changed that in a hurry!” The men also had a laugh about the time a headmaster came looking to discipline one cadet who, in a panic, jumped out a third-floor dorm window to escape punishment. Discipline at Black-Foxe was mostly confined to marching 20 paces back and forth with a rifle on the parade ground. “E.D., we called it,” said Marshall, “Extra Duty. My roommate and I got more E.D. than most of the boys.”

Not everyone from easygoing Hollywood was cut out for a military school, and not everyone graduated. “The Chaplin boys didn‘t last long,” Marshall said. “Neither did the Crosby kids,” Krohn added.

“Let’s face it, this was a rich man‘s school,” Rick Cole (’48) had told the Weekly earlier. “There was no way my parents could afford sending me to a place like this, but I got here on a music scholarship, playing tuba in the band.” In fact, there were many scholarships available to kids, as well as the option of living off campus without board. By all accounts Black-Foxe excelled in three things -- musicians, swimmers and football -- and quickly became an unofficial prep school for the University of Southern California.

Inside the old headmaster‘s quarters, small groups of alumni and their wives marveled at the restored mahogany-paneled walls of Aguirre’s home and displays of old Adjutant yearbooks and photographs. In the TV room, a group watching the Kentucky Derby egged on Congaree, only to be stunned by Monarchos‘ upset victory, and for a moment these men in suits holding cocktails seemed like kids getting their first lesson in life about sure bets.

Outside, the three comrades still talked about long-ago dances and the girls they dated, mostly from the Westlake School near Beverly Hills but sometimes from the nearby Marlborough School in Hancock Park.

“There was a guy a year ahead of us who had a girlfriend,” recalled Krohn, “and they would love each other up on the swings at the Ravenswood Apartments on Vine.” The inquisitive Krohn and his roommate had asked their debonair chum to demonstrate his lovemaking techniques for them, and were told to hide in the bushes behind the swings, which they did on the appointed night. Unfortunately, the Ravenswood’s most famous resident, Mae West, had recently complained to the LAPD about a prowler, and the boys fell into a police stakeout.

“All of a sudden the police descended on us and hauled our sweet asses up to the Hollywood Police Department,” Krohn said, still a little rueful at the memory. “When they found out we were cadets, they sent us back to Major Gaver. You talk about Extra Duty!”

The afternoon grew warm and lazy, and the men chewed the fat, along with sirloin and salmon, used up their drink tickets, heard some speeches and went home -- not to fade away like old Hollywood soldiers, but to plan the next reunion.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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