I'm gonna live forever: Fame's Ray and Gimpel

Question: I remember watching the show Fame as a kid and really liking it. I know it was based on a movie, but was that movie based on a real school? Thanks.


Answer: That it was, Alma, but exactly how much the movie and, to an even greater extent, the show, were "real" certainly depended on whom you asked. The basics aren't in dispute: The 1980 film and series, which lived on NBC from January 1982 to August 1983 before jumping to first-run syndication for another four years, were set in New York City's real-life School of Performing Arts, better known to its students, faculty and such alumni as Al Pacino and Liza Minnelli as "P.A." (In 1984 the school moved with the High School of Music & Art into a new facility and the two merged to become the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts.) But according to P.A. teacher Bel Kaufman, the real-life part pretty much ended there.

"Fame is a Hollywood goal, a TV concept. It is not necessarily the motivation of P.A. students," Kaufman wrote in TV Guide in 1983. "Whatever their private dreams when they enter P.A., its students are realistic and sophisticated. A P.A. student would never (as one does in Fame) get a job as a busboy in a restaurant in the hope of meeting Johnny Carson, thrilled that Carson says: 'Buzz off, kid.' A P.A. dance teacher would never (as one does in Fame) dance on the street in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to attract the attention of a 'celebrity' so that he might address the students.... Never at P.A. would a hall monitor penalize a girl by making her 'do extra assignments' and forbidding her to appear in a play. Never at P.A. would students put on a show for parents. The only time their performance is open to the public and critics is at the annual concerts given by each of the three departments. Students and teachers at P.A. enjoy a warm, friendly relationship. The line between friendliness and familiarity is a thin one; teachers in Fame often trample upon it."

Ouch, huh? Kaufman was just getting warmed up: She criticized the show for portraying students and teachers from the school's various departments crossing over, with the dance teacher involved in drama and the English teacher involved in everything and with everyone. "Publicity for Fame describes its school as one 'where dreams encounter reality,' but the series seems to be getting further and further away from reality," she wrote. "A half-naked belly dancer suddenly whirls into the English classroom. A dance teacher takes her entire class singing and dancing down the streets of New York, colored balloons blooming overhead, led by musicians who look like frenzied Pied Pipers. Visually exciting, realistically absurd."

Only Albert Hague's music teacher, Benjamin Shorofsky, came in for some praise from Kaufman for his realism, and that was most likely because the character was increasingly drawn from Hague's life as the show progressed. The ironic thing was, however, that before originating the role in the movie, the musician and composer had never acted. Matter of fact, when the casting director for the film got in touch with him, Hague thought call was for his wife, an actress. He sat down with director Alan Parker, who told him to talk about music, and launched into a speech in which he called jazz "the glorification of the inexact," which landed him the part.

The character of Shorofsky was a native of Germany who fled the Nazis, loved table tennis and couldn't drive, just like Hague. But Hague's personal history was full of even more interesting details. A classically trained musician, he made his living early on by playing piano in a Cincinnati nightclub, eventually being nicknamed the "King of Boogie-Woogie" even though both his English-speaking skills and knowledge of contemporary American tunes were nonexistent when he first started. After serving in World War II, he moved to New York, played with Spanish orchestras in clubs (taking the name Alberto Haguée), wrote the hit Broadway show The Reluctant Lady, won a Tony for Redhead and collaborated with Dr. Seuss on How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Despite his inexperience as an actor, Hague was known as "the papa of the family" on the set. He helped Lee Curreri, who played composing student Bruno Martelli in the film and on the show and was an aspiring composer himself, with his music. "I'll play a tune for Albert before anyone else," Curreri said in 1984. "If he likes it, I know that the tune was crafted right. He's an honest guy. If he has a student who has a terrible singing voice, he won't mislead them. He'll say, 'Why don't you check out bricklaying?'"

Hague's reaction to such admiration? "I'm treated with tremendous respect here at Fame," he said, "but sometimes I worry that people think I'm pompous. I hope they're discovering I'm fun, too. Just because I have a beard doesn't mean I know everything."