John Marshall High School's Hollywood dream nearly died on February 9, 1971. The 6.6-magnitude Sylmar earthquake struck that day, just before dawn, killing 64 people and spreading a swath of destruction across the Southland. Among the casualties: A number of buildings at John Marshall High School, designed by George M. Lindsey in the Collegiate Gothic style.
Several of the damaged structures were subsequently condemned, including the campus's eye-popping centerpiece: A five-story tower rising above Tracy Street in Los Feliz like a Tudor-brick cathedral. The threat of a wrecking ball loomed.
Today, John Marshall High is regarded as a treasured artifact. After pieces began falling from the famed tower in 2012, the school district approved $1.1 million in repairs to the historic structure. When the problem was found to be more serious than previously thought, more than 10 times that amount was allotted, and a temporary glass scaffolding was erected to protect students and faculty from falling debris.
Repairs have taken longer than anticipated, but overall JMHS has received the kind of star treatment befitting a campus that’s spent decades as a sought-after Hollywood player.
But, in 1971, John Marshall hadn’t yet transcended its status as an ingénue. It was already famous among locals for its use in Mr. Novak, the NBC TV series that followed an idealistic young teacher (James D. Franciscus) during his first year in the classroom. But it had yet to rack up the A-list credits that would cement its stardom.
“When I arrived at Marshall, its big claim to fame was, ‘Oh, they used it as a location for Peyton Place,’” says performance artist and playwright Dan Kwong, a 1972 Marshall graduate. “That was its most notorious connection with Hollywood.” (Note: I didn’t find any evidence to support the Peyton Place claim.)
Logistics certainly played a role in John Marshall’s Hollywood rise. “I guess film production ended up there, because it's so accessible,” says class of ’72 alumnus and music photographer Aaron Rapaport. “ABC was a half block away and all the studios."
Geographic convenience aside, JMHS’s formal beauty was undeniably more important in attracting industry attention. Like the similarly photogenic Los Angeles High School located in Mid-Wilshire, the campus was an aesthetic jewel of the Los Angeles Unified School District and a popular draw with Hollywood location managers. Unlike the latter school, which also suffered damage in the 1971 quake, Marshall's dramatic edifice was spared demolition.
“I was involved with the effort to retain and renovate the high school, not destroy it like they did to Los Angeles High School, where they turned a beautiful school into a cookie-cutter school,” says John Marshall alumnus (class of ’57) and former Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who served in the California State Assembly from 1973 to 1978. “In the [Assembly] I put in legislation to stop that. And finally the school board backed down and renovated [it].”
The success of that campaign (spurred on by several neighborhood activists) was an undisputed win for Hollywood, a town well-known for its infatuation with physical beauty. Today, industry professionals speak of JMHS with a reverence typically reserved for prized movie stars.
“It's a gem,” says Marcia Hinds, a production designer who helped secure the campus for the 1998 teen comedy Can't Hardly Wait. “It's one of a kind.”
Many LA-area high schools have extensive filmographies, but John Marshall is distinguished by the sheer number of iconic movies and TV shows that have used the campus as a backdrop.
While I was unable to independently confirm several productions rumored to have shot there (Rebel Without a Cause allegedly shot interiors at the school, but I turned up no evidence of this), there are countless others whose use of the campus is well-documented.
Below is a list of some of the most noteworthy movies, music videos, and TV shows shot at John Marshall High.
Fictional name: Rydell High School
Though Venice High School largely stood in for Rydell High in the classic 1978 musical, John Marshall's athletic field provided the setting for the school carnival where John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John fly off in a hot rod. Alumna Anne-Marie Johnson, who attended JMHS from 1975-78 before going on to star in such TV series as What Happens Now, In the Heat of the Night, and In Living Color, speaks enthusiastically about seeing the film’s cast milling around campus.
“Those of us in the theater arts department were all very excited because Sid Caesar and Eve Arden and John Travolta and Olivia [Newton-John]—I mean, we were all just starstruck,” she says. “They were all on our campus for several days ... I just remember sitting in the bleachers watching them film the same scene over and over and over.”
John Marshall High’s Grease connection runs even deeper: Annette Charles (née Annette Cardona), who played Cha Cha in the film, was an alumna. As noted by Joanna Erdos, a former student who taught at the school for over 30 years, the actress’s death in 2011 prompted the school to plant a tree in her honor.
Fictional name: N/A
The cult high school sex comedy (a sort of low-rent Porky's with telekinesis) starring future Charles in Charge castmates Scott Baio and Willie Aames shot extensively on campus, including the front of the school and the auditorium, recalls the film's location manager Ronald Carr.
“They [were] very film friendly,” says Carr, who was tasked with finding “an older school” in LA that could double for a small-town campus. According to Erdos, producers misled the school’s administrators by selling them on a completely different movie.
“The sensitive story of a scientific genius who is just trying to fit in ... that's what they told us it was gonna be,” she says. “And then of course it was this broad farce with”—she pauses—“hormones.”
Bachelor Party (1984)
Fictional name: St. Gabriel's
John Marshall’s main building appears in the opening scene of this early Tom Hanks comedy vehicle, in which the future Oscar winner stars as a soon-to-be-married school bus driver. To complete its transformation into St. Gabriel's Catholic academy, a cross and a religious statue were added as set dressing.
“Hot for Teacher” music video (1984)
Fictional name: N/A
Call it an unholy trinity of objectification. Along with Zapped! and Bachelor Party, John Marshall High played host to one of the most unabashedly sexist pop culture artifacts of the 1980s: the music video for Van Halen's “Hot for Teacher.” The school's front entrance gets a bit of screen time, as does the old library, which played host to one of Eddie Van Halen's searing guitar solos.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Fictional name: Springwood High School
Though interiors were apparently shot at the oft-filmed John Burroughs Middle School in Hancock Park, John Marshall's front entrance can clearly be seen in exterior shots of the high school attended by Nancy and her doomed friends.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985)
Fictional name: Holy Grace High School
As in Bachelor Party, John Marshall doubled for a religious academy (this one in Chicago) in the Sarah Jessica Parker-Helen Hunt comedy about two rebellious Catholic school girls who enter a dance competition.
To complete the effect, three large crosses were temporarily added to the roof of the main building, a production design element that succeeded in confusing the school’s neighbors.
“[The] school was inundated with phone calls from people in the neighborhood saying, ‘I thought Marshall was a public school, but all of a sudden I'm seeing these crosses. Is it a Catholic school now?’” says Erdos.
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Fictional name: Meadowbrook High School
While it’s set in the Chicago suburbs like most of the films John Hughes was involved in making, Pretty in Pink, which Hughes wrote but did not direct, was actually filmed in Los Angeles. Luckily for the production, John Marshall's red-brick facade practically screams “Midwest educational institution,” making it an obvious stand-in for Andie's (Molly Ringwald) Illinois high school.
While JMHS seemingly appeared in just one film bearing Hughes’ name, its architecture hews closely to the Chicago-area aesthetic he popularized in a string of ’80s comedy hits.
“Most of my comedic directors are really pulled to that school because of ... John Hughes,” says production designer Marcia Hinds. “If directors want to have a John Hughes-type style to their picture, that's an automatic magnet for them.”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
Fictional name: Hemery High School
Before transferring to Sunnydale High (aka Torrance High School) for the TV series, Buffy Summers waved pompoms and cracked wise at JMHS in the ’92 flick. (Note: the gymnasium scenes were filmed elsewhere).
Location manager Rick Rothen chose the school not only for its “classical,” “all-American” look, but because of its film-friendly logistics. “There was parking. It wasn't real noisy. There wasn't a lot of traffic,” says Rothen, adding that classrooms “were easily accessible for a lighting crew.”
“Runnin’” music video (1995)
Fictional name: N/A
LA hip hop group The Pharcyde may have formed in South Central, but they moved way uptown to film part of the music video for their 1995 single “Runnin.’” While John Marshall’s front entrance can briefly be seen in the clip, the majority of filming took place inside the school’s main building.
True Crime (1996)
Fictional name: N/A
JMHS played another Catholic high school in this direct-to-video Alicia Silverstone thriller, which used the campus for both interior and exterior shooting. The school’s long Hollywood history held particular appeal for the film’s writer/director Pat Verducci.
“Because of its use in so many popular films that I loved, I recall feeling part of something larger than me,” she says. “That there was this place in Los Angeles, that was the high school location. And it was a thrill for me, as a young filmmaker, to shoot there.”
Space Jam (1996)
Fictional name: N/A
The partially-animated 1996 hit landed at John Marshall’s gymnasium to film a scene featuring Michael Jordan and several other professional basketball players, including Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing. According to Erdos, who was then a teacher at the school, an assistant principal arranged for several students to meet the mega-stars during a break from filming.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
Fictional name: Pointes High School
Budget constraints forced John Cusack and costars to shoot the Michigan-set assassin comedy in Los Angeles, but luckily John Marshall offered an aesthetically-suitable alternative for Martin Blank’s alma mater.
As alumna Anne-Marie Johnson notes, “It really can be Anywhere, America ... it can look like Ohio, it can look like Connecticut, it can look like obviously Southern California.”
The school’s main building was the scene of Martin’s awkward run-in with a former teacher, while the east wing of the campus served as the entrance of the reunion itself (though interiors were shot elsewhere).
Can't Hardly Wait (1998)
Fictional name: N/A
The 1998 teen comedy mainly takes place at a post-graduation rager, but a brief sequence near the beginning introduces us to the film's object of affection—Jennifer Love Hewitt's Amanda Beckett—as she exits a car in front of JMHS’s main building. The fog-draped flashback also features one of the school’s classrooms, which production designer Marcia Hinds noted for its “beautiful windows.”
“With that iconic, traditional school, the windows are tall, and usually bank an entire side,” she says. “It's a magnificent light.”
So many TV shows
Fictional name: Various
While its list of film credits is considerable, John Marshall’s TV resume is arguably even longer. A slew of notable series have utilized the campus for both establishing shots and location shooting, including but not limited to: Mr. Novak; The Wonder Years; Boy Meets World; The A-Team; Masters of Sex; iCarly; Crash & Bernstein; and the hit Big Bang Theory spinoff Young Sheldon.