Long before there were Tiger Moms, many parents stressed discipline and hard work to their school-age children. Boys were often enrolled in military prep schools to learn discipline, rigor and fortitude through both schoolroom work and athletic pursuits.
Several Los Angeles military academies existed in the 1920s, and chief among them was Black-Foxe Military Institute.
Founded in 1929 by Hollywood real estate tycoon C. E. Toberman and headed by former actor Earle Foxe as president and Harry Black as commandant, the school educated day pupils and boarding students at the former Urban Military Academy, established in 1902. Many celebrity children either attended and/or graduated from the institute. The institution itself appeared in a few films.
Black-Foxe Military Institute, spread over five acres, opened Sept. 17, 1929, at 637 N. Wilcox Ave. and Melrose Avenue to provide young boys with a fine scholastic education along with disciplined military, recreational and athletic activities in up-to-date and attractive buildings, all offering great opportunities for educational success. Black issued a statement to the Aug. 25, 1929, Los Angeles Times about the institute’s goals and aims. “It is our purpose to provide for Southern California a thoroughly modern school for boys, with facilities and educational advantages second to none in America…. The school provides an education for students from the first to the twelfth grades, both boarding and day pupils.” It was fully accredited by colleges for its rigorous courses.
The institute offered a full curriculum of classic education classes including languages, band, orchestra, music and drama, along with an extensive sports offering: fencing, swimming, baseball, wrestling, football, boxing, tennis, volleyball, cavalry, horsemanship, polo, military science and aviation ground schooling. Black played these up in his statement. “What is of particular interest to both parents and students is the comprehensive program of activities designed to provide a complete and thorough blending of the mental and physical development of our students.”
Such outstanding sports facilities as Wilshire Country Club and the Los Angeles Tennis Club occupied land adjacent to the school, and the school itself straddled Wilcox Avenue, with the drilling field and gymnasium with indoor Olympic-sized pool on the west side of the street, and administration, classrooms, dining hall and dorm on the east side.
Foxe’s name added prestige to the program. Actor Foxe possessed more than 10 years experience on American movie screens, including films directed by John Ford, but the coming of sound offered challenges because of his Irish accent. He claimed however, that one of his longtime ambitions was to open and run a military school.
His name drew colleagues and friends to enter their children in Black-Foxe. Early newspapers and yearbooks show that sons of John Ford, Victor McLaglen, Jean Hersholt, William Powell, Buster Keaton, Joseph von Stroheim, Edward G. Robinson, Sol Wurtzel, B. P. Schulberg enrolled and attended.
Other celebrity fathers included Paul Whiteman, Harry Carey, James Kirkwood, Hobart Bosworth, Alan Ladd and George Marshall.
Many students chafed under the strict discipline; Robinson’s son was dismissed in the early 1930s and many left.
Like the military, daily reveille wakened the students, who dressed and greeted senior officers in their rooms before proceeding to breakfast. They attended classes before heading to the drilling field for exercises. When the whistle blew, the band and assembled cadets marched across the street and into the dining hall while all traffic halted. The school followed a strict schedule of classes, exercise, sports and drills.
The first year’s commencement featured John Steven McGroarty as speaker, and the rental of a summer camp at Lake Elsinore. By 1931, the school leased Camp El Capinero Lodge near Sequoia National Forest for its two-month summer camps.
Outstanding teachers and coaches also lured students to the school. Some had been hired for the Los Angeles Athletic Club and the Ambassador Hotel. George Pilkington, formerly of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, led the outstanding polo team, which played most of its matches against colleges’ junior varsity teams. Late 1930s swim coach Clyde Swendsen had coached the two previous United States Olympic swimming teams. Black Foxe’s football, baseball and basketball teams also played against colleges’ junior varsity teams like USC, UCLA, and Stanford. The football team invited a Hawaii team to come play in 1936, with Black-Foxe reciprocating by playing there in 1937. The Boys Town team accompanied by Father Flanagan traveled to Los Angeles in 1938 to play them.
The school’s strong financial backing led it to assist Los Angeles when it suffered financial difficulties. When the city of Los Angeles skipped summer school classes in 1932 because of empty coffers, Black-Foxe Military Institute opened its summer session at low costs to all students, male and female, to provide them educational opportunities.
Over the next several decades, more celebrity children attended the institute, including sons of Charlie Chaplin, Sol Wurtzel, Sam Goldwyn, Hunt Stromberg, Frances Marion, Donald Ogden Stewart, Richard Barthelmess, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bette Davis, Bing Crosby, Jane Powell, Guy Williams, Harry Cohn, Dennis O’Keefe, Samuel Fuller, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Max Factor, and Gregory Peck, with sons of Harold Lloyd, Art Linkletter, Jerry Lewis, Robert Aldrich, Alexander Pantages, Andy Devine, and Irving Cummings actually graduating from the school.
The May 18, 1953, Daily Variety stated that a 7-year-old Gary Lewis was selling autographed photos of his dad, Jerry Lewis, for 10 cents each at the school. In the early 1950s, baseball great Joe DiMaggio proudly visited his son on campus.
In 1935, composers Harry Warren and Gus Kahn wrote and wanted to publish a school song on behalf of their sons attending the school, but competing studio contracts prevented publisher Jack Robbins from printing it.
Young actors Bobby Breen and Scotty Beckett attended the academy, and actress Shirley Temple’s brother George graduated. Actor Robert Wagner attended through the eighth grade, when he was expelled. According to his autobiography, Gene Wilder supposedly suffered harassment because of his Jewish heritage, with his mother quickly pulling him from the school.
Students from all over the world enrolled, from such countries as Japan, England, Egypt, Canada and Mexico, with many sons of leaders of South American countries also attending.
Boys never lacked for female companionship, however, as they held reciprocal dances with Marlborough, Westlake, and Marymount Schools, along with girls of the Wilshire Ebell Club.
Over the years, Black-Foxe appeared in a few films. In 1940, Earle Foxe played a somewhat autobiographical role in the Columbia film “Military Academy,” filmed partly at the school. Foxe served as technical adviser for the 1943 MGM film “Best Foot Forward,” starring Lucille Ball, June Allyson, Gloria DeHaven and Harry James, which filmed on the school’s drilling field. Jerry Lewis employed the gymnasium in his 1961 film “The Ladies Man.” Art Linkletter shot on location for “On the Go” in 1959.
During World War II, several students served in the armed forces, with Lt. Harry Gaver Jr., son of headmaster Harry Gaver, perishing on the Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. Graduates also served in the Korean conflict.
Ray Rosendahl, the California underwriting manager for Seaboard Surety Co. of New York, whose sons attended Black-Foxe, acquired the school from Toberman in 1959. At the time, 225 day students and 100 residents attended the school. Rosendahl owned and operated the school for three years before passing leadership over to parents, who formed a nonprofit organization. After a few years, financial problems forced their hand, with the rights reverting to Rosendahl. In the late 1960s, students and their families paid $900-$1,400 tuition to attend Black-Foxe.
By the middle of the 1960s, however, changing cultural and social attitudes decreased attendance and financial revenues at all military schools. Relaxing attitudes and increasing opposition to the Vietnam War trumpeted the death knell for Black-Foxe and many similar institutions.
In 1969, Rosendahl demolished all the school buildings to begin condominium construction on the five acres. Workmen simply threw trophies, pennants, photographs, plaques and books in the trash, many luckily plucked from the dumpsters by observant alumni.
Today, most of these treasures reside in the former adjutant-general’s home on Wilcox Avenue. Graduate David Aguirre, a former maitre’d at Yamashiro’s, proudly protects and exhibits the small archive in his lovely restored home, a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument. Aguirre and fellow alumni Robert Sides provided me a tour of these precious treasures two weeks ago. Sides later showed me fun Kodachrome and black and white film footage of the school over the decades, including the Northern California camp, football games at the Coliseum, a day in the life of cadets, marching from the drill field to lunch, and graduations.
Alumni still proudly recall their school, gathering for reunions. They have put together the website, www.bfmi.org, which includes yearbook photos of all graduating students. A book is being written on the long history of the institute. Only a memory today, Black-Foxe Military Institute provided rich educations and experiences to lucky and well-off young men, shaping them for lives of service and success.