NEW YORK – Tony Bennett may sing about San Francisco, but he left his heart in Astoria – the working-class Queens community where he grew up during the Great Depression.
When schools open, the 83-year-old singer will be returning to his old neighbourhood to welcome students into the new permanent home of the public arts high school that he founded and named in honour of his close friend, Frank Sinatra.
“It’s beyond any dream I could have ever had,” said Bennett. “I loved growing up in Astoria and I still hang out there. It’s got the most wholesome people I ever met. … When I was lucky enough to get money from New York City to start a school, I said, ‘Let’s do it in Astoria because they deserve it.”‘
Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto (his given family name), an educator, will be attending Wednesday’s opening of the new home of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. At a time when school districts across the country are cutting arts programs, the opening caps off a decade-long campaign to develop a public-private partnership to create a model arts high school.
Bennett chose to name the school after his mentor, who helped launch his career that spans seven decades.
“Frank was so beautiful to me my whole career and always considered me his favourite singer,” said Bennett, interviewed backstage during the jazz festival in Newport, Rhode Island. “By calling it the Sinatra School it’s a symbol of hoping that the students will always do something with integrity, not just for fame and a quick buck which is quite prevalent today.”
The school opened in 2001 in temporary quarters at LaGuardia Community College in Queens with 250 students, and later relocated to a converted industrial building. Queens College alumnus Jerry Seinfeld delivered the commencement speech to the first graduating class in 2005, and Wynton Marsalis, Kevin Spacey, Nancy Giles and Bruce Willis spoke at subsequent ceremonies.
Bennett takes special pride that the school ranks second academically among Queens public high schools with a graduation rate of 98 per cent, nearly all of whom go on to college.
“I told the students right from the beginning that you’re going to be responsible for making or breaking this school … and sure enough they came through,” said Bennett. “They’re all full of enthusiasm.”
For the upcoming year, the school’s enrolment will total about 720, all of whom were selected through auditions for programs in visual arts, dance, vocal and instrumental music, drama and film.
“Tony has done a great thing for these kids … These are not privileged kids, a lot of them come from real poverty settings,” said Donna Finn, the school’s principal, “For them to come here and to be treated well and respected for their innate talent is life changing … and just helps them have the self-esteem they need to be successful.”
A week before opening day, several dozen student and parent volunteers were busy helping unpack equipment to get the classrooms ready. The facilities include an open-air rooftop stage with a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline; two black-box theatres; and the 800-seat Tony Bennett Concert Hall, with an orchestra pit and stage large enough to handle an opera production.
“I think we students have to step up our performances to deserve a space like this,” said sophomore vocal student, John-Alexander Sakelos, 15, of Bayside, Queens.”Tony Bennett comes to the school a lot. He’s not the typical international star. … he’s still the same down-to-earth Astoria type of person.”
The New York City Board of Education put up $75 million to construct the school. Bennett and his wife formed the non-profit Exploring the Arts organization that raised an additional $4.5 million to upgrade the facilities to state-of-the-art calibre. Bennett and k.d. lang will be performing at ETA’s annual gala on Sept. 21 to support the school’s programming and arts initiatives in other schools.
The land was donated by the Kaufman Organization, which operates the Kaufman-Astoria Studios television and film production complex across the street from the school.
Bennett, an accomplished painter, and his wife chose Polshek Partnership Architects – which designed the Rose Center for Earth and Space for the American Museum of Natural History and the William J. Clinton Presidential Center – to create a distinctive design. The front facade is a curtain wall of glass which floods the studio spaces with natural light and connects the school with the outside community by showcasing the students at work on their arts.
Bennett got the inspiration to create the school during a 1998 visit to Chicago when he observed inner city students participating in a program in which they were paid to beautify parks with art work and put on shows for the community. He then met with his long-time friend, Susan Crow (they married in 2007), who was teaching history at Manhattan’s “Fame” Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School. They lined up support from the City Council and obtained funding from the Board of Education.
Benedetto, who is now ETA’s president after serving as the school’s assistant principal, said she tried to build on LaGuardia’s success by integrating pre-conservatory arts training with an intense academic program, encouraging community outreach and offering apprenticeships for students to work with local arts organizations from the Roundabout Theatre Company to the American Ballet Theater.
“This is sort of our child, so to speak,” said Benedetto. “What I admire most about Tony is that somebody of his talent and stature would take the time to get behind the public school children and start a school. … I think it’s really a magnificent part of what will be his legacy.”
“He always likes to say ‘The Best is Yet to Come’ and look forward. … Now that this school is grown up, he’s like, OK, what are we going to do now to go into other schools.”