Greeting Card Art to help Orange County School of the Arts
Orange County School of the Arts Celebrated its 25th Anniversary earlier this year.
BY LORI BASHEDA / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
SANTA ANA - How many times did Orange County High School of the Arts almost die? Let us count the ways.
Today, celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Santa Ana school is one of the more spectacular success stories in modern education.
But it almost didn't turn out that way. And the story of how OCHSA rose out of several piles of ashes is worth telling.
But before we do, let me introduce the cast of characters.
Ralph Opacic: The choir teacher whose own dismal failure to become the next Billy Joel led him to teach to pay the bills.
Mike Harrah: The 6-foot-6 commercial real estate tycoon with a ZZ Top beard, a Cobra military chopper and a big heart.
Barbara O'Connor: The charismatic school principal who is not afraid to hand over power to teachers, students or parents.
Miguel Pulido: The mayor of Santa Ana who saw a gem of an opportunity where another city saw just a lot of traffic.
Los Alamitos: The city that just saw a lot of traffic and is now, perhaps, kicking itself.
Co-starring: A Who's Who of Orange County arts patrons capable of writing enormous checks without beads of sweat forming on their brows.
Oh, and did we mention the hand of God?
Each has played a part in giving birth to what is now one of the most acclaimed art institutions in the nation.
It's the stuff movies are made of. So let's roll.
Ralph Opacic leaves Virginia at age 18 to study at Cal State Long Beach because that's where the Carpenters launched their career. He wants to be the next Billy Joel.
By 1982 he has a degree in music and a lot of piano bar gigs, but is not the next Billy Joel. So he takes a job subbing at Los Alamitos middle schools – and falls in love with it. In 1984, he scores a full-time job at the city's high school and takes over the choir which, has a whopping 30 kids.
Opacic wants to make choir cool, so he recruits football players and cheerleaders and within three years he has 350 kids. But they perform in a "wreck of a" multi-purpose room, with folding metal chairs and no stage. So he tells Superintendent Chuck McCully he wants to raise money to fix it up.
McCully goes to car dealer Lew Webb, who, as a Christmas present to his wife, writes a check for $50,000. That's a great start, says the architect they hire for the remodel, but you need $500,000.
The superintendent starts sleuthing and finds a state grant for $750,000 to develop a specialized program. He and Opacic write a proposal for an after-school arts program. They get it. Opacic panics: "What did I just sign us up for?"
Students all over the county audition that summer of 1987. By fall, the newly founded OCHSA has its first 120 students. They attend Los Alamitos High during the day and stay on campus from 2-5 p.m. to train with working artists.
A headline in the student newspaper reads: "OCHSA Invasion," and shows aliens parachuting in. But within three years, OCHSA parents and community members are raising some $250,000 a year to keep it alive.
In 1996, the school district offers to donate land to OCHSA for its own campus, and the community raises $1 million to pay for a design. But Los Alamitos officials decide they don't want the traffic, and the City Council files suit to block the project. They want the land for athletic fields.
"It was a big, ugly heated war," Opacic says. He was living in Rossmoor at the time, and he couldn't go to Marie Callender's without someone offering their opinion.
By the summer of 1999, the OCHSA dream was dead, at least in the minds of donors who were bailing out like it was the Titanic.
Then Opacic got a call from Miguel Pulido, mayor of Santa Ana. "I'm reading (in the papers) about this and I don't get it. If Los Alamitos doesn't want you, we do."
Pulido introduces Opacic to "Big" Mike Harrah, a burly developer with a long biker beard who went from pineapple-picking surf bum to uber rich founder of Caribou Industries – owner of, at one point, 62 commercial buildings in downtown Santa Ana. He's also a musician who played trombone in high school at the Carnation Dixieland Plaza in Disneyland. So Pulido knew he would like what Opacic was up to.
Harrah's recollection of the day he met Opacic in downtown Santa Ana is memorialized in a YouTube video.
"We were walking down the street and I said, 'This is one of the high rise buildings I have.'
"And Ralph says, 'That's perfect!'
"I go, 'That's not it.'
"We get a little further down the street and I go, 'We just acquired this one.'
"He goes, 'That's perfect!'
"And I said, 'That's not it.'
"Then we get to 1010 Main St., and I said, 'OK. You can say it, Ralph. It's perfect. That's your new school.'"
Just one more thing, Opacic told Harrah: It has to be ready for classes in six months.
"I said 'Okaaay ... Who's gonna finance it?'
"Oh, we don't have any money," Opacic replied.
Harrah borrowed money from his lender with a gentleman's agreement he would get it back by the time the doors opened in September.
By January of 2000 they have a building, a charter and $1.8 million in redevelopment funds.
All they need is another $20 million, a principal, teachers and a staff. Oh yeah, they also need 900 kids from around the county willing to come to downtown Santa Ana.
They have six months.
Barbara O'Connor opened Oak Middle School in Los Alamitos and had a reputation as an innovator, a leader who inspires. Opacic asked her to come along on the adventure. She bit.
They started hiring teachers in April, knowing that those teachers were quitting their jobs to join them. But they still didn't have any money to pay those teachers when the doors opened.
"Those were dark days," Opacic says. And nights. Sitting at the kitchen table, after the kids were in bed, with his 12th Diet Coke of the day, he and his wife, Sherry, a principal in Anaheim and fellow type-A-personality, would talk. She told him that all he could do was set his alarm every morning and show up for the game.
It wasn't until June that Opacic secured the $20 million in state funding the school had applied for.
Then disaster struck.
Besides being a real estate tycoon, Mike Harrah is a Hollywood stunt pilot.
On June 10, a 100-knott wind shear downed his chopper in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The crash broke Mike's legs, feet and back and pulverized his vertebrae. About eight hours later, two fishermen found him and his co-pilot in the middle of nowhere, "by the hand of God," Harrah says.
Blood clots had formed from the rib poking through Harrah's lung. A note was made on the top of the ER report: "Expect expiration within 24 hours."
If Harrah died, so would OCHSA.
By August, he was transferred to a rehab center in Tustin to learn how to walk again. One of his employees thumb tacked the school renovation plans to the ceiling. Every morning, with braces on his neck and back and a stick in his hand (with a marker taped to the stick), Harrah made corrections lying flat on his back.
The day the school opens Harrah is there in a wheelchair, along with dignitaries and fanfare. So are Opacic and O'Connor and dozens of the food service employees, custodians and teachers who followed them to OCHSA, much to the dismay of Los Alamitos. Teachers and parents had spent the summer schlepping textbooks and setting up classrooms. Now 900 students, grades 7-12, were pouring through the front doors.
And, within six months, Opacic realized they couldn't afford it.
A handful of arts patrons came to the rescue, writing big checks: Sandy and John Daniels, Lou and Margaret Webb, Dr. Grace-Chen Ellis and Brad Ellis, Maureen and Mike Mekjian, Janet and Walkie Ray, Patti and Russell Stern, Sue and John Vestri, Sally Segerstrom and Ted and Janice Smith, among others.
But halfway through the second year, the school couldn't make payroll. And their credit line was cut off. Opacic, O'Connor and Steve Wagner, the school's chief operating officer, charged thousands of dollars to their private credit cards to buy books and supplies.
"It wasn't 'Woe is me,' " says O'Connor. "It was 'I don't care what I have to do, were keeping this thing open!' "
Over Christmas break, Opacic or Wagner went in daily to check the mail, hoping money would turn up.
It was time for O'Connor to have a come to Jesus meeting with the parents. The school, she tells them, is broke.
Instead of freaking out, they started raising funds.
By 2005, under Wagner's guidance, the school's finances had shifted from survival mode to stable. Then Paul Folino put together an advisory group of key arts patrons and suddenly OCHSA was the darling of movers and shakers like Marybelle and S. Paul Musco, the Samuelis, George and Julia Argyros, and Henry Walker and institutions like Chapman’s film school, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, South Coast Repertory, UCI and the Pacific Symphony
Then in 2009, another boost came from what Opacic calls "the 'Glee' factor."
Matt Morrison, who plays Will Schuester on the hit TV show "Glee," gives shout outs to his alma mater on "Ellen." When Katie Couric comes to interview him, he sends a camera crew to OCHSA.
Overnight, applications double. This year, OCHSA got 4,000 applications for 400 spots. Not only are many students prodigies in arts like opera, violin, ballet, they're smart too. The school's API is 907, and 99 percent of students go on to college; schools like Harvard, West Point, Oberlin.
Looking back, Opacic says "being driven out of (Los Alamitos) was the best thing that ever happened to us."
Drive down Main Street and the school dominates eight buildings covering two city blocks. A few blocks away, students, with mohawks and costumes and faces painted like spider webs, get off trains from as far as San Diego and Big Bear, instruments in hands, to take master classes with teachers like film director Francis Ford Coppola.
At OCHSA's 25th anniversary gala earlier this month, ticket holders were entertained by Broadway stars like Susan Egan, Krysta Rodriguez and Matt Morrison, all alumni.
"I'd be lying if I said I'd always had the vision," Opacic says. "At some point it just took on a life of its own."