In 1936, New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia started the High School of Music & Art at 443-465 West 135th Street – an event he described as “the most hopeful accomplishment” of his administration.
Come 1947, the High School of Performing Arts at 120 West 46th Street was created by educator and creative thinker Franklin J. Keller. This was the setting for the 1980 film Fame. While the actual school building wasn’t used in the movie, it depicts the life and hardships of students attending the school which is now known as Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, as the two schools merged in 1961. They kept separate campuses before moving to LaGuardia’s current location at 100 Amsterdam Avenue, between 64th and 65th Streets.
Next time you walk by, look out, because you might just be passing the next big star: this institution has turned out countless. Or maybe if you’re enrolled, you could be passing notes with the next EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards winner) or skipping school with the next first of its kind. A revolutionary … a visionary … or a word we haven’t even come up with yet; beyond definition. If those walls could talk … right?
Well, let me tell you, here are some of Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School’s most famous alumni.
Jennifer Aniston (Class of 1987)
Who needs 37 pieces of flare when you’re packing an Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award? Not Jennifer Aniston, who scored that hardware performing as Rachel Green on the hit sitcom “Friends.” In a 2011 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Adam Sandler revealed that Aniston had turned down a regular (repertory) cast spot on “Saturday Night Live” to take the Rachel Green role on “Friends” – which ended up running for 10 seasons and 256 episodes. Smart Water, anyone?
Aniston has also been a smash at the box office with Bruce Almighty (2003), The Break-Up (2006) and Marley & Me (2008), all raking in at least $200 million. We’ll always cherish her contributions in The Good Girl (2002) and, of course, Joanna in the cult classic Office Space (1999).
Al Pacino (Class of 1959)
“Don’t ever take sides with anyone against the family again. Ever.” -Michael Corleone, The Godfather.
Panic in Needle Park (1971) is an Upper West Side classic, and Pacino’s portrayal of a heroin-addicted street hustler wound up being his breakout role. A resume so lengthy, all we really have to say about it is, “Hoo-ah.”
Before Pacino made it big, in 1966 he was the building superintendent at 12 West 68th Street. It paid $14 a week and came with a tiny, ground floor apartment, but Pacino constantly went to auditions and was rarely around so they fired him.
He also attended LaGuardia but didn’t graduate. This probably won’t hold him back.
Pacino is one of many big stars who’s owned an apartment at The Apthorp.
Liza Minnelli (Class of 1964)
Minnelli is show business royalty across the board. One of only 16 EGOTs in history, Minnelli was also knighted in the French Legion of Honour, and was a cornerstone of the iconic Studio 54 nightclub scene in the late 1970s.
In the 156th episode of “Seinfeld,” the season 8 finale which aired on May 15, 1997, Kramer attends the Tony Awards as a ‘seat filler’ and inadvertently ends up on stage accepting a Tony award for the production of Scarsdale Surprise, starring Raquel Welch.
Kramer coasts into Jerry’s UWS apartment the next morning with ‘his’ Tony in tow and sets up one of the best jokes in Seinfeld show history: “I saw the sunrise at Liza’s…”
READ MORE: SEINFELD LOCATIONS ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE
Billy Cobham (Class of 1962)
For two days in 1970, Billy Cobham joined a team of musicians led by Miles Davis (who was then living at 312 West 77th Street, located on a street which was later named after him) at the 30th Street Studio in NYC to record Jack Johnson. Johnson, nicknamed the Galveston Giant, was an American boxer from Texas who, at the height of the Jim Crow era, became the first Black American heavyweight champion of the world (1908-1915). The two, 20+ minute tracks also became known as, A Tribute to Jack Johnson. The work is critically regarded among Miles Davis’ and Billy Cobham’s finest.
Cobham, who combines explosive technique with amazing dexterity, is often credited as fusion’s greatest drummer. That’s the combination of jazz and progressive rock, which is beautifully articulated through Cobham’s band The Mahavishnu Orchestra.
While attending the High School of Music & Art, Cobham played percussion in the St. Catherine’s Queensmen, a marching band.
Bess Myerson (Class of 1941)
The first and only Miss America winner (1945) of Jewish descent. In the 1950s, Myserson was hired by television producer Walt Framer as the “Lady in Mink” on “The Big Payoff” gameshow. Recognized for her wit, Myerson was also a panelist on “The Name’s the Same” (1954) and the “I’ve Got a Secret” (1958-1967) gameshows.
Myerson, a politician as well, served in the Ed Koch administration in 1983 as Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, but was forced to resign her post after pleading the fifth to a bribery scandal involving the judge (Hortense Gabel) in her divorce case with sewer contractor Carl Andrew Capasso. This saga became known as “The Bess Mess.”
Béla Fleck (Class of 1976)
A banjo virtuoso if there ever was one. Innovative to no end, Fleck took the banjo from its roots in bluegrass to new heights in jazz, classical, rock and world music genres. A member of the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame (2020), Béla has won 14 Grammy awards and is best known for his work in the bands New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
Fleck’s duo performance with legendary stand-up bassist Edgar Meyer at the Colonial Theater in Keene, New Hampshire (2.26.04), still stands as the greatest birthday concert in my lifetime.
Awkwafina (Class of 2006)
Born Nora Lum and hailing from Forrest Hills, Queens, Lum attended LaGuardia to train in classical and jazz music while playing the trumpet. At 15, still in school, she created her alter-ego, Awkwafina. In a 2017 essay featured in Into The Gloss, Lum articulated the alias:
“The name ‘Awkwafina’ definitely [refers to] a person I repressed. She’s the girl who’s high on sleepover energy, running around and dunking ice cream cones in her eyes. College was like prison reform where I learned to be quiet and more passive—so when Awkwafina comes out on stage, she’s that crazy high school kid that doesn’t really care about anything. It’s an extra burst of confidence that Nora [Lum] doesn’t have.”
Awkwafina busted onto the music scene in 2012 with rap song “My Vag,” which takes a pretty hearty (comical) jab at Upper West Sider Tony Danza. With two albums under her cap, Awkwafina goes ‘cross medium’ and has credits in TV that include “Girl Code” on MTV (2014-2015) and “Saturday Night Live,” which she hosted on October 6, 2018. Awkwafina also plays a fictionalized version of herself on the Comedy Central series “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens” (2020-Present).
Unable to be contained, Awkwafina has graced the silver screen in the films Ocean’s 8 (2018), Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Jumanji: The Next Level (2019), to name a few. In her starring role as Billi in the 2019 film Farewell, Awkwafina won a Golden Globe for Best Actress – Musical or Comedy.
Awkwafina is currently a runaway blockbuster success, in theaters right now, starring alongside Simu Liu in Marvel Studio’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which just set a Labor Day Weekend box office record, banking $94 million.
READ MORE: FAMOUS PEOPLE WHO WENT TO FORDHAM UNIVERSITY
Timothée Chalamet (Class of 2013)
A heartthrob, Chamalet’s performance in Call Me by Your Name (2017) earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. At just 22 years old, that made him the third youngest actor in history to earn a nomination in the category.
At LaGuardia, Chalamet played on the school’s basketball team with another celebrity you may have heard of, Ansel Elgort. Both Chalamet and Elgort received notations for Best Performance in a Motion Picture at the 75th Golden Globes in 2017.
Gloria Davy (Class of 1951)
Davy is credited with being part of the first generation of African-American singers to achieve widespread success and is remembered as being instrumental in helping break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the opera world.
“Though she was praised by critics for the beauty of her voice, the sensitivity of her musicianship and the perfection of her pianissimos — the elusive art of attaining maximum audibility at minimum volume — Ms. Davy sang with the Met just 15 times over four seasons, from her debut in the title role of Verdi’s ‘Aida,’ opposite Leonard Warren, in 1958 to her final performance, as Leonora in Verdi’s ‘Trovatore,’ opposite Giulio Gari, in 1961,” the New York Times wrote in 2012, the year of her death. “She also sang Pamina in Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute’ and Nedda in Leoncavallo’s ‘Pagliacci’ with the company. In concert, she appeared with the New York Philharmonic and at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York.”
Davy went on to teach at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana before passing away in 2012.
Jonathan Tunick (Class of 1954)
Tunick joins Liza Minelli in the EGOT echelon of LaGuardia, the only two alumni with such an accolade. Tunick, whose principal instrument is the clarinet, is an American orchestrator, musical director and composer. Tunick’s most famous for orchestrating the works of Stephen Sondheim, who calls him “the best orchestrator in the history of the theater.” Their collaboration started in 1970 with the musical comedy “Company,” which was nominated for fourteen Tony Awards, winning six including Best Musical and Best Score.
READ MORE: SEE WHAT’S FILMING ON THE UWS
Sarah Paulson (Class of 1993)
In a 2016 tweet, Sarah Paulson wrote that “Without this school, I wouldn’t be an actress. Keep LaGuardia a High School for the Arts.” Included in the tweet was a Change.org petition that demanded “the Department of Education return the admission criteria to those consistent with the law and the original mission of the school.” Paulson called out the schools then principal, Dr. Lisa Mars, saying that since 2013, when Dr. Mars arrived, “LaGuardia’s admission process has been radically altered in favor of academic scores and attendance records. With these new admission criteria, talent counts for only 14% of the admission decision. As a result, hundreds of qualified and gifted students have been denied admission. This change not only defies the 80-year-old mission of the Fame school, it also violates the Hecht-Calandra Act of 1971, which gives specialized high schools the unique power to choose their students based on a specific set of criteria.”
On June 25, 2019, a victory for the petition was announced. “effective immediately, Lisa Mars is no longer the principal of LaGuardia High School,” the announcement read.
It should make sense that in 2017, Paulson was selected for Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world (artists category).
Paulson garnered critical acclaim as well as a Primetime Emmy and Golden Globe for her role as Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor, in The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story.
Charles Fox (1958)
On September 21, 1970, the New York Jets played the Cleveland Browns at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio for the first ever “Monday Night Football” game. Cue the theme music, composed by LaGuardia alum Charles Fox. This score served as the “Monday Night Football” soundtrack from 1970-1975. The Jets and “Broadway Joe” Namath lost that game to the Browns 31-21, by the way.
Fox also composed the theme songs for ABC shows “Love, American Style” and “The Love Boat.” The tune, Killing Me Softly with His Song, was originally composed by Charles Fox with lyrics by Normand Gimbel. It did not make it onto the music charts until it was covered by Roberta Flack in 1973, at which point it rose to # 1. Then it went # 1 again with Lauren Hill and The Fugees in 1996. Both of these renditions were placed on the revised 2021 list of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, which the publication released on September 15, 2021.
Nicki Minaj (Class of 2000)
Minaj studied acting at LaGuardia, having been turned down for singing. But that didn’t stop her. Nicki’s gone on to sell over 100 million records worldwide, making her one of the best-selling female artists of all time.
Born Onika Tanya Marej-Petty, Nicki Minaj was the evolution of multiple alter egos which she laid out in a 2010 interview with New York Magazine: “Cookie was my first identity—that stayed with me for a while. I went on to Harajuku Barbie, then Nicki Minaj. Fantasy was my reality. I must have been such a fucking annoying little girl. Everywhere we went I was up singing or acting, like, ‘Hey look at me!’”
Minaj didn’t forget her acting chops either, having done voice-over roles in the animated films Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) and The Angry Birds Movie 2 (2019). On screen, she had supporting roles in the comedy films The Other Woman (2014) and Barbershop: The Next Cut (2016).
Arthur Mitchell (Class of 1952)
Mitchell was the founding director of the Dance Theater of Harlem, which he considers his greatest accomplishment. “Mr. Mitchell, the first black ballet dancer to achieve international stardom, was one of the most popular dancers with New York City Ballet, where he danced from 1956 to 1968 and displayed a dazzling presence, superlative artistry and powerful sense of self,” wrote The New York Times in 2018, the year of his passing.
“In the first, in “Agon,” a trailblazing masterwork of 20th-century ballet that had its premiere in 1957, Mr. Mitchell embodied the edgy energy of the piece in a difficult, central pas de deux that Balanchine choreographed for him and Diana Adams.”
Arthur Mitchell’s honors are vast and include the 1971 Capezio Award, the 1975 Dance Magazine Award, and in 1993, a Kennedy Center Honor and a Handel Medallion from New York City.
Milton Glaser (Class of 1947)
The I Love NY logo: that’s Milton Glaser. The iconic DC Comics ‘Bullet’ logo: that’s Milton Glaser. The psychedelic Bob Dylan poster, Brooklyn Brewery logo and Stony Brook University logos: all Milton Glaser. Co-founder of New York Magazine and Push Pin Studios, both in 1954, yes, you guessed it: Milton Glaser.
In 2009, Milton Glaser received the National Medal of the Arts award from President Barack Obama. He was the first graphic designer to ever receive the award and his work can be found in museums worldwide.
Glaser, who passed in 2020, owned an 8.5 room duplex at 27 West 67th Street, which was originally conceived as an artists studio.