What do you get when mix a flea market, a high school and 99 chairs?
The answer, in this case, is the Greenway Arts Alliance. Started in 1997, the group this year marks its 20th anniversary of serving up a somewhat unlikely trio of commerce, education and art. The Alliance hosts a weekly trading post, produces a full season of plays and teaches theater — all in partnership with their “landlord,” so to speak, Fairfax High School.
The school sits at the crossroads of Melrose and Fairfax and is home base to the 99-seat Greenway Court Theatre. Every Sunday, the Melrose Trading Post opens for business on the parking lot shared by the school and the theatre. The three-way cooperative might seem a bit odd, but for Jonathan Rozelle it is home.
Rozelle, an Alliance alumnus, says: “I’ve pretty much done everything here. I’ve even painted sets. Why not! You’re in Hollywood, why not have that array of skills.”
Twenty years ago, Rozelle was a Fairfax High student when he heard about the Greenway Arts Alliance getting started. Before he knew it, he was making time for school, for the stage, and managing the Sunday shopping outpost.
“You have to give to get,” Rozelle says. “And that is what it was.”
These days, Rozelle works as a news reporter for the NBC affiliate in Little Rock, Arkansas. But he visits L.A. whenever he can, and credits the Greenway Arts Alliance for igniting his professional drive.
“You talk to people [at the Trading Post] and you learn truly who they are,” Rozelle says.
“Vendors, they aren’t just people selling items and one-of-kind clothing. They are also humans. And they have a passion behind what they do. And that’s what we do as journalists. We learn what people do.”
Rozelle is not the Alliance's only success story. Just a few years ago, Gray Malin was taking humble photos around L.A. He took a shot at selling a few at the Melrose Trading Post.
Malin recalls: “When I was selling here, I was moved by a photo I had taken from a hotel balcony of a pool down below that was filled with all these sunbathers and I thought it would be neat to shoot more from this perspective.”
He got the idea to try the same shot from a helicopter over beaches in Miami. And before he knew it, his career took flight.
“I sold the prints [at the Trading Post] in the beginning,” Malin says. “And the direct feedback was incredible. It just kind of blew up. Now, I have two books — one is a New York Times bestseller called ‘Beaches,’ and it’s available everywhere from Anthropologie to Target.”
You might be thinking,: That’s all very cool, but what exactly is the point of the Greenway Arts Alliance? According to co-founders Pierson Blaetz and Whitney Weston, the idea is for Fairfax High School, the Melrose Trading Post and the Greenway Court Theatre to quite literally be allies for each other.
“Pierson and I were actors,” Weston says. “We lived in the area. We just wanted to do something that was meaningful.”
Twenty years ago, Weston and Blaetz were like a lot of actors in this town — midwest and East Coast transplants, respectively, who were looking for an artistic home, a place to practice their craft and build a creative community. So one night, they crashed a nearly empty PTA meeting at Fairfax High.
“There were only two parents and the principal,” Weston recalls. “They were suspicious of us. They were like, What do you guys want? And we’re like, We’re willing to help. And they said, Well, that’s odd, because usually the community comes when they want to complain.”
Blaetz adds: “3,600 students [at Fairfax High] and there were two parents sitting in that meeting!”
That night, Weston and Blaetz learned the hard way what the school actually needed.
“We were like, Cool, let’s do some theater!" Weston laughs. “And they were like, No, we need money. And that’s what they were meeting about, so we decided to do the trading post in the parking lot once.”
That one-time only flea market idea turned into a 20-year tradition that’s still going strong. The Trading Post creates cash-flow for the school’s arts education program and the Greenway Court Theatre. But Blaetz remembers how the start of it all was much more modest:
“We thought, Wow, if we could start up an arts education program here at Fairfax High School, wouldn’t that be cool?” But that’s not what they needed. They needed money for basic resources. Literally, we were buying books and desk chairs with the money we were raising at that time.”
When Blaetz and Weston stumbled in unannounced to that PTA meeting back in ’97, then-Fairfax High principal Carol Truscott presiding.
“I looked out and I saw these two young kids and I said, They cannot be parents of kids at my school!” Truscott recalls. “They were too young. They sat through the whole meeting! And they came up after [and] said, 'We are Whitney and Pierson and we would like to work with your school. We would like to run a Trading Post.’ And I said, ‘Let’s make an appointment and let’s talk!’”
Truscott says before she knew it, she had helped Weston and Blaetz start one of the most successful partnerships in the Los Angeles Unified School District's history.
“It really makes the school part of the community," says Truscott, "and not just that school on Melrose Boulevard.”
Only six short months into their partnership, Truscott championed Weston and Blaetz’s request to renovate an old building they had seen nearby. The Greenway Court was a 1940s-era social hall that had long sat abandoned on the edge of the school campus. After two years of repair work, the theater opened its doors, making way for the partners to start teaching Fairfax students.
Blaetz says: “We didn’t have some big capital campaign. It was money from [the box office] and the [Trading Post] booths. And that money was used to rebuild Greenway Court Theatre. Actors are good at starting from nothing and creating something. You are used to [hearing], No. You go on an audition: No, no, no, no. You’re used to going in through a window if the door is locked. We just applied that to the needs of the school.”
These days, that education program is called the Greenway Institute for the Arts. It offers in-school and after-school workshops. Students receive extra credit for seeing shows and pitching in to mount the plays at the theater. In fact, the students and teachers even helped select the recent production, “The House on Mango Street.”
The play is adapted from the 1984 novel by Sandra Cisneros about a Chicano family. It was selected because students were reading the book in class. Lead actress Estela Garcia loves knowing that her work onstage connects directly to the classrooms nearby, and perhaps even to the students who might identify as members of the Chicano community like she does.
“The last two lines of the play I say are, ‘For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out,’” Garcia says. “As an artist, I always try to take my community with me and hold it in my heart with my head raised up.”
As for Whitney Weston and Pierson Blaetz, they still do their share of acting these days. They say they haven’t forgotten their initial passions of 20 years past. Yet they know that like any good piece of art, they too are works in progress.
Blaetz says: “It’s a life’s work. After 20 years, what a great focus to have.”
Weston adds: “There are some days, I feel like no time has passed at all. But then I think about the students that are here now — when we first started, they weren’t even born!
“But I hope we set a trend for LAUSD. It’s a model that works and I really hope people will replicate what we do.”
"Yerma in the Desert," a new play by Oliver Mayer, is at the Greenway Court Theatre from Nov. 17 through Dec. 16.