In the Beginning
The Professional Children’s School was founded in 1914 by two reform-minded New Yorkers, Jane Harris Hall and Jean Greer Robinson. Ardent theatre-goers, the women learned of the plight of the city’s professional children – young people working in the theatre in New York or “on the road.” They learned that public and private schools could not or would not accommodate the schedules of stage children and, more often than not, children were simply skipping school to work on the stage.
Determined to help these “unknown friends on the other side of the footlights,” as Mrs. Robinson would later write, the women decided to found a school especially for New York’s professional children.
On January 6, 1914 PCS admitted its first two students in a rented room in The Rehearsal Club, a non-profit residential club for young actresses founded by Jane Harris Hall and Jean Greer Robinson a few years earlier. An immediate success, the school enrolled over 100 students within the first year. One of them was Albert Hackett, who told the World Telegram newspaper many years later, “The most wonderful thing about the school was meeting other kids. I had been tutored alone most of the time before.”
Professional Children’s School held its first commencement exercises on June 8, 1916. As widely reported in the New York press, a large audience attended the ceremonies at the Princess Theatre. The four graduates, three girls and one boy, were presented their diplomas by the actress Elsie Ferguson. Honored guests included the actor John Drew. One graduate, George Price, delivered a speech entitled “The Child on the Stage” in which he recalled studying geography on his “visits to the Rockies, the Grand Canyon and California in his vaudeville tours.”
From the beginning, Professional Children’s School provided distance learning for students whose professional commitments required them to be away from school. Even in its earliest years, the school realized that the experiences and discovery which result from time away from school have their own educational value.
Broadway’s little red schoolhouse
In 1927 Professional Children’s School rented 3 floors in a newly constructed commercial building at 1860 Broadway (61st Street).
“You would never dream the stern-faced skyscraper was Broadway’s little red schoolhouse,” wrote the Associated Press. Children were now respected members of the acting profession and roles for children were becoming commonplace on Broadway. “One suspects that the chief reason for this general excellence is the existence of an organization known as the Professional Children’s School,” wrote Playbill Magazine in 1949.
Some of the Broadway productions of the period in which PCS students were featured were Ah, Wilderness, Annie Get Your Gun, Babes in Arms, The Bad Seed, Camelot, Carousel, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Children’s Hour, Dead End, Finian’s Rainbow, I Remember Mama, The King and I, Lady in the Dark, Life with Father, Member of the Wedding, My Sister Eileen, Oliver !, Peter Pan, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and The Women.
Throughout this period, classical musicians, ballet dancers and athletes were a small, but significant, part of the student body. Notably, ice-skater Carol Heiss was a PCS junior when she won the world, national and North American figure skating championships in 1956.
Jane Harris Hall
Jean Greer Robinson
a home of one’s own
After 40 years of renting space, Professional Children’s School purchased it’s own 7-story building at 132 West 60th Street in 1956 while Lincoln Center was still on the drawing boards.
Mrs. Norman Smith, then president of the Board of Trustees, told The New York Times, “We feel that the goals of those developing the Lincoln Square cultural center and the Professional Children’s School are the same. We seek to make possible a climate in which the flowering of the arts can be fostered.”
The completion of Lincoln Center had a profound effect on Professional Children’s School and launched a nationwide interest in the performing arts. By the end of the 1960’s, the Juilliard School and the School of American Ballet were just a few blocks away at Lincoln Center. For the first time in the school’s history, students studying ballet and classical music outnumbered actors and entertainers.
Just a few of the school’s alumni making dance and music history include Alexandra Ansanelli, Merrill Ashley, Emanuel Ax, Peter Boal, Suzanne Farrell, Eliot Feld, Marvin Hamlisch, Lorin Hollander, Denise Jackson, Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, Ethan Steifel, Wendy Whelan and Pinchas Zuckerman.
Professional Children’s School students continued to appear on Broadway in celebrated shows like Annie, Beauty and the Beast, Big River, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Evita, The Falsettos, Fiddler on the Roof, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, The Lion King, Ragtime, The Secret Garden, Titanic, and The Will Rogers Follies.”
Professional Children’s School celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2014. The mission of the school remains remarkably the same and the halls continue to be filled with young people pursuing challenging and interesting goals in a variety of fields. In 2004, Professional Children’s School completed a $9-million renovation and expansion. The work, by Steven Harris Architects, added classrooms and office space, a new cafeteria, a 2-story auditorium and a gymnasium on a new 8th floor.
“Our commitment is to be a better, but not bigger school,” said Dr. James Dawson, Head of School since 1995. “We wanted to provide the kinds of spaces, improved technology and resources that would fully prepare our students for life and work in the 21st century. Beyond the wonderful new building renovation and expansion, we will always have as our primary focus and concern our ongoing credo, ‘to support the arts and to celebrate the mind.’”
PCS currently can enroll up to 190 students in grades 6-12, and has had students come to us from multiple US states and various countries. Professional Children’s School continues its founders’ mission to provide an academic education especially designed for children pursuing challenging goals, which sometimes requires time away from the classroom. Today’s students include world-class athletes, actors, musicians, dancers, models and recording artists.
Professional Children’s School students are regularly admitted to the most competitive colleges, conservatories and universities in the United States. The Professional Children’s School is accredited by the New York State Association of Independent Schools and is a member of the National Association of Independent Schools, the New York State Association of Independent Schools, the Council in Support of Education, the National Association of Principals of Schools for Girls and the New York City Guild of Independent Schools.
The Rehearsal Club
A RESIDENTIAL HOME FOR WOMEN OF THE STAGE
In 1913, just one year before they opened the Professional Children’s School, Jean Greer Robinson and Jane Harris Hall founded The Rehearsal Club for “women and girls of the stage.” Located near the theater district, the club would provide a place to rest and socialize, a lunchroom offering economical meals and, in Mrs. Robinson’s words “give a touch of home, friendship and affectionate interest to any girl who comes under its roof.” Both women had impeccable social credentials, Jean “Daisy” Robinson was the daughter of the Episcopal Bishop of New York, and Jane Harris Hall was a much-loved deaconess of the Episcopal Church. Miss Hall had already founded one residential women’s club in 1903, The Three Arts Club, which provided accommodation and social life for women studying art, music and drama in New York. Her friend Jean Greer quickly joined her in that effort, serving on the board of The Three Arts Club for over 30 years.
Through their work with The Three Arts Club, Mrs. Robinson and Miss Hall learned of the particular needs of the “women and girls of the Stage,” and decided to establish a club exclusively devoted to this population. As Mrs. Robinson wrote in 1922, “the theatre is a playground where old and young alike are lifted out of their every day lives through the art of the ‘Make-Believe,’ and hearts are touched, and minds refreshed by the unknown friends on the other side of the footlights, who skillfully and patiently, night after night, give us their best.”
With the aid of their many friends, two adjoining houses were completely renovated at 218 and 220 West Forty-Sixth Street. As The New York Times (July 6, 1913) reported, “many prominent persons are interested in it, because of the great need for such an association, and every effort will be made to establish this worthy cause on a firm basis.” A lunchroom and offices occupied the first floor, with a library, music room and lounge on the second floor where tea was served from 4 to 7 p.m. Overnight accommodation was provided for 20 women on the third and fourth floors. “While on the road,” Mary Chapman wrote in 1922, “we are constantly in touch with our Club members, forwarding their mail to all parts of the country and when they return to town they at once report to us for a room.” That year 130 girls found accommodation at the club.
In the days when actresses were expected to supply their own costumes, the Club’s society patrons donated items for the “Dramatic Wardrobe,” a secondhand department where members could borrow or inexpensively purchase suitable clothing for an auditon or stage role. Likewise the cafteria provided inexpensive meals, 6 days a week, served by members of the board and their friends, “bringing us all in closer touch,” wrote trustee Edith B. Riker, Chairman of the Cafeteria Committee in 1922. Long before Social Security, unemployment insurance or other safey nets existed, a Relief Committee assisted members of the Club unable to find engagements, with “gifts, loans or advice” and “it is understood that this Committee will gladly give free hospital care to any one who requires it, and the members of the Club who have received various kinds of assistance have shown deep appreciation,” wrote Alice Smith, Chairman of the Relief Committee.
Through their work at The Rehearsal Club, Mrs. Robinson and Miss Hall learned of the need for a school for children working on the New York stage and within a year the Professional Children’s School was established in borrowed rooms at The Rehearsal Club. — John Tucker
On June 8, 1916, two years after its founding, Professional Children’s School graduated its first senior class. “The graduation exercise was one of the most important events of the school history,” recalled a member of the Class of 1917 who was present at that first commencement. “The graduates had their respective compositions which they recited. The remainder of the school sang, while the smaller class danced Greek dances. After graduation, we realized we had to part with four of our dearest classmates.”
The ceremony was held with great fanfare at the Princess Theatre on West 39th Street. John Drew (left), one of the most distinguished actors of the day, was an honored guest and addressed the audience. Head of the notable acting family, Mr. Drew was uncle to John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore.
Essayist John J. Chapman joined Drew on the platform and also spoke. Leading lady Elsie Ferguson presented the diplomas to the four graduates (three girls and one boy). An invocation was read by the Episcopal Bishop of New York, David H. Greer (left in top photo). Bishop Greer was the father of PCS co-founder Jean Greer Robinson and a member of the school’s first Board of Trustees.
Several newspapers covered the event which, in spite of the rain, drew a crowd of theater notables, filling the Princess Theater. As reported in one newspaper, Georgie Price, one of the graduates, read a composition entitled, “The Child on the Stage” in which he wrote “of his visiting the Rockies, the Grand Canyon and California in his vaudeville tours, and [he] said this was a better way to learn geography than in school.”