Every college has visiting lecturers, and student reaction is often a yawn. But what if the outsiders had names like Newman, Redford, Spacek and McQueen? Well, that would be a course of a different color.
At the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood, the part-time faculty reads like the Academy Awards guest list. Nothing else at the school matches the quality of the teaching—it is two big shabby classrooms with patched carpets and tired furniture. Nonetheless, SOEC has an astonishing enrollment of nearly 1,200 film students in some 40 classes and seminars.
They hear lectures by and swap ideas with the likes of actress Shelley Winters, director Robert Altman, actor Jack Lemmon and composer Marvin Hamlisch. Lucille Ball wasn’t content to deliver a single lecture; she insisted on conducting a six-week course in comedy.
The Hollywood stars appear free for two reasons: a chance to share their experiences with bright students, and the persuasiveness of 36-year-old Gary Shusett. He joined the institution as headmaster nine years ago when it was Sherwood Oaks High, an alternate school, then renamed it the Experimental College in 1972 and began offering courses in music, batik, shipbuilding in bottles, engineering, anything he thought might attract students.
Three years ago business was so bad that the college’s phones were cut off and Shusett was sleeping in the office. Desperately he wrote to celebrities asking them to lecture. Within 48 hours Paul Newman, Robert Redford (whom Shusett has contacted 35 times) and George C. Scott all accepted. A newspaper advertisement brought in 700 calls and $7,500 in tuition. “That was the turning point,” Shusett recalls.
He recruits the guest lecturers with imagination and persistence. He sent Lily Tomlin an invitation in calligraphy on a window shade. No response. So he asked a songwriter to put the request to music. The resulting ditty (sample lyrics: “We’re breathing hot and heavy / For you and your Chevy”) induced Tomlin to say yes.
Mel Brooks was another speaker Shusett wanted. He lettered an invitation on a T-shirt, put a well-developed young lady inside it and sent her over to Brooks’ house. Brooks “started screaming and yelling that he didn’t like jokes,” Shusett says. “But since then he’s come twice.”
SOEC offers a broad curriculum in films: writing, editing, directing, cinematography, lighting, even stunt work. Tuition is modest. A six-to eight-week acting course, for example, costs $40 to $60. About half the students are already working professionally in Hollywood. One SOEC student wrote the screenplay for Rollercoaster.
Shusett was raised on the glittery side of the tracks in Beverly Hills, the son of a real estate developer. He bounced around several colleges for eight years without earning a diploma, before Sherwood Oaks. Recently he moved from a rundown hotel to the bottom half of a duplex in Hollywood Hills and has begun paying himself a salary of $326 a week. He also bought what for him is the ultimate status symbol on wheels. In Hollywood, everybody knows that’s a brown Mercedes 450 SEL, right? Not for Gary Shusett. He treated himself to a black 1962 Olds-mobile Starfire with his own name on the license plate.