Betty White, ICM's Toni Howard, '90210' showrunner Chuck Rosin and more remember prom night, partying at Marvin Gaye's house and staging plays with "sets flown in from Broadway" on the iconic campus that turns 90 this year: "There was no one as cute as Jason Priestley."
On the very first episode of Beverly Hills, 90210, which aired Oct. 4, 1990, Shannen Doherty's Brenda Walsh — uprooted from Minnesota and thrown into a world with valet parking for students' BMWs and Jags — sits with her freshly minted BFF Kelly, played by Jennie Garth. Brenda asks Kelly for guidance navigating the fictional West Beverly High. "Kids here are richer. Some of their parents are celebrities," Kelly answers. "So it's not your normal high school."
Neither was — or is — the high school that inspired it, the real-life Beverly Hills High School, which counts among its alums 90210's first showrunner, Chuck Rosin. While BHHS, which opened in 1927, currently enrolls more than 1,600 students, and this year celebrates its 90th anniversary, fostered plenty of students from middle-class backgrounds who went on to mass fame (like Betty White, class of '39), it also became the high school for Establishment Hollywood; the academics, music and drama programs so acclaimed that the top stars of the day eschewed private school and shipped their kids to BHHS. Its graduates include Carrie Fisher, Rob Reiner, Lenny Kravitz, Nicolas Cage, Angelina Jolie, Jamie Lee Curtis, Scott Caan, Joely Fisher, Rain Pryor and Shaun Cassidy, to name just a few, each the relative of what some call Hollywood royalty. Many students went on to great fame; some, such as disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Monica Lewinsky, to infamy.
With its lush, sprawling campus on South Moreno Drive, its French Norman architecture and its Broadway-level theater, the school has been a magnet for kids seeking show business glory. In their heyday, shows at BHHS were legendary, full-scale productions put on by the school's seemingly limitless pool of rising talent and guided by drama teacher John Ingle, a journeyman actor known for playing Edward Quartermaine on ABC's General Hospital.
There are universal elements to the American high school experience, but life at Beverly Hills High always has been a unique amalgam of privilege and competitiveness that reflects a teenage version of Hollywood, as its famous graduates can attest.
MAX MUTCHNICK, CO-CREATOR, WILL & GRACE, CLASS OF '83 I was voted most loquacious. And I had to learn what that word meant. But that really says it all. To be a gay kid there wasn't that bad. That's not to say I didn't suffer at the hands of some of the kids there. But it wasn't as brutal as going to high school on Long Island.
JOELY FISHER, ACTRESS, CLASS OF '85 We sat in the quad on the top floor, never in the cafeteria. That was my gang, like the Pink Ladies.
TONY KRANTZ, BLOOD & OIL PRODUCER, CLASS OF '77 There was a group of about 50 of us, guys and girls, called The Beverly Burnouts. I wouldn't say we were partying too much. I would say we were comfortably numb.
JONATHAN SILVERMAN, ACTOR, CLASS OF '84 (GRADUATED IN NYC) I used to joke that all my friends were South Siders. They lived in apartments on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, in the "ghetto" of Beverly Hills.
KELLI WILLIAMS, ACTRESS, CLASS OF '88 I lied about my address. I used a friend's grandmother's address so I could go to Beverly because of the drama department. I was the girl from the other side of the tracks … Brentwood.
JOHN BURNHAM, AGENT, ICM, CLASS OF '71 When I went there was no diversity, except — I can say this as a Jew — it could have been a Hebrew school.
GABRIELLE ALLAN, WRITER, VEEP, CLASS OF '88 Remember It's a Wonderful Life, that gym that opens into the pool? That was our gym, so our basketball court opened to the pool. We called it the Swim Gym.
DAVID KOHAN, CO-CREATOR, WILL & GRACE, CLASS OF '82 I was a jock. I played JV football and basketball. And then my senior year, the coach told me I would make varsity but wouldn't start. But I knew in the theater department, straight guys start.
BURT WARD, ACTOR, ROBIN ON TV'S BATMAN, CLASS OF '63 I didn't do anything in drama. But I was a good athlete — wrestling, track, tennis and golf. The top five on the golf team could have been professionals because they were on Rancho or Hillcrest or any of these fabulous golf courses. I would have been a star in Kansas.
TONI HOWARD, AGENT, ICM, CLASS OF '61 I wasn't athletic. If you had a 98.6 temperature, you could make the drill team. I failed to make it.
BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS
SILVERMAN One of my best friends in high school was David Schwimmer. I came across this box of high school stuff recently, and in it was a letter David wrote to me when we were 17. It was so joyful and funny. I read it to my wife, who said, "Oh my God. Ross Geller wrote you a letter!"
HOWARD It wasn't like now where everyone goes to private schools. It was filled with show business kids. A year ahead was Barry Diller, two years was Nora Ephron.
BURNHAM I'd pick up Carrie Fisher on Greenway Avenue and take her to school. She was a sophomore; I was a senior. I was a reprobate.
JOANNA GLEASON, ACTRESS ON THE AFFAIR, CLASS OF '68 I went with Julie Kavner and Albert Brooks and Laraine Newman. Richard Dreyfuss, who was a few years ahead of me, always put a premium on being really smart. Nobody had any kind of attitude.
ALLAN Pauly Shore was a few years ahead of me. He was real eccentric. My first job as a writer was doing punch-up on The Pauly Shore Show — a funny reunion.
JONATHAN PRINCE, BLOSSOM PRODUCER, CLASS OF '76 Imagine you have a play in high school where you have Ricky Dreyfuss, Albert Brooks and Rob Reiner all in it.
WILLIAMS I was Juliet in Romeo & Juliet and Steve Burton was my surfer Romeo. He quickly went on to General Hospital. Monica Lewinsky did the costumes.
SAM NAZARIAN, HOSPITALITY AND RESTAURANT ENTREPRENEUR (KATSUYA, UMAMI BURGER), CLASS OF '93 Angie Voight, who became Angelina Jolie, and I went from first grade all through high school together. I was a lot closer to her in elementary school. She was a pretty girl, and all of the older boys pay attention to the pretty freshmen, so she kind of went off into an older crowd. She was very gothic.
PRINCE Shaun Cassidy was my year, and his brother David had lived this very strange life of starring on a TV show during high school. Shaun had that hit song, "Da Doo Ron Ron." So he became famous in high school. Nobody cared.
KOHAN Nic Cage and I were in a history class together. I remember we were doing a section on Cro-Magnon man, and we had to write a paper on it. And we all wrote our one-page, dry little factoid papers, and Nic wrote an eight-page paper from the perspective of Cro-Magnon man waking up in a cave. I'm like, "That guy's interesting."
MUTCHNICK He was fantastic. And being closeted, I was speechless from that body. No one had a body like Nicolas Cage. He had a man's body. A smokin' hot man's body.
ADAM KANTER, AGENT, PARADIGM, CLASS OF '85 I went to school with people who are active and working in the industry like Andrew Lazar, who produced American Sniper among other things, and David Styne who worked at CAA with me when I was there.
WARD A lot of the kids were coping with having successful parents, which was tough. Dean Martin's son Craig was there, and I watched him get into a physical fight. But he was still popular.
KOHAN Lenny Kravitz and my brother were in band. He was a drummer. I remember him being cool and sweet. He wasn't pierced and patchoulied yet. Not like a pulsating sex symbol. He didn't exude that rock star thing yet.
SILVERMAN We knew that his mom [Roxie Roker] was the hot neighbor on The Jeffersons. He was the drum major. He had this amazing aura about him, as did Nic. I never gathered up the courage to say anything more than a hello to either.
GLOBAL POLITICS INTRUDE
MARTIN SPENCER, AGENT, PARADIGM, CLASS OF '81 We had a history teacher, Henry Dersch, and he took a group of kids to Russia every year — 25 of us and four chaperones, which is kind of a joke. I got to go over Christmas 1980, and you really felt like the Cold War was happening.
KOHAN Just before my freshman year, the Iranian Revolution happened. Overnight, the demographic changed. There was this huge influx of people leaving Iran, and a lot of the ones who had money came to Beverly Hills. The shah's sister was there.
SPENCER When the shah fell, they actually shut down the school and had security to make sure kids didn't leave the campus.
NAZARIAN The district was dealing with this influx of Iranians. I think at the time I went the student body was 25 or 30 percent Iranian. There was a clear separation between the Iranians and the non-Iranians. We had a lot of fights and cliques. But nothing ever catastrophic. But I was the president of my senior class. I was homecoming prince. I was one of the people who crossed over.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK
WILLIAMS There were parties, of course. I'm looking around the pool house where this one is held, and there are all these gold and platinum records. I realize I'm in Marvin Gaye's house. I couldn't believe it. I became the cop of the party. I was like, "Oh, don't put that there!" I was so starstruck.
FISHER I actually flew someone in to go to my prom. The well was just a little too shallow for me there. I went to a powwow in Oklahoma and met a beautiful Native American boy.
GLEASON I didn't go to prom. I got dumped for a blonde from Hemet, California.
ALLAN Our prom was at The Beverly Hilton, where the Golden Globes are. It was definitely a step up — or five — from having it at the gym. Though our gym was pretty fantastic.
NAZARIAN The prom was something you went to just to check the box. But I threw the afterprom party, which was at a famous club called The Gate. I was the guy who did stuff like that — selling IDs, putting on casino nights. We probably had 400 to 500 people. Later I ended up buying the club.
MUTCHNICK A girl named Janet Eisenberg was the basis for Grace Adler [on Will & Grace]. We went to prom together. And I was so worried that I was going to have to have sex with her that I did the only sensible thing, which was total the vintage convertible her father gave us for prom.
THE PLAY WAS THE THING
BETTY WHITE, ACTRESS, CLASS OF '39 I did every school show and school play I could do. And after I was done at Beverly Hills High School, I didn't go to college — I just went right into television.
SILVERMAN I got to work with Betty White a few years ago on Hot in Cleveland, and she started singing [BHHS'] Norman fight song. So that was pretty special.
PRINCE There was an entire wing for the orchestra, the marching band, the choir. There were three choirs. And then there was the drama department, and there was a room called 181. It was basically a green room, where [theater people] would hang out at lunch.
ALLAN The drama department was incredible. But it wasn't Fame. No one was dancing on a desk.
CHUCK ROSIN, SHOWRUNNER, BEVERLY HILLS, 90210, CLASS OF '70 Laraine Newman was in my drama class, which taught me I really didn't have the talent to act.
GLEASON [Drama teacher] John Ingle looked like Zeus. He had large features, a booming voice, massive hands. He made us read 10 plays a week.
SILVERMAN We're all taking notes on his stories about hanging out with Olivier and Hoffman.
PRINCE John Ingle made you believe that it was possible. He made you believe that if you worked hard enough and were good enough, why not?
FISHER David Schwimmer and I did a Sam Shepard play. And Anything Goes. He can sing! He played Moonface Martin. I was Hope Harcourt. The only time I ever played the ingenue in my life.
ALLAN We had sets flown in from Broadway. I remember we were doing How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Robert Morse and Michele Lee [who starred in the 1961 Broadway production] came to our rehearsal.
ANTONIO SABATO JR., CLASS OF '90 (GRADUATED IN ITALY) I had to audition for the entire advanced drama group. I used a scene from Othello. I made the class.
MUTCHNICK My most vivid memory of BHHS was being backstage with John Ingle, and he held both sides of my face and told me I was going to be OK. I don't remember what it was related to, but I knew he was talking about much more than we were talking about.
GLEASON He would give me these heartbroken spinster parts, or the funny one. He said to me, "The girls who are getting the leads and princess parts now will have these high school and college careers of playing the ingenues. You're a character actress, and that means you will work forever." It was true.
PRINCE Ingle never gave a shit whether your father was David Lloyd, who wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or a Coppola. It was how good was your audition, how good was your callback, could you do it every night?
ROSIN We didn't have the cooperation of Beverly Hills High School. So for legal reasons in the scripts we had to always differentiate, like, "Well, all the kids from Beverly and West Beverly will be there," or West Beverly would be playing Beverly.
ALLAN I thought 90210 was fun, but I didn't relate at all.
WILLIAMS I said no to auditioning. I was like, "I just lived that."
GLEASON What makes money is putting on a show about teenagers, for teenagers, that amplifies the angst of the privileged. There was nothing authentic about it.
MUTCHNICK There was no one as cute as Jason Priestley at Beverly.
GABRIELLE CARTERIS, ANDREA ZUCKERMAN ON 90210, PRESIDENT OF SAG-AFTRA I have friends who went to BHHS, and we still laugh that I did a show based on their old stomping grounds. But when the world thought I was 17 [as Andrea], I was really 30.
ROSIN I remember taking the show's writers, including Darren Star, to a real 1990s BHHS graduation. They were all so disappointed that there was no glitz or glamour at all.
PRINCE After I had my son, I coached Little League with Luke Perry on the fields of Beverly Hills. Even Luke found out it wasn't what he thought it was.
NAZARIAN We all watched it. But there were a lot of kids at Beverly Hills High School who weren't super wealthy and didn't look anything like that. We used to joke that it was so far from reality. But hey — it put our ZIP code on the map.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.