ntertainer and artist Tony Bennett in 1999 voiced a dream for a high school for students of music and visual arts in Astoria, the Queens community where the singer got his start. Listening was another noted Astorian, then Speaker of the City Council Peter Vallone Sr. Vallone secured approval for a $51 million allotment to build the Sinatra school on the site of a decrepit building that once housed the Army Pictorial Center at 35th Street and 35th Avenue and Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, set up Exploring the Arts, an organization that raised most of the $78 million needed for the school. The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, named for Bennett’s mentor and friend, and located blocks from his boyhood home, found a temporary site at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, where the first classes were held in 2001.
Today, more than 700 students major in drama, fine arts, film, dance and vocal or instrumental music at the school’s permanent home at 35-12 35th Ave. While most students live in Queens, the school is open to talented youngsters from neighborhoods throughout the city. Admission to the Frank Sinatra School is by audition and evaluation of academic record for one of six programs. The school offers high school diplomas in six arts majors, including fine art, dance, vocal and instrumental music, drama, and film. Each major has its own dedicated teachers, classrooms, ensembles, and performances/ exhibitions where students may showcase their work to the public. FSSA offers five Advanced Placement courses that include AP Physics, AP Calculus AB, AP English Literature and Composition, AP United States History, and AP Spanish Language. Sixty hours of community service are also required for graduation. In 2009, 3,000 students auditioned for 200 seats in the incoming class of 2010, according to Principal Donna Finn.
The school’s 800-seat Tony Bennett Concert Hall, a theater-like performance space complete with balcony seating, designed with Bennett’s specifications to have better acoustics than Carnegie Hall, has hosted a multitude of cultural events open to the community, including film and music festivals, dance performances and workshops and seminars conducted by the New York City Department of Film. The five-story building also includes state-of-the-art rehearsal studios, windows etched with the names of great and late celebrities and a “green roof” featuring a lawn for outdoor concerts and programs and a full gymnasium.
The choice for the school’s permanent home was deliberate. The school faces the original main entrance to the original Famous Laskey Players Paramount Studios, where many motion pictures were filmed in the 1920s. Now the Kaufman Astoria Studios and the Museum of the Moving Image occupy most of the space. Kaufman Astoria Studios is home to the children’s television program Sesame Street and numerous big name feature films have been helmed on its sound stages.
The school held graduation ceremonies for the Class of 2009 in the auditorium for the new building in June of that year. In September 2009, the school formally opened. It hosted a meeting of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Queens chapter on November 10 that featured a lecture and walking tour. Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered the 2010 State of the City address at the Frank Sinatra H.S. of the Arts on January20 of that year.—Linda J. Wilson