Sunday, April 28, 2013


Tony Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, check out Esteban E. Torres High School as they expand their New York-based student arts nonprofit to Los Angeles.

By Dalina Castellanos, Los Angeles Times | Bennett, Susan Benedetto

Tony Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, watch a rehearsal of the dance company of the East Los Angeles Performing Arts Academy. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times / April 26, 2013)

April 26, 2013, 10:35 p.m.  ::  With his hands clasped behind his back and his nose inches away from the wall, legendary singer Tony Bennett contemplated the photograph before him.

The grayscale image featured a young woman stretching her fingers toward the camera's lens, covering her face.

"The beginning of true creativeness comes from the hand," he said.

Bennett and his wife, Susan Benedetto, were at Esteban E. Torres High School in East Los Angeles on Friday to launch the expansion of their New York City-based nonprofit organization Exploring the Arts. The photographs displayed before them were taken by students at Humanitas Academy of Art and Technology, one of the five academies on the campus.

The couple founded Exploring the Arts in 1999 to strengthen the role of the arts in public high school education and to sustain arts programs amid school budget cuts. Bennett, a product of a public arts school in New York, and Benedetto, a former teacher at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts there, were inspired to give others similar opportunity.

The organization oversees programs in 14 high schools throughout New York City's five boroughs, benefiting more than 10,000 public school students, the majority of whom live below the poverty line. It is estimated that more than 1,000 students will take part in the Los Angeles programs at Torres High.

"The arts give students a reason to want to go to school," Benedetto said. "Quality arts in our public schools gives them something to feed their souls."

The philanthropic couple decided to bring their organization to Los Angeles specifically because of its status as a cultural capital, Benedetto said.

"It's sort of natural to be out here."

Three of the five academies on campus will benefit from Exploring the Arts' partnerships with private funders, individual artists and cultural institutions to give schools in different socioeconomic regions resources to explore art.

"We don't have the services that schools in the incorporated county area might have," said Cristina Patricio, community school coordinator for the campus. "These partnerships are extremely crucial to meet the needs of the students."

Though the singer's name and fame might not ignite the same reaction from students as it does with their teachers and administrators, many of the teenagers appreciated Bennett's visit and support.

"Someone of his stature taking interest in what we do is really big," said Randall Zaragoza, a junior at the East L.A. Renaissance Academy on the campus. "It tells us that it's not just us here fighting to keep these programs going."

Bennett and his wife sat in on a few classes at the East L.A. Performing Arts Academy and heard a rendition of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All," by Darlene Bryant's choir class.

Freshman Robert Varela rushed offstage after the song to ask his idol a question. He didn't mention to the crooner that he recently sang the classic "Fly Me to the Moon" for his audition to the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts. Nor did he boast that the performance earned him an acceptance letter.

Instead, he asked a question for his little sister.

"What was it like to sing on 'Sesame Street'?" the 15-year-old asked.

The 86-year-old patted the student's arm, chuckling, and said singing on the children's educational program was one of his favorite performances.

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