LA Schools’ ‘Last Repair Shop’ Documentary Celebrated as a Winner, With or Without an Oscar

Even without securing an Oscar, they’ve already bagged a complete makeover.

Nestled amidst the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles traffic, homeless settlements, and debris, a windowless warehouse enclosed by a security fence serves as the unexpected backdrop for “The Last Repair Shop,” a remarkable documentary currently vying for an Academy Award on March 10.

Director Ben Proudfoot remarked, “You don’t witness it in the movie, but adjacent to the repair shop lies the LAUSD locksmith section, along with individuals crafting windows, operating a metal shop, and painting signs. A wide array of crafts are housed within this fenced-in block.”

The whimsical short film spotlighting the Los Angeles Unified School District’s vintage music instrument refurbishment venture, a shop that once employed 60 workers two decades ago but now functions with fewer than a dozen, has elicited a wave of societal backing that transcends the workshop itself.

An early contributor to a new $15 million capital campaign managed by the district’s foundation is The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. This campaign seeks to provide the repair team with enhanced facilities like improved ventilation, a new ultrasonic cleaner, additional instrument cases, and an apprenticeship program.

Despite the shop’s humble state just below Skid Row, the dedicated staff, led by shop supervisor Steve Bagmanyan, arrive before dawn and diligently go about their tasks without seeking attention.

“In the end, what matters is that the students in the school receive instruments,” remarked Bagmanyan, a former piano technician with over two decades of experience. “The music programs persist, and we play a role in it. That’s our primary concern.”

Following the documentary’s release, there have been noticeable changes.

Bagmanyan’s inbox is inundated with emails each morning from individuals expressing their desire to donate instruments, funds, volunteer, or simply share how the shop and film have motivated them to persevere in teaching.

One individual, moved by the film, donated a harp, while others have gifted violins, guitars, and drums. Building on the film’s success, Proudfoot, Bagmanyan, and the district have launched a fundraiser with the aim of raising the necessary $15 million for the operation, which stands as the last of its kind in the country.

Yet, the shop remains unchanged.

A pair of fireproof doors and a sign announcing “Musical Instrument Repair” indicate the entry point to the unpretentious warehouse enveloped in unpainted fiberglass panels.

However, the melodious tunes of a bassoon, a flute’s melodic tones, or the gentle sounds of a piano might emanate from within.

The workshop is adorned with polished saxophones hanging on the walls, alongside an assortment of bass drums, violins in their cases, french horns, guitars, and pianos lining a lengthy hallway leading to an inventory room brimming with new instruments destined for schools.

Further within, a woodshop specializes in manufacturing obsolete parts, while the piano room hosts half a dozen upright and baby grand pianos undergoing tuning and maintenance tasks. The aroma of sawdust, polishing compounds, and coffee fills the air, with Bagmanyan’s office located near a workstation area manned by technicians repairing string instruments and horns.

Describing the workshop as a “North Pole” for school instruments due to its resemblance to Santa Claus’s workshop, Proudfoot emphasized the documentary’s viral success, garnering over 464,000 views on Youtube and securing a spot on Disney’s streaming platform.

Numerous news pieces following the documentary’s release last year, alongside television coverage, shone a spotlight on the shop and its film.

January saw Bagmanyan and his team honored at a ceremony held at Los Angeles City Hall, with the shop workers delivering a musical performance at a school board meeting, earning accolades from the superintendent for sustaining music education in the nation’s second-largest district.

Sara Mooney, interim president and CEO of the LAUSD Education Foundation, the district’s affiliated nonprofit organization, emphasized that the funding will not only facilitate modernizing the shop but also support the district’s expanding offerings in music education for all students.

A 2022 California law boosted state funding for music classes in Los Angeles and districts statewide. Amid the pandemic, L.A. Unified utilized federal relief funds to procure roughly 32,000 new musical instruments for students, resulting in heightened activity at the repair shop.

“We require an investment to seize this moment and cater to the needs of expanded music programs,” stressed Mooney. “This presents an opportunity to build on the documentary’s momentum and amplify the repair shop’s impact.”

Nonetheless, Bagmanyan remarked on the increasing challenge of finding skilled luthiers, windsmiths, and braziers capable of repairing the instruments arriving at the shop daily, exhibiting various defects. Most of the team members boast extensive experience at the shop, with the recent retirement of a string technician profiled in the film prompting recruitment efforts to fill the vacancy.

A considerable proportion of the district’s instruments date back to the 1930s, noted Bagmanyan, who highlighted the superior quality of older instruments despite the steep maintenance costs they entail.

Some Los Angeles schools boast pipe organs on their premises, although exorbitant repair expenses render them financially unfeasible to be restored.

Titus Campos, administrator of LAUSD’s Arts Education branch, delineated the district’s goal of offering band electives at every middle and high school and providing music education at each elementary school.

While significant progress has been made towards this objective, Campos acknowledged a shortage of music teachers, with approximately ten music teaching positions in LAUSD remaining vacant.

Meanwhile, Bagmanyan and his team relish the attention from Hollywood.

Estella Patricia Moreno, specializing in repairing bass instruments at the shop, expressed incredulity at the prospect of attending the Oscars.

“I’m slightly apprehensive since I lack hairstyling or makeup,” Moreno mentioned while diligently cleaning a french horn at her workstation. “I’m simply performing my job, a role I truly cherish and enjoy. Furthermore, I’ve been generously rewarded. It’s truly an overwhelming experience.”

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