In Hollywood, it is generally understood that few things are harder than getting your movie made. One of those things may be getting your child into the Center for Early Education, a progressive elementary school off Melrose Avenue, founded in 1939 by a group of psychoanalysts. Popular with the entertainment community—the spawn of Jodie Foster, Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, Mel Brooks, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Eisner and Denzel Washington have matriculated there—the Center, as alumni call it, receives 1,000 applications annually for 60 spots: 30 two-year-olds, 14 three-year-olds and 16 kindergartners. (The school, which goes through the sixth grade, has 536 students.) The acceptance rate—6 percent—is smaller than Harvard College’s.
“The numbers are insane,” admits Deedie Hudnut, 61, who has been in charge of the Center’s admissions since the early Nineties. Deedie’s post, which she mans from an unassuming office strewn with Beanie Babies and a stuffed Kermit the Frog, is so significant that in 2006 the Los Angeles Times named her one of Southern California’s 100 most powerful people, alongside Eli Broad, Frank Gehry, David Geffen, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Deedie is just half of one of the area’s most influential power couples. Her husband, Tom Hudnut, 62, is the president and CEO of Harvard-Westlake School, one of the best prep schools in California, if not the nation. Among Harvard-Westlake’s famous graduates are Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Candice Bergen and playboy film producer Stephen Bing (the latter two attended the all-girls Westlake and the all-boys Harvard, respectively; the schools merged in 1989). The Hudnuts may not have the paparazzi pull of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, but they have been known to keep the occasional studio chief quaking in his Gucci loafers.
The Center for Early Education sends roughly 20 to 25 students a year—up to 40 percent of its graduating class—to Harvard-Westlake’s posh new middle-school campus in Holmby Hills, built on property formerly owned by Revlon honcho Ron Perelman. Yet the schools have no formal link, and Deedie generally doesn’t speak to her husband about potential candidates. “I think there’s a common knowledge that I’ve got no pull at Harvard-Westlake, so you don’t have to butter me up,” she says.
The two schools are also distinct in terms of atmosphere. Some observers would describe the Center, where students call teachers by their first names, as “touchy-feely.” “It’s more than just academic—a lot of emotional and social development goes on there,” says fashion designer Jenni Kayne, who attended the Center and hopes to enroll her infant son, Tanner, when he’s old enough. (Competition is so fierce that legacies, says Deedie, are not necessarily admitted, though spots are almost always reserved for siblings.) Deedie agrees with Kayne’s assessment: “That’s probably what makes us different from our peers,” such as the Brentwood School or John Thomas Dye, in Bel-Air. “That,” she adds, “and our diversity.” Many Center students receive financial aid, and 44 percent are children of color.