May 26, 2024

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An Oscar changed everything for this public school instrument repair shop 

As It Happens6:21An Oscar changed everything for this public school instrument repair shop

Steve Bagmanyan is putting retirement on hold — and he couldn’t be more thrilled about it.

Bagmanyan is the supervisor at a warehouse in Los Angeles, where a small, but mighty, team of music lovers repair musical instruments for thousands of public school students. 

One of the last programs of its kind in the U.S., it has struggled to stay afloat over the years. But now, thanks to the Oscar-winning documentary short The Last Repair Shop, donations are pouring in.

“It’s a breath of fresh air for the shop … and it just completely turned everything around,” Bagmanyan told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. “Retirement can wait for now.”

WATCH | The Last Repair Shop’s Oscar win: 

Canadian Ben Proudfoot wins Oscar for best short doc

Halifax’s Ben Proudfoot won his second career Academy Award on Sunday for co-directing the documentary short The Last Repair Shop, about volunteers who fix school-issued instruments in L.A. He hopes the win will ‘help the millions of young people … who just want to play music.’

The Last Repair Shop tells the story of the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) Musical Instrument Repair Shop, where 11 technicians service about 6,000 instruments each year for more than 1,300 schools across the city.

It spotlights the shop’s staff, including Bagmanyan, as well as the students who benefit from their work, showing how music has changed each of their lives in momentous ways. 

In an interview with As It Happens earlier this year, co-director Ben Proudfoot, a Halifax native, called the film “a vehicle to get people to stand up and cheer for music and arts education around the world.”

LISTEN | Ben Proudfoot on The Last Repair Shop: 

As It Happens6:48Canadian filmmaker Ben Proudfoot on his new Oscar-nominated short

Now, that’s exactly what people are doing. Proudfoot and co-director Kris Bowers have teamed up with the Los Angeles Unified School District to create The Last Repair Shop Fund, hosted online by Paypal. 

Their end goal is $15 million U.S. ($20 million Cdn), through a combination of public crowdfunding and major gifts from foundations and corporations.

As of Thursday, they’d raised about $72,580 US ($98,070 Cdn). 

“Ben and I can’t think of a better impact for our film to make,” Bowers said in a press release. “I came up learning piano on an LAUSD upright. I know firsthand what having access to a working instrument can mean for a young kid who yearns to express themselves through music.”

Three men and one woman stand side-by-side, smiling, with their arms around each other's shoulders.
L.A. Unified School District Musical Instrument Repair Shop technicians Dana Atkinson, Paty Moreno, Duane Michaels and Steve Bagmanyan attend the Los Angeles premiere The Last Repair Shop, a film that chronicles their lives and their work. (David Livingston/Getty Images)

As the money comes in, Bagmanyan says he and the school district have big plans — new equipment, upgraded tools, more technicians and, if possible, an apprenticeship program.

“Maybe some high school kids would be interested in learning the trade since there’s not many repair people left really,” Bagmanyan said.

‘I felt very proud’

Ever since The Last Repair Shop was nominated for best documentary short at the Academy Awards, Bagmanyan says life has been a whirlwind. 

After years of toiling in relative obscurity, he and his colleagues are now attending screenings, doing media interviews and going to red carpet events. 

At one of the first screenings, they met some of the students who rely on the public school instruments they repair — many of whom could never afford an instrument out of pocket.

“It was very rewarding,” Bagmanyan said. “I felt very proud. I always did, but when I met students and actually went to all the screenings, it’s a different way of feeling proud. It’s like you actually see who you’re doing it for.”

Two men in black suits with bowties stand on a stage next to a young girl in a frilly lavender dress. One man is holding and Oscar and pointing up.
Porché joins Proudfoot and Bowers on stage to accept the Best Documentary Short Film award at the 96th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood on March 10. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

One of those students, violinist Porché Brinker, was featured in the doc and shared the stage with Proudfoot and Bowers when they won the Oscar. 

Bagmanyan and the other technicians were watching proudly from the balcony.

“To see the way that everyday people have shown up to make sure that kids like Porché have a working violin in their hand is truly moving, and goes to show that good old fashioned generosity and goodness is still very much alive,” Proudfoot told CBC in an emailed statement. “We are so grateful.”

But the most amazing thing to come out of the film, Bagmanyan says, are the boxes of hand-written, thank you letters that keep arriving at the shop from L.A. public school teachers and students, he says.

“This is our Oscars right there. Every note is our Oscar. Every thank you email from a teacher, that’s our Oscar,” he said. 

When Bagmanyan started working at the shop as a piano tuner in 2003, it had a staff of nearly 30, he said. 

But funding cuts and furloughs over the years meant that by the time he took over as supervisor in 2013, it was down to six.

With new funding and attention from the Oscars win, he’s aiming to “bring it — at least partially — back to its capacity.”

“If I can accomplish that while I’m here — if I could take advantage of all this good publicity, thank God, that we have right now … then [I will] retire with peace,” he said. 

WATCH | The Last Repair Shop: 

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