Oscar or No, LA Schools’ ‘Last Repair Shop’ at Center of Nominated Documentary Is Already a Winner

Ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards, philanthropists step up to give the subject of the acclaimed short documentary a $15 million makeover

Shop technician Estella Patricia Moreno with a French horn (Ben Chapman)

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Even if they don’t win an Oscar, they’ve already won a makeover. 

Surrounded by blocks of choking Los Angeles traffic, homeless encampments and garbage, a windowless warehouse encircled by a security fence is the unlikely setting for “The Last Repair Shop,” an inspiring documentary now up for an Academy Award on March 10. 

“You don’t see it in the movie,” said Ben Proudfoot, one of the directors of the documentary that brought the workshop so much attention. “But next to the repair shop is the LAUSD locksmith, and there’s people building windows, and a metal shop and people painting signs. All of the crafts are there, in this sort of fenced-in block.”   

The fanciful short film that focuses on the Los Angeles Unified School District’s throwback music instrument repair operation, which 20 years ago employed 60 and is now staffed by fewer than a dozen workers, has sparked an outpouring of public support that will go even beyond the workshop itself. 

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation is an early contributor to a new, $15 million capital campaign run by the district’s foundation that aims to get the repair squad a better ventilation system, a new ultrasonic cleaner, more instrument cases and an apprentice program.   

Not that anybody on the workshop’s small-but-mighty team is complaining about their no-frills setup just south of Skid Row. They arrive before sunrise, said shop supervisor Steve Bagmanyan, and do their jobs quietly. 

“At the end of the day, you know that the student in the school ends up with an instrument in his hands,” said Bagmanyan, who started more than twenty years ago as a piano tech. “The music programs go on, and we’re part of it. That’s all that matters.”

Since the documentary was released, things have changed.

Bagmanyan’s inbox is filled each morning with emails from people wanting to donate instruments or money, or volunteer, or just saying how the shop and film inspired them to keep teaching. 

One person who saw the film donated a harp. Others have given violins, guitars and drums. Proudfoot, Bagmanyan and the district have capitalized on the attention with a fundraiser announced last month seeking to raise the $15 million for the operation, which is the last of its kind in the nation. 

Still, the shop is the same as ever.

Exterior of the repair shop (Ben Chapman)

A pair of fireproof doors and a sign reading “Musical Instrument Repair” mark the entrance to the unassuming warehouse, which is sheathed in unpainted fiberglass panels. 

But a crooning bassoon, a lilting flute, or tinkling piano might be filling the air. 

Burnished saxophones hang from the walls of the shop, where stacks of bass drums, violins in their cases, french horns, guitars and pianos line a long hallway leading to an inventory room crossed with rows of shelves bearing new instruments headed for schools. 

Beyond that, there’s a woodshop for fabricating obsolete parts, and the piano room, where a half-dozen uprights and baby grands are getting tuned and having their soundboards cleaned and hammers balanced. 

It smells of sawdust, polishing compound and coffee. Bagmanyan’s office is next to a bullpen populated by workstations manned by technicians working on string instruments and horns. 

Proudfoot calls the workshop a “North Pole” for school instruments, because it resembles the gift shop run by Santa Claus. The documentary caught fire when it was released last year, drawing more than 464,000 views on Youtube and landing on Disney’s streaming platform. 

Dozens of news articles and television spots about the shop and film followed.

Bagmanyan’s team was honored in January at a ceremony at Los Angeles’s City Hall. Shop workers gave a musical performance at a school board meeting, where the superintendent sang their praises for keeping music education alive in the nation’s second-largest district.

Sara Mooney, interim president and CEO of the LAUSD Education Foundation, the district’s affiliated nonprofit charity, said the funding will not only go to modernize the shop, but to help support the district’s burgeoning offerings in music education for all students. 

A 2022 California law increased state funding for music classes in Los Angeles and districts across California. Amid the pandemic, L.A. Unified used federal relief money to purchase roughly 32,000 new musical instruments for students. The repair shop is busier than ever. 

“We need an investment to meet the moment, and meet the needs of expanded music programs,” said Mooney. “This is a moment to build on the momentum of the documentary and expand the impact of the repair shop.” 

It won’t be easy. Bagmanyan said it’s getting harder to find skilled luthiers, windsmiths and braziers who can fix the instruments that arrive at his shop daily, with all sorts of damage. Most of the staff have been there for years. 

Shop supervisor Steve Bagmanyan in the repair shop (Ben Chapman)

The shop is now hiring to replace a string technician profiled in the film who recently retired. Bagmanyan hopes the publicity will attract candidates, but he doesn’t know how many have applied. 

Many of the district’s instruments date back to the 1930’s. Bagmanyan said old instruments are higher quality, but they require expensive upkeep. 

A few of the schools in Los Angeles even have pipe organs on campus, he said, but when they break they’re too costly to repair. One job at a local school got an estimate of $2 million, after kids got into the organ’s works and broke some pipes, Bagmanyan said.    

Titus Campos, administrator of LAUSD’s Arts Education branch, said the district’s goal is to offer band electives at every middle school and high school, and to provide music education at every elementary school. 

“We’re almost there,” said Campos. But not quite. The district is contending with a shortage of music teachers, and about ten music teaching slots in LAUSD remain unfilled, he said.  

Meanwhile, Bagmanyan and his team are enjoying the attention from Hollywood.   

Estella Patricia Moreno, who repairs bass instruments in the shop, said she can’t believe she’ll soon be attending the Oscars.

“I’m a little nervous, because I don’t have hair or makeup,” said Moreno as she sat at her desk cleaning a french horn. “I’m just doing my job. Something that I really like, and enjoy. And on top of that, I was pretty much rewarded. It’s an overwhelming experience.” 

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