Paul I. Goldenberg avoided playgrounds and sports when he was growing up because he lacked athletic prowess. He spent hours in the cool darkness of a movie house.
In central Los Angeles of the '30s, where his parents had little money to spare, Goldenberg scrounged for pop bottles, collecting enough deposits to pay for weekend film marathons. From Friday to Sunday, he lived vicariously, absorbed in the characters portrayed by Clark Gable and Groucho Marx.
Several cousins also lived in his parents' modest home. Its backyard was shaded by fruit trees, enriched by a flock of 40 chickens. He was 16 when his father, Joe, a former attorney toiling as a shipyard accountant, died. During shiva, nearly every man in the neighborhood shared an anecdote with the teen-ager about his father's generosity, that freely dispensed advice or a sack of surplus avocados.
His private passion for film would play a formative role in the financial bonanza created by his adult alter-ego, "the King of Big Screen." But his father's powerful role model was equally influential, propelling Goldenberg into one of the state's largest political contributors and a major donor to numerous non-profit groups.
The Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda honored Goldenberg, 75, owner of La Habra's Paul's TV & Video, as well as others at a gala last month. Goldenberg helped fund the home's newest $14.3 million building, designed to reflect the latest research on Alzheimer's disease and dementia. He pledged another $2 million towards a $52 million nursing-home expansion, which is hoped will accommodate 40 percent of those on the facility's 350-person waiting list.
"I can't think of anything more worthwhile than the home in Reseda," said Goldenberg, whose cousin, Israel Murstein, is a resident, as was another cousin, the late Betty Klein.
"It is nicer than any hotel you've ever been in," he said of the Alzheimer's home for 96 residents, known as the Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center.
"He gets it," said Molly Forrest, the home's chief executive. "The elderly in our community have to have a quality facility," she said, adding that the Jewish home alone in Southern California was singled out in March by state licensing authorities for its perfect certification survey.
Goldenberg's gold mine is Paul's TV, located four miles from the nearest freeway exit. Far better known throughout Southern California is Goldenberg's advertising boast as the self-proclaimed champion of big-screen television sales. "I am the king," he declares in newspaper, billboard and radio spots that tout big-screen sales of more than 100,000 units.
For the 19th straight year, Japan's Mitsubishi Electric Corporation named Paul's as the biggest single-store seller of its big-screen TVs.
"We love Paul," said Cayce Blanchard, a Mitsubishi spokeswoman in Irvine. Paul's sells only two brands: Mitsubishi and Panasonic flat screen TVs.
"He does an unbelievable amount of business," said Brad Bridenbecker, city manager of La Habra, which perennially counts Paul's among its top sales-tax producers.
How much, Goldenberg won't say. The store's modest size and appearance often surprise first-time visitors. Equally surprising is its staffing. On a recent weekday, five salesmen manned a showroom smaller than the typical suburban home. To keep its pledge of four-hour delivery, Paul's maintains a 30-truck fleet for installers that travel from Ventura to Carlsbad.
"I'm very dedicated to the idea that customers should get what they pay for," said Goldenberg. "With a chain of five or 10 stores, it's very hard to know what's going on with customer satisfaction."
Knowing Paul's pulse is part of Goldenberg's routine, which also includes frequent travels responding to invitations, such as one received recently from Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Although he occupies the store's only private office, its desk and table are a neglected pile of papers in disarray. Customers, who often demand an audience with the "king," are more likely to see Goldenberg rooted to a desk reserved for customers filling out paperwork. Like petitioners approaching the throne, a procession of employees and visitors vie for his eye contact during an ongoing conversation that drags into hours due to the interruptions. He signs a proffered check; critiques a memo; explains required retouching to a painter; gives a deadline to a signmaker; criticizes a manufacturer's warranty card; and imperiously calls employees for help answering questions.
Within Paul's dominion, the ruler is a detail-oriented autocrat.
The late Jack Lawlor, who owned an advertising agency and believed Paul's could attain regional prominence, created the trumped-up title.
"He was like an Olympic coach who pushed me to go farther than I ever would have," said Goldenberg, who got his start by borrowing $1,000 from his cousins to open a TV repair shop in Los Angeles.
In 1979, when Mitsubishi introduced the first big-screen TVs, Paul's was one of the first takers, a confidence buoyed by Goldenberg's own love for cinema. "I was among the first to recognize their potential for bringing a movie-like experience into the home," he said.
More than TVs are on display at Paul's. A red velvet and gold crown is kept pristine under an acrylic cube. Nearby are photos of Goldenberg with former presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. It keeps company with the 138-page bound script for "Terminator 2," signed by Arnold Schwarzenegger; commemorative plaques for La Habra firefighters; a letter of thanks from Los Angeles' Cardinal Roger Mahoney; and a signed Kobe Bryant jersey. More signed celebrity photos line two walls.
Goldenberg's personal self-indulgences include a red Ferrari and Dodger season tickets behind home plate. He lives in La Habra Heights and is divorced. His son, Doug, is a botanist-biologist for the federal Bureau of Land Management. If there is a Paul's succession plan, Goldenberg is unwilling to share it. "I wouldn't have any challenger," he deadpanned.
"The store has allowed me to fulfill some of my dreams to help people who are less fortunate than I," said Goldenberg. He also contributed $209,210 to Democratic candidates and was the state's fifth largest individual contributor to federal campaigns, the Los Angeles Times reported in January 1999.
He supports the California Highway Patrol 11-99 Foundation and chairs its scholarship committee, which awarded $1.2 million to 700 students this year.
"He has a big heart," said Pam Anspach Colletti, a counselor at La Habra's Sonora High School, where Goldenberg personally hands out $500 student scholarships. He awarded 40 between two schools last spring. He also underwrites an annual trip for 10 students to Washington, D.C., from Los Angeles' Dorsey High, his own alma mater.
"He has a wonderful spirit of giving in that he recognizes how blessed he is," said Juan M. Garcia, La Habra's mayor. "It makes him feel good. He has more than he'll ever need."
A recent recipient of Goldenberg's charity is Duarte's City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment center. Last year, he observed the facility firsthand during a friend's illness.
"He stepped up to the plate and said he wanted to help," said Richard Leonard, a senior development officer at City of Hope, where Goldenberg is funding an elevated walkway. "He's got a sense of tzedachah; he knows what's just in his heart."
Though he considers himself Jewish, Goldenberg acknowledges his synagogue attendance is irregular.
"In Torah, it says 'God loves the just man.' There's nothing about God loving the man who goes to synagogue.
"I've tried my best to be a just man."