January 27, 2005
Little-Known Givers Have Big Hearts
Robert Rosenthal, a self-described "typical Jewish boy from Manhattan," sometime bull rider and country music addict, has morphed into the godfather of entertainment at military bases across the United States.
He is among the many Angeleno volunteers and philanthropists, often little known, who are the propelling forces behind notable enterprises both in this country and Israel. The Journal recently interviewed both Rosenthal and another "propelling force" -- investment manager David Polak.
Rosenthal's transformation began when, as a kid, he worked one summer on a dude ranch in Arizona. Although he did all the dirty work, he never got over the experience. He entered rodeos, studied ranch management and never went out without his Stetson hat.
In the 1960s, after Army service, he moved to Studio City and became a successful entertainment lawyer. He retired a few years ago.
Always an ardent patriot, after Sept. 11, Rosenthal felt strongly that he had to do something constructive. When he learned that in contrast to USO shows for troops overseas, there was no similar entertainment at stateside bases, he suggested to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that something be done to close the gap.
Rumsfeld thought it was a neat idea, but let it be known that the mechanics and expenses would have to be borne by public-spirited citizens -- such as Rosenthal.
Drawing on his professional background, show biz contacts and family foundation, Rosenthal, now 68, and his wife, Nina, set up the Spirit of America Tour project.
As a first step, he went to Nashville, the country music capital, invited managers and agents of some of the biggest acts and asked them to list dates when their performers were not tied up with commercial gigs.
Then, slashing Pentagon red tape as he went along, Rosenthal coordinated the dates with commanders of Army, Navy and Air Force bases and staging areas across the country.
Without a staff, the Rosenthals have created a show circuit that a professional impresario might well envy. They started with five concerts and shows in 2002, escalating to 18 in 2003 and 21 last year.
Their most frequent and popular performers have been country music stars Clint Black, Charlie Daniels and Travis Tritt. Other favorites have been Blood, Sweat and Tears, David Clayton-Thomas and comedian Dennis Miller.
The entertainers work without fees (though Rosenthal covers their expenses), and the audiences, including families of soldiers and sailors, never pay a penny.
Rosenthal attends all shows west of the Mississippi, while his Nashville liaison, Cathy Gurley, does the same for the eastern part of the country.
By now, Rosenthal has become known as a "one-stop shopping center" for artists who want to entertain the troops.
"Their agents know exactly whom to call," he said.
Rosenthal, who also put in a stint in the 1960s as a documentary and feature filmmaker (including "Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me") is a man of many interests.
Among the beneficiaries of his volunteer work and money have been Maccabi USA, Professional Bull Riders and Los Angeles Junior Ballet. He has also served on the California Boxing Commission.
As for his present fulltime Spirit of America endeavor, Rosenthal comments, "When you hear 15,000 military cheering an act, that's the biggest reward. We live in the greatest country in the world, and I feel privileged to do something for it."
David Polak heads a major investment management firm in Century City, whose shrewdest bet may have been on the brains of an Israeli professor.
Some 10 years ago, Polak and his wife Janet, longtime supporters of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, decided to endow a research chair in the life sciences at the Haifa-based institution.
They consulted with then Technion president Zeev Tadmor, who suggested one of his most promising scientists, Aaron Ciechanover, as the first incumbent of the new chair.
The Polaks were on a cruise last October and while surfing the Internet pulled up a news item that Ciechanover had just been named as the 2004 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, together with his Technion colleague Avram Hershko, and American Irwin A. Rose of UC Irvine.
"We were exhilarated," recalled David Polak, "and we immediately e-mailed our congratulations."
The Technion professors are the first Israeli Nobelists in the sciences and with Rose shared the $1.35 million prize. They were recognized for their research on the regulatory process taking place inside human cells, a discovery leading to the development of drugs against cancer and degenerative diseases.
On receiving word of the award, Ciechanover noted, "I don't think our work could have been done without the help and support of the Polaks and the American Technion Society."
Polak, who supports numerous other Jewish and Israeli causes, will be reunited with the Israeli scientists in June, when the Technion dedicates the new David and Janet Polak Center for Cancer Research and Vascular Biology.
An MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) engineering graduate, Polak said that his support of the Technion is based on his concern for the growth and survival of Israel.
"Israel's main asset is its brainpower and the Technion provides this raw material for a high-wage industry," he said. "The country's export economy and national security depend on technologically trained men and women."