Ask George Schlatter what inscription he would like on his tombstone, and, without missing a beat, he replies, “It Wasn’t All My Fault.”
Schlatter’s “fault,” in this case, lay in his role as creator and executive producer of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” the seminal 1960s and ’70s television series that raised a generation spouting such catchphrases as “Sock it to me,” “You bet your sweet bippy” and “Here come de judge.”
Schlatter is now a major player in an ongoing, six-week series of events at Pepperdine University, under the overall title “Hollywood Visionaries and Beyond,” honoring the Jewish moguls who invented Hollywood.
“From the beginning, Hollywood was a family business presided over by legendary names like Mayer, Goldwyn, Laemmle and Zukor,” observed Craig Detweiler, director of Pepperdine’s Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture.
There is a touch of irony in the venue and Schlatter’s central role in the tribute to a group of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who were scorned by “real American” businessmen in the early days.
Pepperdine defines itself as “an independent Christian university,” and Schlatter, though he took courses at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and drops occasional Yiddishisms, is the Alabama-born son of a Presbyterian father and a Christian Scientist mother.
To Detweiler, who is teaching a new generation of film and television professionals, it all makes sense. Particularly at a Christian institution, he said, “It is important that our students be sensitive to the Jewish contributions to the entertainment industry.”
A centerpiece of the Hollywood Visionaries events is the creation of the George Schlatter Comedy Collection, to be housed at Pepperdine, which claims the producer as an alumnus.
“I entered Pepperdine on a football scholarship, when the campus was still at the Vermont Knoll in South Los Angeles,” he recalled. “I was injured, dropped out after a year and went to work at MCA Records.”
The Comedy Collection will include much of the memorabilia accumulated by Schlatter in his 80 years, including his early shows with Flip Wilson and Robin Williams as well as a trove of gems from “Laugh-In.”
The collection project was officially announced on Sept. 25 at a “Still Laugh-In” toast to Schlatter, hosted by Larry King.
On Oct. 1, Bruce and David Corwin of Metropolitan Theatres; Hawk Koch, president of the Producers Guild of America; and entertainment attorney Robert Koch; as well as Academy Award-winning producer Walter Mirisch and Lawrence Mirisch, owner of the Mirisch Agency, all reminisced as part of a panel discussion on “American Dreams and the Big Screen: Projections of Jewish Faith, Ethnicity and Culture Through the Generations.”
Continuing through Dec. 20 at the university’s Payson Library is the “Hollywood Visionaries Exhibition: The Photography of Leigh Wiener,” an exhibition including film screenings and panel discussions.
“Jewish Humor in the TV Writers’ Room,” on Oct. 15 at 7 p.m. in the Elkins Auditorium, will feature a screening of “My Favorite Year” with its screenwriter, Norman Steinberg.
On Oct. 29, at the same time and venue, the evening’s topic will be “From Draculas to Dybbuks: The Laemmle Families and Universal’s Horror Films.”
The closing event will be a two-day symposium on “Women in Hollywood: 100 Years of Negotiating the System,” to be held Nov. 15-16 at Pepperdine School of Law’s auditorium.
Speakers will include Nina Jacobsen, producer of “Hunger Games”; Nell Scovell, co-author of “Lean In”; and Melissa Rosenberg, screenwriter for the “Twilight” series.
An evening reception themed “Lean In: Honoring the Next Wave of Hollywood Women Leaders,” at Pepperdine law school, will conclude the Hollywood Visionaries program, which is supported by the Brenden Mann Foundation.
Although men still hold most top executive positions in Hollywood, women have always played a major role in the industry.
“About half of the film scripts are written by women,” said Rachel Kimbrough, vice president for business and legal affairs at Lionsgate Entertainment, and one of the growing numbers of key women in the studios’ administrative offices.
“Women bring something special to the table,” said Kimbrough, an alumna of Pepperdine’s law school program in entertainment law. “Women are team builders who tend to bring out the strength in other individuals.”
Currently, women make up some 65 percent of the 600 Pepperdine students preparing for some form of media career, including movies, television, journalism, public relations and advertising, Detweiler said.
“For years, Pepperdine was intimidated by the UCLA and USC predominance in these fields,” he said, but he now feels that the Malibu institution is coming into its own.
Detweiler observed that when the future Jewish founders of Hollywood came as immigrants to the United States, they soon found out that entry into many traditional fields was closed to them.
“So they created their own industry through a gut instinct for the popular taste and a large dose of chutzpah,” Detweiler noted.
Although Hollywood’s major studios are now owned largely by American and foreign corporations, some of those founders’ Jewish values remain, he added.
Among them are drive, initiative and strong family loyalties. Indeed, nepotism was such a hallmark among the early moguls that insiders reinterpreted the acronym MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) as standing for Mayer’s ganze mishpachah (whole family).
Another continuing Hollywood tradition is to draw in the talents of groups that had long struggled for their share of the American dream.
Most of the success of “Laugh-In,” Schlatter testified, was due to its hilarious female comedians, among them Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, Jo Anne Worley and Judy Carne.
Elsewhere, American humor in the past century has been largely shaped by Jewish and black comedians, while gay designers have made “enormous contributions to Hollywood,” Schlatter emphasized.
Yet, he is not entirely happy with the state of the art he did so much to shape. “Comedy has become crude,” he said. “People used to laugh at a dirty joke because it was funny; now they laugh because it’s dirty.”
Another gripe is about the decline in the producer’s role and authority.
“What used to be decided by a single producer is now determined by a committee,” Schlatter observed, adding, “If you watch the credits at the end of a TV episode, you might see the names of 15 producers.”
Currently, Schlatter is focused on writing his autobiography, titled — what else? — “Still Laugh-In.”
Pepperdine University is located at 24255 Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. For “Hollywood Visionaries and Beyond” registration or more information, call (310) 506-4138 or visit www.pepperdine.edu/hollywood-visionaries.
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