June 23, 2005
‘Monster’ Maven Tames Wild Homes
Set decorator Jarri Schwartz roars up to an interview in a black Ford Expedition emblazoned with Discovery Channel's "Monster House" logo and magenta flames shooting over the hood. At 2 p.m., she's already blazed her own trail across Los Angeles, where she drives 100 miles per day searching for items such as sarcophagi and surfboards to adorn the show's latest theme homes.
On this hot Wednesday, the Jewish Schwartz is shopping for Airplane House in Simi Valley, where builders have already dropped an alarmingly large piece of a 727 in an aviation enthusiast's yard.
"I want it to look like a cargo plane crashed and people are living in it," the vivacious 33-year-old says. "Of course, the police called because they thought a plane was down in the city, and they fined us for parking our crane in the street."
It was just another day in Schwartz's life on "Monster House," perhaps the most extreme in a fashionable new TV trend. More than 20 home-improvement shows now wallpaper the airwaves, including hits such as The Learning Channel's "Trading Spaces" and ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." A decade ago, PBS's "This Old House" was among a few such programs on the small screen. But Americans love dramatic stories about people re-inventing themselves, and when the emotionally driven "Trading Spaces" premiered in 2000, copycats proliferated like tchotchkes in a curio cabinet.
"Monster House," which dubs itself "a home show on steroids," also capitalizes on viewers' hunger for prickly reality TV shows. On each episode, Schwartz and five builders -- all strangers to each other -- have five days to transform a house into a family's dream theme -- with absolutely no peeking by homeowners. Tempers flare as the team crashes spaceships through ceilings, turns fireplaces into fire-breathing Tiki gods and bursts the Three Stooges through living room walls.
If "Monster House" is the quirkiest of the genre, Schwartz fits right in. Wearing four-inch heels, the five-foot decorator doesn't hesitate to check out a builder's behind on camera, or to eat a canine biscuit on the Dog House episode.
"I will flirt with a builder if I choose to," she says with a brilliant smile. "I will tell somebody to shut up or that something they built is ugly, but without a trace of malice."
When a Tennessee builder revealed he had never hugged a Jew, Schwartz tartly pointed to her cheek and said, "I'll bet you've never kissed one, either."
Perhaps the only time she was speechless was when a plump contractor, wearing Curly tattoos and a thong, did Stooge schtick in front of the homeowner's Orthodox rabbi.
"I was sooo mortified," she says. "I wanted to cover the rabbi's eyes."
But Schwartz generally thrives on the show's oddball, macho milieu.
"The guys like it when she's on set because she's the opposite of all that amped-up testosterone," senior producer Brian Knappmiller told The Journal. "Her style and substance bring the builds to life and she's fun and over the top."
Schwartz's family background is also eccentric. She was raised by her father, a salesman, who moved his two girls into a modest Beverly Hills apartment so they could attend the superior school district. While he knew little about Judaism, he instilled cultural connections in Jarri by packing her off to Jewish day camp, albeit with a salami and mayonnaise sandwich in tow. Schwartz attended High Holiday services with her friends, where she was turned off by what she perceived as "dry, boring, modernistic" synagogue decor. (Her favorite shul is Wilshire Boulevard Temple, an opulent, 1920s structure in which "you can feel the breadth of Jewish history," she says.)
Back home, she clashed with her hippied-out sister about their shared bedroom, which Sis wanted to plaster with "pictures of dirty people," Schwartz says. Jarri struck back by working odd jobs to finance bedroom makeovers, including sleek laminate furniture in the 1980s.
"My dad was like, 'You can't keep moving stuff around,'" she recalls.
Schwartz loved to shop and decorate, yet she spent a decade running a Beverly Hills gift store until the financial havoc following Sept. 11 destroyed her business.
"When I was in that lost, bad space, I reconnected to Judaism," she says.
She attended Shabbat dinners at the home of her ba'alei teshuva friend, Melanie; learned about the religion from Melanie's Yavneh-educated children; wore a Star of David and lit the brass menorah Melanie's late mother had given her, in lieu of a yarzeit candle. She discovered that her Hebrew middle name, Samara, means "guided by God," and felt so when a set decorator asked her to assist on "Monster House" in 2003.
Schwartz's first impression on set, however, was "Who in the hell would want this done to their home?" But before long, she fell in love with the job and was hired as the series' full-time decorator, which requires interviewing homeowners and researching styles and periods.
"The crew builds the walls and I fill them in, so you actually feel like you're in a voodoo jungle or Sherwood Forest," she says of her role. "I also make things so that the homeowners can actually live in the space. They'll have a sofa to sit on, though it might be shaped like a crocodile."
For Mad Scientist House, the sofa was a 1920s black vinyl gurney Schwartz scored while climbing over decaying equipment in a Glendale medical supply. In a "cranium room" -- where a purple ceiling was textured to look like a cerebellum -- she fused real brain scans into drapes, illuminated by a light bar.
When an Encino tract home was transformed into a Prohibition-era speakeasy, Schwartz covered the peephole to the hidden bar with an Italian still-life painting. For the Stooges House, she selected vintage tools and 1930s-style damask wallpaper in which Moe appears to have entangled himself while working. (She also placed the Jewish family's brass menorah in a Stooge memorabilia cabinet.)
A favorite project was decorating the Ultimate Clubhouse for a 9-year-old Louisiana boy with leukemia, one of the show's few serious builds.
"I wanted to give Patrick a place to get away from his daily life and chemotherapy treatments," Schwartz says. "On our last day, which was also my birthday, Patrick asked me to go to chemotherapy with him, and I held his hand and felt humbled."
But for the most part, "Monster House" goes for the downright bizarre.
"We're not doing something that's necessarily good for people," she says, of why the show isn't as popular as "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." "I think homeowners do it for the attention, to be on TV and because they really feel passionate about a particular theme."
So would Schwartz let "Monster House" redo her Spanish-style duplex, which is decorated in what she calls a "rustic-romantic" style?
"No way," she says, without hesitation. "I love doing the show because I get to play with someone else's house, and then walk away," she adds, before rushing off to shop until she drops.
But no one has expressed dissatisfaction with any of the 45 homes Schwartz has decorated.
"At the end of the week, somebody is actually happy," she says of her work."Monster House" airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. New episodes begin Aug. 12.