California, it may be said politely, has a reputation for doing things its own way. “Everyone looks on us as a little loopy and a little strange, but I think that’s only because we tend to be first with things,” says film producer George-Ann Hyams ’64, a transplanted New Yorker who has lived in Los Angeles most of her life. “I believe that America is the future of the world and California is the future of America. When I was a student at Syracuse, I learned to value experimentation—and that is really what California is all about.”
As the University seeks creative ways to fulfill Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s challenge to invest its intellectual and spiritual energies beyond the Hill, Syracuse is tightening old ties and initiating new activities in Southern California. Almost 10,000 Orange alumni now make their homes in the culturally and geologically eclectic swath of sun-drenched beaches, mountains, and valleys stretching southeasterly from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. That impressive number is bound to grow as generations of students continue to pack up their diplomas and head west, attracted by the preeminence of metropolitan Los Angeles as the world’s leading center of mass entertainment production and the nation’s key point of contact with the burgeoning global powers of the Pacific Rim. “Syracuse has particular strengths in areas L.A. is best known for, so it’s not surprising that the lion’s share of alumni who come here are looking for opportunities in the performing arts, communications, and entertainment,” says Holmes Osborne III ’98, president of the SU Alumni Club of Southern California (SUACSC). A Whitman School graduate, Osborne is an independent financial portfolio manager with offices in Santa Monica. “But, like anyplace else, we have members in insurance, law, real estate, and every other kind of profession,” he says. “You see a lot of Syracuse bumper stickers and license-plate brackets out on the streets.”
Last summer, Joan L. Adler G’76 was appointed as the University’s first development officer specifically assigned to the West Coast. “Considering the growth and influence of SU’s Southern California alumni community, a position like Joan’s was long overdue, and Joan is the perfect fit to lead our efforts,” says Tom Walsh G’84, senior vice president for institutional advancement. “Eventually we hope to have a Los Angeles center similar to Lubin House in New York City and Greenberg House in Washington, D.C.”
Adler, a Syracuse native who counts at least 11 alumni in her family, earned a master’s degree from the Newhouse School and served for many years as an executive producer with the Post Group in Hollywood. “I love the University and I love L.A., and this is the perfect way for me to put those two passions together,” says Adler, whose first task was to establish a home base for Syracuse University Los Angeles (SULA). This was made easy by Marshall Gelfand ’50, who donated space occupied by his management firm, Gelfand, Rennert and Feldman, in Century City, a large office and commercial complex convenient to the West Side communities many alumni call home. “Syracuse University means a lot to me and I’ve advocated the creation of a Los Angeles presence for years,” says Gelfand, a trustee emeritus and recipient of the George Arents Pioneer Medal. “The purpose is to bring the University closer to us so we can increase awareness among alumni and the general public of all the great things being accomplished in Syracuse.”
SULA (http://suinla.syr.edu) hit the ground running this fall with T-2 (Second Tuesday), a monthly series of cultural events for alumni, parents of students, and other supporters, many of which will take place in the elegant Skirball Cultural Center, located atop the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking the Sepulveda Pass. The series opened in November with “Best of the Fest,” a presentation of works from the 2005 Syracuse International Film & Video Festival by Professor Owen Shapiro of the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). “The Los Angeles screenings highlighted the festival to our alums and to others in the film industry and gave the filmmakers valuable professional exposure in a world film capital,” says Shapiro, who founded the festival in 2004 and has since served as director. “Alumni, some of whom have had little or no contact with Syracuse University since graduation, have reconnected with us through the festival. We’ve also seen industry professionals who knew little about the city or the University drawn to engagement.” On December 15, Kenneth Frieden, the B.G. Rudolph Professor of Judaic Studies, gave a talk on Yiddish-language literature accompanied by a klezmer orchestra. On January 18, T2 will host a gallery showing of paintings by VPA professor Jerome Witkin at Jack Rutberg Fine Arts on La Brea Avenue.
From Starry Eyes to Clear Heads
It is hardly short of a cliche to speak of the thousands of hopefuls who arrive in Los Angeles each year to pursue careers in movies and television—or to speak of the great majority who never so much as get a foot in the door at the dream factories. While a remarkable number of Syracuse alumni have been successful against the overwhelming odds over the years, the University is committed to giving every advantage possible to students who have the talent and personal drive to succeed in show business. Not all of those advantages can be gained in the classroom.
For more than 20 years, the Newhouse School has conducted student visits to Hollywood. Larry Martin, SU’s assistant vice president for program development, conceived of the annual event and has participated in it ever since. “We have so many successful alumni involved in every aspect of film and television in Los Angeles, and we have so many talented students aspiring to join them,” he says. “I thought, ‘These people need to meet each other.’” Each January, Martin and a Newhouse faculty member accompany 10 students on the trip. They hop in a van for a week of grueling 12-hour days, traveling the freeways to the studios and offices of such movers and shakers as producers Dick Clark ’51, Peter Guber ’64, Gerry Leider ’53, and Mark Tinker ’73; director Peter Hyams ’64 (see “Meet the Hyamses,”); and super-agent Rob Light ’78. Martin also arranges for the students to meet recent graduates who are savvy on the most current conditions for Hollywood job seeking.
Brian Wojciechowski ’05 made the January 2005 trek in a group accompanied by television-radio-film (TRF) professor Richard Dubin. “Prior to the trip, I had my heart set on moving to New York City,” Wojciechowski says. “But in my conversations with industry people, it became clear that Los Angeles was the right place for me to get started.” Changing plans just months before Commencement, he now works as assistant to executive producer Gavin Polone at Pariah Entertainment, Polone’s multimedia production company on Wilshire Boulevard. Wojciechowski particularly enjoyed the Syracuse West mixer, a social event hosted by the Southern California alumni club. “We attended as honored guests,” he says. “The Syracuse alumni out here are more than happy to help out the new batch of L.A.-bound graduates.”
The Newhouse program helps students get past preconceived notions of Tinseltown glitz and glamour by acquainting them with the skills and knowledge needed to perform in entry-level positions, while offering them connections to potential mentors, friends, allies, and employers. “I think most successful alumni would say they are indebted to people who helped them, and so they feel a need to do the same for young people now,” says Richard Breyer, a TRF professor who has made the L.A. pilgrimage several times. “This is not just about handshakes and back slaps. It’s a chance to learn how people are dependent on each other, even in such a notoriously ‘ruthless’ industry.” Trustee Professor Robert Thompson, who has also chaperoned the Newhouse group, agrees. “It’s a great dress rehearsal for students who are going to be doing it for real very soon,” he says. “Beyond the networking value and the chance to get the lay of the land, the trip supports the Newhouse curriculum by exposing students to every element of the production processes they have been studying.” Leonard Garner ’74, head of LRG Productions, looks forward to the student visits. “I like to put them right out there on the set and get them working, which is just what I wanted to do when I was a student,” he says.
In 2006, the College of Visual and Performing Arts will initiate another annual Los Angeles “immersion experience” for Syracuse students: the Aaron Sorkin Week. Sorkin ’83, best known as creator and executive producer of the critically acclaimed hit television series, The West Wing, has endowed the new learning opportunity that is specifically designed for student actors and film directors. An Arents medal recipient, Sorkin is also giving generously of his time to help ensure maximum benefits for the participants. “The students who come out to L.A. for the week will have a chance to give general auditions for agents and casting directors, meet with alumni in the industry, and spend time observing on film and television stages,” says Sorkin, who earned a B.F.A. degree at Syracuse before heading to Los Angeles via New York City. “They will get at least some small sense of what is in store for them if they opt to come here and give this life a try after graduation.” Originally an actor, Sorkin wrote several plays for the New York stage, including A Few Good Men, which won him the Outer Critics Circle Award as “Best American Playwright” in 1989. His screenplay for the 1992 film adaptation of A Few Good Men launched his career in Hollywood.
According to VPA Dean Carole Brzozowski ’81, the Sorkin Week will enhance the education of participating students and complement the college’s existing immersion opportunities in London, Florence, and New York City (including the recently implemented Tepper Semester, which brings students into the city’s theater industry for an entire semester). “It is essential for the college to capitalize on the relationships and opportunities we can make available to our students through our large, enthusiastic alumni population in the film and television industries,” she says. “The time these students spend in Los Angeles will help them gain a more realistic view of what it takes to succeed in Hollywood, while giving them a taste of life in one of the most important cities in the world for performing artists.”
Drama department chair James Clark believes a realistic understanding of the film and television industry is essential to any contemporary actor’s education. “Most of our graduates go directly to New York City, and relatively few to L.A.—at least right away,” he says. “After a while, many get there. We train young people to be actors—how to approach a role, research it, and develop it. Once they have mastered these skills, they are ready to apply them to any medium, which is a necessity in the multimedia entertainment world.” Clark is excited about the curricular opportunities of the Sorkin Week, which will include on-camera workshops, panel discussions, and meetings with working producers, directors, actors, writers, agents, and representatives of such organizations as the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. “I recently spoke with Evan Weinstein [’84], the producer of The Amazing Race. He had some very interesting things to say about the relationship between television reality shows and drama, which I’d love for our acting students to hear,” Clark says.
Where’s the Hill, Dude?
Two records were broken in Central New York this fall: The Class of 2009 arrived on campus with 103 Californians, the most in any class since the University’s founding; and Syracuse experienced one of its warmest autumns ever, with record-breaking temperatures in the 80s reaching into October. Holmes Osborne is more surprised by the fall weather than the size of the Golden State contingent. “We had our biggest send-off party ever this fall for Southern California freshmen,” Osborne says. He estimates that about 30 Syracuse-bound students attended the event, hosted by Jordan Pynes ’98 and Sahara Stone Pynes ’98 of West Los Angeles.
It was a busy year for SUACSC (www.socalorange.org) in many ways. Seaman “Sy” Jacobs ’32, a comedy writer who penned gags for such stars as Bob Hope and George Burns, was honored as 2005’s Alumnus of the Year at a luncheon held in Beverly Hills at the Four Seasons Hotel. A silent auction, part of the annual affair, was successful beyond expectations, leading the club to add a second scholarship award for deserving Southern California seniors. Perhaps the club’s most emotionally generous event is its annual Soft Landing, whose sole purpose is to welcome new arrivals from the Hill and let them know they are not alone. ABC television producer John Beck ’95 and actor-director-producer Topher Straus ’97 joined Osborne in offering them a primer on life beyond college in the City of Angels. The relative merits of surface streets and the 101 freeway during morning drive time were discussed. Friends were made. Resumes were passed. “I think a couple of people got jobs,” Osborne says.
Beyond the region’s high-profile leadership roles in cinema, television, and recorded music, Southern California is rife with opportunities for educational immersion and internships that run the gamut of academic disciplines and speak to the future of global economics. “We know our alumni can offer students great internships in L.A.,” Joan Adler says. “I believe we are moving toward a ‘Los Angeles semester,’ along the lines of the academic programs Syracuse offers in other premier international cities.”
Tom Walsh agrees, seeing unlimited possibilities for University programs and activities in Southern California. “Now that we have established a base there, we have solid opportunities to build our relationships and grow,” he says. “We strongly encourage our West Coast alumni to join us in these exciting ventures, share their ideas, take advantage of the programs being offered, and help us find our place in the L.A. sun.”