Film Maker, Philanthropist : For Ex-Rabbi Skirball, Life’s a Big Production

Times Staff Writer

In his Century City tower office, Jack Skirball, 89, settled back on a white sofa against a needlepoint pillow bearing the legend, “Live Long Enough to Be a Problem to Your Children,” and said, “Let me tell you a little story. . . .”

In a life that has spanned almost nine decades, during which he has been both a rabbi and a film producer, Jack Harold Skirball has collected a treasury of little stories. His path has crossed those of Damon Runyon, Bertrand Russell, Abba Hillel Silver (an early Zionist leader), Alfred Hitchcock and Bette Davis.

He has made money, a great deal of money, through sage investments (the Vacation Village Hotel on San Diego’s Mission Bay, a Skirball development, was sold in 1983 for a reported $51 million). And, while insisting that he is “not a do-gooder at heart,” he continues to give away millions in support of causes in which he believes fervently.


“You have to put your money where your mouth is,” he said, noting, “I never made a picture I didn’t have my own money in.”

One of Skirball’s causes is peace and, to his way of thinking, there is no better place to talk about peace than in the temples and churches and mosques. “My ultimate desire,” he said, “is that if the religions of the world stood for one thing together, it should be the desire for peace. If you could get this group to think of civic good, national good, people good, the world would be a little bit better.”

He despairs of ever “being able to understand the stupidity of war.” But he recognizes “man’s right to be wrong, providing he doesn’t kill somebody.” Of Louis Farrakhan, the black Muslim leader whose appearance here in September was widely denounced by many Jewish leaders, Skirball insists, “The guy has freedom of speech. Let him speak. The hell with it. . . .”

Now, much in the manner of a small boy asking that his allowance be raised, Skirball plans to go to New York, to the keepers of his trust fund, and ask for a million or two for Scripps Memorial Hospital at La Jolla, to endow a halfway house for teen-age drug and alcohol addicts.

He figures he’ll get the money. Skirball smiled rather impishly and said, “They’ve never turned me down yet.”

Skirball, who was a rabbi for nine years after graduation from Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, was, by his own assessment, an unlikely candidate for the rabbinate. “I’m really not a religious guy,” he said. “I never looked upon form as a vital part of religion.” He laughed as he recalled, “When I was 6 years old, I went to Episcopal Sunday School.”


No, it was not religious fervor that propelled him. It was the death of his father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who was in the shoe business, when Jack, the youngest of 10 children, was only 7 and the family had moved from his birthplace, Homestead, Pa., to Cleveland. “You couldn’t get buried unless you joined a temple,” the family learned. “I joined because my father died.”

At a reception marking the boy’s confirmation, the rabbi announced to his mother, “I’ve decided Jack’s going to be a rabbi.” Skirball smiled and said, “I didn’t know a word of Hebrew. I’m not a scholar. Hebrew is still a foreign language to me.” Why did he agree? “I’ve thought about that for years,” he said, “why I ever said yes. I must have been a good boy. I’m totally different now.”

Fond Memories

He was graduated from seminary, Skirball said, “by the grace of God, and the faculty.”

Still, he said, “I was never resentful” that his life had been planned for him and he looks back with fondness on those years as rabbi of the Reform congregation of 125 German families in Evansville, Ind. Was he a good rabbi? Skirball pondered the question at length and decided, “I was a hell of a good parson. I was interested in my congregation.”

And, if Evansville wasn’t exactly the hub of the intellectual world, it had its advantages. Skirball was able to lure Bertrand Russell and other luminaries there for seminars and, as the only train in or out was in the morning, “I had them all day.”

Nevertheless, it was not to be his true calling and when, through his brother, Joe, a regional sales representative for Metro Films (later MGM) in the Midwest, he was introduced to the film business while an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, the die was cast.

“The hardest part” about leaving the rabbinate, Skirball said, was “telling my mother,” a strong-willed, English-born woman of whom he said, “She never said no to you, but she could say yes so you’d never do it.” She supported him in his decision.

Has he any regrets? A little frown crosses Skirball’s brow. Finally he said, “I never look at a picture after it’s done.” And yes, he is a happy man: “I think I’m the only rabbi who ever left and was happy (afterward).”

Skirball’s first job in show business was “selling one- and two-reelers” made by Metro, while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, from which he graduated in 1920. Later, as a rabbi, he moonlighted as a film salesman and did it so well he was named to the Metro board. “It was swell,” he said, “I left Evansville twice a year, got my way paid to New York, and $25 a day.”

During the Depression he came up with a concept for visual education through the schools and hooked up with a financier in an enterprise called Educational Films, for which Skirball was to become producer. “Rabbis always got the summer off,” he explained. He would schedule his fledgling film career so as to get back to Evansville for the Jewish High Holy Days.

It wasn’t long, he said, before “I knew I wasn’t going back” to Evansville. Soon, he was turning out 42 two-reelers and 20 singles a year.

Through his brother Joe, he met and became a close friend of Oscar-winning Scottish-born director Frank Lloyd (whose “Mutiny on the Bounty” was voted the 1935 Oscar for best film) and they decided to join together as independent Hollywood producers. “I was accidentally jumped from C’s to A’s,” Skirball said.

“I made some good pictures, and some I don’t talk about,” he said. “My favorite picture was made in eight days.” It was called “Birth of a Baby,” an educational film that garnered nine pages in Life magazine and also the wrath of the Catholic church, which stopped its sale in a number of cities. “It came out the same time (1937) as ‘Snow White (and the Seven Dwarfs),’ ” Skirball said, “and did almost as well.”

Worked With Hitchcock

Among those that followed were “The Howards of Virginia” with Cary Grant (1940), “Saboteur” (1942) and “Shadow of a Doubt” (1943), both made with Alfred Hitchcock, and “Payment on Demand,” starring Bette Davis, in 1951. Of the latter, he said, “I have such respect for talent that I don’t have. A woman like Bette Davis--the lift of an eyebrow means something. She’s intelligent, liberal, a wonderful person.”

Skirball reflected on his career in motion pictures and concluded, “Nobody was more surprised by my success than I was.”

His last film, made in Italy in 1976, was “A Matter of Time,” with Liza Minnelli and Charles Boyer. It’s not that he’s no longer interested in films--”The thing I like to do most is make pictures,” he said. “What I need in my life right now is a picture that I’d love to do. I’m on the eternal search for a story.”

He toyed with one last year, a film adaptation of a Yiddish play about Hasidic Jews in Russia, but abandoned the idea when “no one wanted to do it.” That was a disappointment because, to Skirball, it is a great love story and he likes love stories.

Critical of Today’s Fare

He does not like much of what he sees on the screen today. It’s not that he’s prudish--he himself tangled with the The Hays (censorship) Office and its standards of morality in the ‘30s (“I never liked Mr. Hays, anyway”) but, yes, they’ve simply gone too far today. In Skirball’s view, “the greatest love scene I’ve ever seen” was the soda fountain scene in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” a love scene without so much as a kiss.

Today, Skirball lamented, “The theater and the screen are used just for entertainment. ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Indiana Jones,’ they don’t tell you anything about life. It used to be either you had something to say or you made people laugh. Now, ‘Kramer vs. Kramer,’ that’s my type of story. A sermon must have a beginning, a middle and an end. A picture must have a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Skirball’s reflections were interrupted by his secretary’s knock. Mrs. Skirball (Audrey, his wife of 36 years) was en route from their Century City condominium to pick him up; they would be seeing one of her horses running that day at Santa Anita. One of her horses, he emphasized, adding, “My father told me never to take anything that eats for a gift.”

Over lunch at the Bistro Garden, Skirball smiled and said, “You don’t know it, but you’re looking at the greatest theater producer who ever lived. I did one show and quit.” The show was “Jacobowsky and the Colonel,” which enjoyed a modestly successful Broadway run in 1944. It took him so long to put it together, he noted, that friends had begun suggesting it be renamed “Jacobowsky and the General.” And, he doesn’t hesitate to point out, it had “the lousiest music you ever heard.”

Skirball’s favorite memory of the play was opening night in Boston where he picked up this conversation between two very properly white-tied Back Bay gentlemen:

Bostonian No. 1: “Jacobowsky’s Jewish, you know.”

Bostonian No. 2: “I don’t mind.”

Tearing off the carbon from the bank charge slip at meal’s end, Skirball said, “I have a great idea for a new business. You can invest if you want. We’re going to make these out of chocolate--you rip them off and eat them. And I’m thinking of caramel, too. . . . “

At 89, he is a man who is rarely without a new idea.

Already, he is talking of a trip to Jerusalem in October, 1986, for dedication at Hebrew Union College of the Skirball Center for Biblical and Archeological Study and Museum. It is being constructed on a former gas station site acquired by the late Nelson Glick, former president of Hebrew Union College, through negotiations with the then-premier Golda Meir. “Nelson went to Meir and got a lease for 99 years, a dollar a year,” said Skirball who is endowing the center on a matching-funds basis.

1919 Jerusalem Trip

Another of Skirball’s “little stories” had just come to mind. He was remembering his trip to Jerusalem in 1919 with Abba Hillel Silver, the Cleveland rabbi who became a major leader in the Zionist movement before establishment of the state of Israel. “He was on a diplomatic mission,” Skirball explained, “and I went along, seemingly as his secretary.” The non-official highlights, as he told it, included skinny-dipping in the Mediterranean and 25-cent baths at the King David Hotel.

It was on this same trip that Skirball had what he remembers as “the biggest thrill of my life. I was in Paris with Silver on Bastille Day. We were on the balcony of a little pensione when, for the first time (since the armistice), soldiers marched under the Arc de Triomphe. As the American contingent came along a voice from the other side started singing ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ And I cried. It was (Austrian-American contralto Madame Ernestine) Schumann-Heink.”

Skirball is not one to disguise his feelings about country. “I am an American of Jewish faith,” he said, “an American who happens to be a Jew. Nobody could feel more at home in America than I do. Oh, I know what we’ve done, the oppression in the Caribbean and all. I know all about that. But by the standard of moral and community ethics I don’t think there’s any country like the United States. We take care of our poor. We’re interested in people.”

He is an optimist, a man who looks about him and sees in this country people of all races and religions living relatively peacefully together. In Los Angeles, he said, “I think the inter-religious situation is better than any place in the United States.”

It is, in short, the ideal climate in which to establish the Skirball Institute on American Values, which he is about to do.

Skirball does not view the institute as a Jewish entity, pointing out, “I’m not just interested in things Jewish. As I see it, the head could someday be a non-Jew.” He hopes that institute programs will lead to dialogue pointing up both “the contribution of the Jew to America and the contribution of America to the Jews, what America has done to enable the Jews to make this contribution.” Beyond that, however, he hopes to awaken in others the realization that “the purpose of religion is the ethical life and that in every religion, I hope--and I’m crossing my fingers with one or two--there is that ethical desire.”

When Skirball talks about “American values,” he is talking about “ethical values, our system of justice. Values that have to do with home, family--the relationship of the parents to their children has to do with the relationship of the children to the world--education, children, food, shelter, clothing. . . .”

Common Heritage

One of his goals in establishing the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum in 1972, Skirball said, was to enable Christians and Jews to understand their common heritage, shared roots, and in that way to “dissipate” anti-Semitism. (The museum will be relocated from its site near USC to become part of the Hebrew Union College Cultural Center for American Life, a 65,000-square-foot, $20-million complex to be built in the Sepulveda Pass near the new Getty Museum. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in September, 1986. Skirball has given $3.5 million for the new museum.)

Anti-Semitism cannot be denied, Skirball said, even though he has “never felt it and I look Jewish, if there is such a thing as a Jewish look. And I was a rabbi. Still, nothing wrong ever happened to me because I’m Jewish. I never had the problem of wanting to get into a country club. I was offered a membership in the Jonathan Club. No, I didn’t join. I didn’t want to be lonely. Jews of any dignity don’t want to be the court Jew.”

He shrugged. “I resented very much the pressure on the clubs to take in Jews. Who wants to go where they don’t want you?”

Some Jews fret that the younger generation is abandoning Judaism, but Skirball said: “I worry less about this than just about anything. We’ve survived so long. What does it matter if they’re Jewish (as long as) they believe in the ethical concepts of Judaism?” (One of his two daughters was recently married, with his blessing, to a gentile.)

Skirball interrupted another of his “little stories” to re-read a letter from Scripps Hospital about his gift for the proposed halfway house--”There’s not a decent place in Southern California where a kid who’s in trouble with dope can go and live. I want them to have a place with a pool, a tennis court, plenty of room to garden.”

Oh, yes, the story was about Barney Greengrass, a New York deli owner, and how he once tried to coerce Skirball into returning to California by train with a suitcase full of Nova Scotia sturgeon (then contraband in the state, which was protecting its own sturgeon industry) for delivery to another film producer. “You want to make some money?” Greengrass had asked, offering a $35 tip. Skirball declined, leaving Greengrass shaking his head and muttering, “I don’t understand you producers.”

Skirball laughed and said, “I’ve been around a long time.” He was talking about his six brothers--one a hatmaker, another an attorney--all gone now. (A sister, Grace, lives in San Diego.) “I was the last leaf on the tree, the youngest in the family,” he said.

He never got around to mentioning the Motion Picture Pioneers Award (1925), membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the three Oscars for short subjects.

What, Skirball wondered, was there to write about him?