Down and out after arriving in Los Angeles from St. Louis, Mortez Bradley sold rock cocaine--for every piece he sold, he'd chip off a sliver for himself. Over in Highland Park, Carlos De La Torre was gangbanging, as he had been doing since eighth grade.
Now, they are putting in long hours as production assistants on feature films, television shows, commercials and music videos. They owe their jobs to the Streetlights Production Assistant Program, which for two years has been helping troubled young people turn their lives around by training them for jobs on movie and television shoots.
Dorothy Thompson, a producer of television commercials, founded the program after the 1992 riots as a way to combat unemployment and other problems in disadvantaged areas of Los Angeles. She has run the program for two years on a shoestring budget of about $40,000 by dipping into her savings accounts and using credit cards, and through small donations from colleagues.
She said that, in the past, she had assumed that "someone" would do something to relieve the problems that ignited the riot. "Then it struck me, most of us feel that way," Thompson said. "I would look around the commercial sets, and there were no Hispanics or blacks working as production assistants. I knew it was because they didn't have an open door. And I thought, 'Maybe I can be the open door.' "
Bradley and De La Torre are among the 27 people the program has trained for careers in a business notorious for being hard to break into.
Thompson has recruited most of the trainees, all in their 20s or early 30s, through social service organizations such as the Amer-I-Can jobs program, run by former football star Jim Brown, and Father Gregory Boyle's Jobs for a Future program in East Los Angeles.
They work in entry-level jobs as production assistants, moving from set to set as employment becomes available. The jobs are not glamorous. They get coffee for producers, send faxes, photocopy scripts and sweep up, among other chores. The trainees all work on non-union productions, receiving an average of $150 per day. One Streetlights alumnus works as a second assistant director, making about $300 per day.
Every success story, Thompson says, justifies her struggle.
"I've seen the other side, and this side looks a lot better to me." Someday, Mortez Bradley predicts, a movie will be made about his life--and he plans to make it.
And it will be a great story, he says, the tale of a former Venice drug dealer who forms his own production company and makes it big in the entertainment industry.
For now Bradley, 26, is content with working as a second assistant director on commercials and movie videos. It's a big step from his drug-dealing days.
Arriving in Los Angeles from St. Louis in 1986, he lived with his aunt and worked as a cook in posh Los Angeles restaurants. Things were going pretty well until a relative introduced him to rock cocaine.
Then, he said, "all hell broke loose."
He got strung out on cocaine, he said, and quit his jobs. He tried living with his father in the Valley, but things didn't work out and Bradley moved out. He wound up homeless in Venice.
It wasn't long before he was panhandling and selling rock cocaine on the streets. He feared for his life after a run-in with a supplier known as Bulldog.
"I was sitting there in Venice, sampling the profit and the investment, thinking, 'Now what am I gonna do?' "
Bradley hustled up enough money to get a room Downtown and checked into Brown's Amer-I-Can program, which he had heard about from a friend. He quit cocaine cold turkey. "It's been seven years since I did cocaine. I never went back to it."
Brown's program directed him to Streetlights in 1992.
The production assistant job, he said, is one "nobody wants to do. But I showed them I would do anything."
In the meantime, he got married and had a son. Success, he said, soon became a priority.
"I wanted to be an inspiration for my son--a role model," said Bradley, who now lives in Inglewood.
He quickly rose through the production ranks, eventually becoming a second assistant director on music videos and commercials. He makes sure the performers have their makeup done and wardrobe in place, rounds them up for the shoot and proofreads contracts, among other tasks.
And he harbors the dream of becoming an executive producer and running his own company. He wants to increase the number of African Americans in the business and help others like himself with a troubled past.
"I never did anything like this before. I get to meet new people. It's cool."
"I was in the eighth grade when I started getting into gangs," said Carlos De La Torre, 20, known as "Critter" in his Highland Park neighborhood.
He got into the gang for the excitement, he said, and "homie love," the camaraderie among members of his gang.
But then he met Father Boyle two years ago and, through his Jobs for a Future program, he started working at its Homeboy Tortillas eatery in Downtown Los Angeles, later becoming a manager.
"Father Boyle was always around, and he asked me if I wanted to do something with my life, and I said, yeah," De La Torre recalled.
Last summer, he attended a Jobs for a Future board meeting, where he met Mary Kay Powell, president of RASTAR productions in Culver City.
"I asked Dorothy to take a chance on Carlos," Powell said. "Few employers take a chance on guys like Carlos."
After De La Torre got laid off from Homeboy last summer, he started the production assistant training and was hired by Hollywood Pictures in February.
"I never did anything like this before," De La Torre said. "I get to meet new people. It's cool."
The staff at Hollywood Pictures was wary of De La Torre at first, given his background. But he quickly proved himself.
"He did everything with total enthusiasm, which is rare in this business," said Karen Shaw, a production coordinator at Hollywood Pictures. "Everything I gave him to do, he finished in seconds and was back for more work."
Now a production assistant on the Disney feature, "My Posse Don't Do Homework," De La Torre still lives in the same neighborhood, but he said his work schedule keeps him out of the mix.
"I'm still in the gang, but I'm not active. I'm on the reserve list," he said with a laugh.
His children, a 3-year-old girl and a newborn boy, and his job are the focus in his life now.
Friends in the neighborhood are impressed.
"They say, 'Gimme a job.' And I say, 'Let me get big first. Let me become a studio head. Then I'll get you a job.' "