100,000 Pennies Saved Are 100,000 Pennies Spurned

Times Staff Writer

A veteran Hollywood producer making a series for Paramount Network Television has recently received a lesson from a Brentwood couple that gives new meaning to the expression “penny wise, pound foolish.”

While on location in September on Moreno Avenue, a broad street lined with substantial homes, producer Ronald L. Schwary’s location team asked Stefanie and Myron Roth to halt their noisy tree trimming. Some bargaining ensued, and the Roths agreed to send the trimmers away in exchange for $1,000.

Rather than pay them quickly with a check, Schwary, winner of a best picture Oscar for the 1980 film “Ordinary People,” rounded up 100,000 pennies and had them delivered, weeks later, in 20 densely packed bags to the Roths’ cream-colored, Monterey-style house.


There are pennies from heaven. And then there are pennies from Paramount.

The Roths, who said they could not even lift the 30-pound bags, were not amused. By the time the brouhaha finally was resolved last week, Paramount had apologized for “any inconvenience” -- after several phone calls and a letter from the Roths -- and agreed not only to pay the Roths their $1,000 but also to donate $1,000 to a favorite charity.

Schwary, who started his entertainment career as an extra, isn’t talking. Neither is Paramount. But a person close to the dispute defended Schwary, calling him an experienced hand who “for years has been working to smooth out production. In fairness to him, it sounds like somebody was playing some hardball there.”

Here’s how, in the multimillion-dollar realm of TV, things came to a pretty pass over pennies:

When the Roths -- Stefanie does pro bono social work for nonprofits, and Myron is the retired president of a small entertainment company that produced the hit TV show “Baywatch” -- returned from a Labor Day weekend excursion on the evening of Monday, Sept. 6, they found at their door a little bag of goodies (cookies and candy) and a flier from Paramount Pictures.

The flier indicated that the studio planned to film some backyard barbecue scenes for a new television show called “Medium” a couple of doors down from the Roths. As it happens, Moreno is a popular location, and residents are used to making adjustments to accommodate an industry that “is good for the economy,” Stefanie Roth said.

Still, it was Monday night, and the Roths a month and a half earlier had hired a tree-trimming company to thin their sycamores and oaks and take out a rotting pittosporum that was in danger of toppling. The trimmers were due on Wednesday.


The trimmers arrived and parked across the street (the Roths’ side having been reserved for production vehicles). As soon as they took out the chain saw to attack the pittosporum, the doorbell rang.

As Stefanie Roth recalled, a young woman from the location department said politely: “We’re filming. We need you to stop.” Roth explained that the trimming had been planned well in advance and that Paramount had not given enough notice for her to reschedule.

According to Roth, the woman offered her $500. Roth declined. “What can we do?” the woman urged. Roth suggested $1,000, assuming that the company would never pay that. The woman returned with a man, who after some negotiations, agreed to the $1,000 price.

Next, Schwary himself paid a call on the couple, the Roths said. “I hear you were in the TV business,” Myron Roth quoted Schwary as saying. “Why are you charging?” Myron Roth said that he gave Schwary a chance to back out of the deal but that the producer declined.

People from the production team told Stefanie Roth that she would get a check the next day, but “we didn’t get a check the next day, or the next week,” she said. Her husband called Paramount and spoke to a member of the team who agreed to look into the delay. By the third week, no check was in sight.

Eventually, the Roths got a call from a Paramount person who said that someone would pay them the next day. Myron Roth replied that neither he nor his wife would be home but that the housekeeper would be there.


As the Spanish-speaking housekeeper related to them later, a man came to the door and told her he had “mucho dinero para senora ... bolsas of dinero.” She reluctantly opened the door, and the man piled 20 bags in the foyer. When he got home, a perplexed Myron Roth called his wife and asked whether she had ordered a great quantity of coins.

“It took us a while to figure it out,” Myron said.

Once they did, Stefanie Roth was steaming. “It’s my job to work with children who exhibit aggressive behavior or are bullies,” she told her husband. “This is not normal behavior. This is aberrant behavior.”

By that time, Roth had heard other complaints about the film production company. One neighbor said production workers had intimidated her housekeeper into bringing the family’s two children inside because they were making noise in the backyard the day of shooting.

The Roths told one Paramount representative that they would sue unless they got a letter of apology, a $1,000 check and a donation to charity.

In response, Paramount sent the couple a letter dated Oct. 12, expressing “apologies for any inconvenience caused by the recent film shoot” and saying Paramount would give them a $1,000 check in exchange for the pennies and a $250 donation to a charity of their choice.

“We look forward to a quick resolution of this matter and appreciate your cooperation to that end,” said the letter, signed by Brett King, vice president of current programs. The letter did not refer to the pennies by their denomination but rather as “the bags.”


Stefanie Roth viewed this as inadequate. The morning of Oct. 14, she called to insist that the charity be given $1,000.

An hour later, Paramount called to say it was cutting the checks -- including one for One Voice, an organization that aids families living at the poverty level -- and would come by to fetch the pennies.

While Paramount would not comment on the situation, the source with knowledge of the dispute said that Schwary offered to pay the Roths some money to stop their tree work but that “the residents kept upping the price. It seemed like a negotiation.

“They demanded $1,000. They received $1,000 in pennies. They expressed dismay.... When that came to [Paramount’s] attention, Paramount gave them a $1,000 check and $1,000 to a charity.”

The Roths countered that they hardly needed the cash. “A thousand dollars is always nice to have,” Stefanie Roth said. “But I wasn’t looking to make money,” she added, glancing around a graciously furnished room at the back of their 5,000-square-foot house, complete with a flat-panel television embedded in a wall and loads of windows looking onto a large backyard and pool.

“I got the feeling they viewed this as a big joke,” Stefanie Roth said. “I was very firm in my resolve that these people should not be allowed to bully people.


“The buck,” she said, “stops here.”

As it turns out, so did the penny.