Backlot parties put simchas in the spotlight

Founders of Hollywood’s great studios, like Jack and Harry Warner and Louis B. Mayer, played down their Jewish heritage when they arrived from the East Coast. Now, more than 70 years after the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when talkies became the rage and Jews routinely Anglicized their names, film factories are playing up the Jewish angle by hosting some of the largest and most unique b’nai mitzvah parties in town.

In the “top that” game so common on the b’nai mitzvah circuit, having a party on the backlot or in a sound stage certainly ups the ante. Like the “Titanic”-themed bar mitzvah featured in “Keeping Up With the Steins” or the opulent fairy tale-like settings found on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” such celebrations are created with a sky-is-the-limit mindset, and most studios are more than happy to accommodate a Tinseltown simcha.

While hotels and similar destinations are able to include decor that reflects a feature-film theme, the studios can one-up these venues by hosting celebrations where a movie was actually filmed, accenting the space with props from the original production. And the special-event coordinators note that the cost of renting most studio space is comparable to space costs at many Los Angeles-area hotels.

But is the unbridled use of such secular settings the right tone for newly minted sons and daughters of the Torah? While some might decry the expense of a glitzy movie studio celebration as sending the wrong message about Jewish values, especially when most synagogues provide their space to members at no additional cost, others say there are other factors to consider when keeping the b’nai mitzvah kid in the picture.

Susan Shapiro said she was extremely happy with her daughter Sascha’s ceremony and celebration on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City last August.

Family and friends of all ages joined Sascha in a studio courtyard decorated to look like an outdoor garden for her bat mitzvah, which included a Torah reading and a Havdallah service. Afterward, the party next door in the Rita Hayworth Theater was an exclusive get-together for the bat mitzvah’s friends.

Sascha’s name was displayed on a large marquee, similar to what one would find at a movie premiere. Guests walked down a red carpet, enjoyed a Wolfgang Puck-catered meal, and danced the night away on a black-and-white checkered dance floor.

“It never would have entered into my mind to have the party there,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro got the idea to hold the simcha at Sony after Sascha, now 14, attended a friend’s Sweet 16 at the studio and returned home raving about the party.

“I was really happy. Everything was on site. And it was a safer option,” said Shapiro, a professional psychologist. “At a restaurant, kids would be wandering around all over. [At Sony] there were guards watching them.”

Since the studio can tailor the party to the interests of the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, pre-dinner activities at recent Sony celebrations have included a make-your-own-movie area, a video arcade and a studio tour.

“At a movie studio you can do almost anything,” said Pam Byrne, director of studio services for Sony, who added that the number of b’nai mitzvah on the lot has grown every year.

Event prices vary depending on whether the client wants a lavish or intimate gathering. And naturally, all of the extras come at a price.

Shapiro said the Sony bat mitzvah for her daughter cost about $20,000, which included the venue rental, caterer, photographer, invitations and party favors, among other expenses.

“Was it expensive? Yes,” Shapiro said of her daughter’s ceremony and party, which she estimates at about $35 per child. “Was it expensive by most people’s standards? Probably not.”

Many hotels and other popular b’nai mitzvah venues outside of synagogues are comparable in price to the studios.

At the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, a bar mitzvah party, which includes venue rental, food, taxes and 20 percent service charge can range between $35,000 and $50,000, according to Shaun Brown, assistant director of catering. The onsite caterers can host a kosher function.

At the InterContinental in Century City, rental fees range from $500 to $1,500, while meals average about $54 to $64 per person, not including alcohol and a 20 percent service charge.

Marsha Rennie, event producer at Paramount Studios, said rental fees for a party at their lot average about $2,000 for one of their smaller venues and can balloon to $11,500 for one of the larger areas, which can hold up to 5,000 guests. The Melrose Avenue lot features 10 venues, from the intimate gardens of Valentino Park to the massive outdoor New York Street. The studio does not feature in-house catering, although the event staff can recommend a vendor for those who need it.

It’s a slightly different scene across town at Universal Studios, where soundstage No. 6 is dedicated solely to special events. Universal event planners note that set decorators and prop masters have transformed the 5,000-square-foot space, and its adjacent Mediterranean-style courtyard, into just about everything under the sun.

“Some [clients] come with a clear idea, a party planner and a decorator; others will come in open to our suggestions,” said Scott Ackerman, Universal’s director of catering. “We had a space theme for a bar mitzvah, where we suspended giant florescent-painted planets. Instead of regular lighting we had black lighting, and we piped in fog as guests came in.”

For a “Wicked”-themed bat mitzvah, based on the “Wizard of Oz” prequel, a yellow brick road led the guests onto the sound stage, which featured the Emerald City and a round dance floor covered in a winding yellow brick road pattern. The table centerpieces included giant lollipops and licorice castles.

While No. 6 is the primary destination, Ackerman said any spot at Universal is open for parties, however no one has yet to celebrate a simcha at their Red Sea tour stop. And “Desperate Housewives” fans might be crushed to learn that Wisteria Lane is currently off-limits due to ongoing filming.

For the Kids


Cats, monsters, horses and dinosaurs — you can see all this and more if you head over to Universal Studios Hollywood. You have until Jan. 15 to get in for a reduced price. Buy the tickets through your synagogue or find a coupon in The Jewish Journal!

Things You Know

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Dollars and Sense of Jesus Films

Despite Mel Gibson’s solid box office reputation, a major Hollywood studio stepping forward to distribute his $25 million Jesus film "The Passion" is not a certainty. The film falls long after Hollywood’s era of Bible epics and outside the trend of Jesus movies finding safe homes on television (e.g., NBC’s Jesus of "Nazareth" miniseries in 1977 and 1999’s "Jesus" on CBS).

Movie studios release very few historical or period films each year, much less a film like "The Passion," which is in Aramaic and Latin with subtitles. The film’s subject matter — the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life and then death by crucifixion — is hardly the kind of popcorn fare studios want for next April.

In 1965, the $20 million Jesus film "The Greatest Story Ever Told" grossed $8 million at U.S. theaters. And Martin Scorsese’s 1988 "The Last Temptation of Christ" proved that religious controversy does not promise a strong box office. Despite the picketing that surrounded Scorsese’s $7 million film, it grossed less than $8.4 million at U.S. theaters.

However, Monty Python’s $4 million Jesus parody "Life of Brian" earned more than $19 million at U.S. theaters in 1979, and 1999’s controversial $10 million Catholic-themed comedy "Dogma" earned about $30.6 million.

In 1973, theaters unspooled two Jesus movies — "Godspell" and Norman Jewison’s "Jesus Christ Superstar" — but both were produced after enjoying solid Broadway success as popular musicals. Unlike Gibson’s "Passion," the impetus to turn those musicals into films was not religion (or art) but just converting theater revenues into movie grosses. "Superstar" earned $13.2 million but lives on primarily as a traveling musical. (A "Superstar" musical starts a five-day run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Sept. 16 and then heads to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.)

The same evangelical Christian movie patrons now eager to see "The Passion" saw a Hollywood breakthrough with 1999’s Christian millennium movie "The Omega Code," which was distributed outside the studio system. Budgeted at $8 million, "Omega’s" $2.3 million opening weekend stunned movie executives, but its final U.S. box office was only $12.6 million (or about half the "Passion" production budget).

In 2001, "Omega Code 2" was released. Like "The Passion," both "Omega" films had solid promotional campaigns in churches and Christian bookstores. But the fall 1999 millennium fever that fueled the first "Omega’s" success did not carry over to "Omega Code 2," which by its fall 2001 release lacked the premillennium cache. Opening 12 days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the $22 million sequel saw U.S. ticket sales at just under $6 million.

A Man Without Fear

When Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee createdDaredevil in 1964, he tagged his blind superhero: “Man Without Fear.” Thenickname also applies to Avi Arad, head of Marvel Studios, Marvel Enterprises’film/television division. Israeli-born Arad rescued Marvel from Chapter 11 inthe ’90s, turning it into a major film provider with “Spider-Man” and now”Daredevil.”

“Daredevil,” starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, thelawyer-turned-vigilante with heightened senses, symbolizes Marvel’s catch-up torival D.C. Comics, which for decades had the Hollywood edge with billion-dollargrossing franchises “Superman” and “Batman.”

“Prior [Marvel] management was really afraid of the moviebusiness,” Arad said. “They were run by financial people who had no interest inentertainment.”

That changed when Arad put Marvel on the Hollywood map.Marvel’s first smash in 1998 came with only a minor character, Blade. “X-Men”followed in 2000, and “Spider-Man,” which took in more than $403.7 milliondomestically, became the fifth-highest grossing film of all time.

Raised near Tel Aviv, Arad served in the Israeli army beforemoving to America, where a job driving a Nabisco truck connected him with a toycompany.

“I got a job in research and development and found out I hada knack for inventing toys,” said Arad, 55. “So I went on my own.”

“If you had a successful toy,” said Arad — the creator of”My Pretty Ballerina” — “you turned it into a cartoon. It was a naturaltransition for me to expand into animation.”

Since coming aboard as Marvel Studios’ chief in 1993, Aradplayed a key role in saving Marvel Enterprises from bankruptcy and untangled anearly two-decade web of courtroom battles over “Spider-Man’s” film rights, asdetailed in Dan Raviv’s 2002 book “Comic Wars.” Over that time, movie specialeffects have come a long way.

“I don’t know if we could’ve made the ‘Spider-Man’ that wehave today even five years ago,” Arad said. 

After “Daredevil,” 2003 will bring “X-Men 2,” “Hulk” and theshooting of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” sequel — with a Michael Chabon screenplay — for 2004. “Ghost Rider” (starring Nicolas Cage) and “Fantastic Four” will follow.

“He really cares about these characters,” Stan Lee saidabout Arad. “He gets the best writers and the best directors.”

So, will “Daredevil” attract a mass audience on a”Spider-Man” level while placating some diehard fans who feel that the movie’scasting choices and costumes stray too far from the comic?

As Arad told a reporter, “Ben Affleck looks good in even apaper bag.”

“Daredevil” opens in theaters Feb. 14.


Marshall Sosson, Violinist and Studio Concertmaster, Dies at 91

Marshall Sosson, concertmaster at many Hollywood studios, died on April 29, 2002, at the age of 91.

Music was his fountain of youth. A passionate and tender nature sang through his violin. Active professionally for 60 years, first in Chicago and later in Los Angeles, he was a virtuoso of classical repertoire and improvisational jazz, and excelled as concertmaster of orchestras for Hollywood’s major motion picture studios and record companies. Wherever he worked, musicians respected his artistry and were drawn to his warm and generous spirit. He energized, inspired, amused and enriched the lives of his devoted friends and family.

He studied with Max Fischel at the Chicago Musical College, and with Efram Zimbalist at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. During the ’30s and ’40s, his jazz quartet, Marshall Sosson and the Chicagoans, made regular coast-to-coast live radio broadcasts. He played with the swing bands of Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. An army enlistee, he shared co-concertmaster duties with Felix Slatkin of the Army-Air Force orchestra in Santa Ana. After the war, he formed the Los Angeles String Trio and Piano Quartet, giving chamber music recitals with pianist Leonard Stein and cellist and violinist Kurt and Sven Rehr, varying his diet of serious music with rollicking jam sessions with pianist Johnny Guerneri at the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee.

He recorded with the giants of popular music — Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. In such films as "All The Kings Men," "From Here To Eternity," "On The Waterfront" and "Picnic," his set tone and sure phrasing perfectly underscored a film’s meaning. He was especially proud of being chosen as concertmaster for Disney’s 1981 rerecording of "Fantasia" and responsible for selecting the 60-piece string selection. His was a long life of bravos.

He is survived by his sister-in-law, Sylvia; nephews, Steven and Michael; niece, Deena; grandnieces, Julie Braly and Vivien Braly Arquilevich; great-grandnephews, Jonah and Max; in-laws, Harriet and Norman Beck; and many other friends and family. — Deena Sosson

Judy Kurz Gold, Midwife and Artist, Dies at 59

Judy Kurz Gold, midwife and artist, died on April 28, 2002, at the age of 59.

She died after a two-year struggle with lung cancer at Kibbutz Hatzerim in Israel. She is the wife of Dr. Jonathan Gold; mother of Ilan, Tali, Noam and Aviv Kurz; grandmother of Ori Kurz; and daughter of Ruth Faine and the late UCLA professor Hy Faine.

We mourn her death. Condolences can be sent to — Rachel and Tom Tugend