George Schlatter and Lily Tomlin
George Schlatter and Lily Tomlin / Photos courtesy of Pepperdine University

Why would a Jewish producer attend a Christian university?

by Craig Detweiler

George Schlatter

George Schlatter

I was encouraged by The Hollywood Reporter’s enthusiastic review of Pepperdine University’s gala tribute to pioneering television producer and alum George Schlatter. Still Laugh-In drew upon the best of Schlatter’s seminal show, with key cast members like Lily Tomlin and Jo Anne Worley and generous friends like Shirley MacLaine and Kirk Douglas toasting (not roasting) George. At the end of the raucous evening, The Reporter’s Bill Higgins was still wondering, “Why did a quintessentially Jewish guy like Schlatter go to a college affiliated with the Churches of Christ?” Or maybe because they recognize how many potential filmgoers are also churchgoers who might appreciate the religious allusions in Man of Steel. Those who associate Christian universities with White Anglo Saxon Protestants might be surprised to discover that the Pepperdine Class of 2017 has a Caucasian minority, reflecting the diversity of our Southern California and Pacific Rim setting.

Thanks to the generosity of the Brenden Mann Foundation, we have developed an entire season of programming designed to answer that question. Theater owner Johnny Brenden honored the philanthropic legacy of his grandfather, Ted Mann of Mann Theaters, by underwriting Hollywood Visionaries and Beyond. The series will celebrate the families that founded and continue to serve as leaders in the entertainment industry. While some may deride nepotism in Hollywood, we’ve chosen to lift up Judaism as a remembering religion, where passing down tradition and trade amongst family is an essential tenet of faith and culture. We’re looking forward to hosting fathers and sons like the president of the Producers Guild of America, Hawk Koch and entertainment attorney Robert Koch and Academy Award winner Walter Mirisch and agent Larry Mirisch. We will be interviewing Bruce Corwin and David Corwin about the two generations of Corwins that preceded them in founding Metropolitan Theatres and we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Laemmle family’s art-house theatres. We will also bring producers like Nina Jacobson (The Hunger Games), Lucy Fisher (Divergent) and Melissa Rosenberg (The Twilight Saga) to campus to talk about the next wave of women in Hollywood.

Jerry Weintraub and George Schlatter

Producer Jerry Weintraub and Schlatter

As a filmmaker and professor, my challenge is to educate our students about the industry they aspire to enter. Every discipline includes a healthy dose of history, encouraging a deep appreciation for the roots of a chosen field. I want my students to understand the pioneering spirit that drove the founders of Hollywood out west. Christian students especially need to grasp how anti-Semitism animated the industry’s onscreen dreams. I want to make sure they understand Neil Gabler’s thesis in An Empire of Their Own: the grand irony of Hollywood is that the Jewish immigrants who came to define the American Dream onscreen were largely shut out of the American Dream themselves. The founders of the studios left persecution and pogroms in Europe fueled by the hope held up by the Statue of Liberty. In turning those aspirations into cinematic dreams, Mayer, Goldwyn, Fox, Zukor, Laemmle, and the Warner Bros. overcame countless hurdles and acquired unprecedented wealth and fame. During World War II, they vigorously defended this land that they’d come to love, cooperating with the Department of Defense to defeat fascism and the Nazis.

Today’s students are shocked to discover that the pro-American, British, French, and Russian films created by Hollywood for the war effort in the forties could be used as evidence of communist leanings in the fifties. Only after a thorough review of the blacklist and the Hollywood 10, do students understand why Hollywood continues to make films that warn against the chilling consequences of McCarthyism (like Pleasantville, The Majestic, Good Night, and Good Luck, or the countless variations on Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Christian college students must understand why calls for boycotts of Hollywood are invariably received as a precursor to pogroms.

Barbara Sinatra

Barbara Sinatra and Schlatter

Because of Pepperdine’s religious roots, we want our students to be sensitive towards all forms of religious persecution. We want to uphold the freedom of religion that makes the promise of America so broad and rich and robust. Why might aspiring Jewish filmmakers attend a Christian university? Hopefully, because we will respect the beliefs and tradition that inform their art and drive their storytelling. We invite our students to lean into their faith as a creative wellspring. At a time when religious misunderstandings continue to plague our politics, we need the next generation to be well versed in world religions, to be conversant with the faiths that inform our practices. Guilford and Diane Glazer established the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Pepperdine because we are a Christian university. We have so many students who need to learn about Judaism and Jewish culture. The Glazers joined us in advocating for a college education that challenges students’ assumptions and expands their life experiences, while still respecting the families and traditions that raised them up. The Brenden Mann Israel Internship Program sends select Pepperdine students to summer internships in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. We want to graduate world citizens equipped to deal with the complexities of the 21st century.

Stefanie Powers George Schlatter & Shari Belafonte

Stefanie Powers, Schlatter and Shari Belafonte

We recognized the bridge building work of George Schlatter as the best of Pepperdine. He brought Americans together every Monday night for Laugh In and every Wednesday night for Real People. His diverse cast brought joy into our homes during tumultuous times. We hope that a Jewish producer would attend our Christian university for the same reasons a Christian kid might apply to a leading Jewish university — to get an education that will launch them into a lifetime of service, purpose, and leadership — just like George.

Craig Detweiler

About Craig Detweiler

Craig Detweiler is a filmmaker, author, and director of the Center for Entertainment, Media, and Culture at Pepperdine University. He is co-founder of The Windrider Forum, a traveling film fest designed to spark conversation, awaken compassion, and inspire change. Craig's cultural commentary has been featured on ABC’s Nightline, CNN, Fox News, NPR, and in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Follow Craig on Twitter @craigdetweiler.

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