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

November 17, 1985|BEVERLY BEYETTE | 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)."

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