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In Search of a Little Peace, but Not Too Much Quiet

L.A. STORIES; A slice of life in Southern California

August 30, 1992|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

These days more people are leaving Los Angeles than coming in. Native Janna Gelfand is among them. Over the next year, View will periodically report on her experience as she adjusts to life in a small town. Janna Gelfand is a Southern Californian, born and raised. She remembers high school summers of afternoons at the beach, shopping in Westwood Village and going to Swensen's for ice cream.

Parts of Los Angeles had a small-town air then. "There were no high-rises on Wilshire and you could see the ocean from Wilshire and Beverly Glen," recalls Gelfand, now 32.

And she went into the hometown business.

Graduating from UCLA's film school ("I admired David O. Selznick so much that I started signing my name with my middle initial"), Gelfand plunged into the movie industry with the requisite high energy and exuberance for new ideas.

She has worked in both television and movies as a free-lance story reader, a story editor, a development consultant and, for two years, director of development for a producer at Disney. She has written a book on screenwriting that's a text for several universities.

Firmly established with family, friends and a career here, Gelfand never planned to leave. "I have always considered myself a California person," she says. Yet earlier this month, she boarded a United Air Lines flight for Seattle, with six pieces of luggage and her two cats. She was moving to Port Townsend, Wash., a town perched on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula, 60 miles north of Seattle.

She is leaving a Brentwood condominium, a Mercedes-Benz with a phone, and a breakneck routine of breakfasts, lunches and dinners with Hollywood writers and agents. She has joined a fledgling production company whose one-room office is located in a restored Victorian building in Port Townsend.

She hasn't lost her passion for developing movie projects. She just doesn't want to do it in Hollywood any longer.

"Slowly, surely," she says, "I am getting to hate this city. I am afraid here."

It is difficult for Gelfand to make that admission. During her last hectic week in Los Angeles, as she guest-taught a screenwriting class at UCLA Extension, packed boxes, sorted books and waited for the Arrowhead Water truck, she reflected on her growing disenchantment.

"It was just a slowly building thing," she says.

Last spring's riots were the final push, but it was an uneasiness that started in July, 1984, the week before the Olympics, when a man later declared mentally disturbed drove his car through a crowd of pedestrians on a Westwood sidewalk. One person was killed and 40 were injured. Gelfand couldn't shake the bizarre incident.

"Westwood was home," she says. "That was the first time I had felt apprehensive about my own neighborhood."

The next few years produced a ripple of unsettling events. Friends were followed home from the supermarket by strangers or robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight.

"I was walking around the downtown flower market one day--it's a huge wonderful warehouse and you can smell the flowers a block away, but the street seemed filled with threatening people," recalls Gelfand.

"I'm holding onto my purse and thinking, 'Whoa! Now you have to pick the places where you can go.' When you see a car moving slowly down your own street, you want to get away. When I was little, we would just think they were looking for an address."

And finally last spring, "I realized it," she recalls. "I really can't stand Los Angeles. This city seems to be falling apart. The gangs, the riots, the drive-by shootings, the earthquakes. I no longer feel safe here and I want to live where I feel safe."

So she is leaving behind the movie capital, but not the movie career. Gelfand has been recruited as director of development by independent producer Andy Meyer,who has set up shop in Port Townsend. Meyer, a successful Hollywood executive for 20 years (his last movie was "Fried Green Tomatoes") moved with his family to the Northwest 18 months ago because he wanted a change. He recently completed a deal to develop movie projects for Warner Bros. "With phones and faxes and Federal Express, I think it will work," he says. "It's an exciting experiment."

Gelfand was the first person he hired. "I wanted Janna because she's a terrific script development person."

For Gelfand, who had been feeling "kind of stuck here in the film industry," it was a tempting offer, but she refused at first. A town of 6,000 with only two movie theaters sounded a little too safe.

Nevertheless, almost everyone she knows applauds her decision to uproot.

"It'll be lonesome without her--we've been friends since we were 11," says Amy Townsend whose daughter, Sydney, 4 1/2, is Gelfand's goddaughter and was so upset at the news she wouldn't speak to her. "I'm kind of jealous, really. Without a doubt Los Angeles has changed. It's more of a big city than it used to be, and I don't feel as safe here anymore."

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