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He Uses His Cameras to Help Kids Focus


David Grober has spent the past 17 years producing water sequences for more than 1,100 films, television shows and commercials, among them "Splash," "Star Trek: Generations," "The Winds of War" and "Overboard." But the stars aboard his 31-foot powerboat this sunny Saturday morning are six high school students and a crew of teachers. The project: shooting footage for an educational music video to a song called "Mammals of the Ocean," which suggests that man may be descended from marine mammals as well as primates.

About a mile off the El Segundo shore, the boat pulls up and stops by a buoy where sea lions lounge, barking and growling. As the music plays, Grober--who also sings background--mans the video camera, directing the students in a dance to the beat. Twice more, he finds suitable sea lion backdrops, choosing students to sing and mime to lines of the song. Back at his Marina del Rey dock, he tapes an opening shot with the kids, who are tired but still enthusiastic.

Afterward, the students agree that viewing and singing about sea life is an easier way to retain facts about science and marine biology than reading a book. The chance to aid that learning process is the reason Grober donated his time, expertise and equipment--one of myriad ways he has been helping students since a fateful encounter at a dinner party shortly before the Los Angeles riots in 1992.

At that party, Grober met science and multimedia teacher T. H. Culhane, who was then working at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Culhane expressed his frustration at the lack of support for using nontraditional methods such as songs and video production for instructing low-income, at-risk students. Grober immediately offered his services, and began to regularly visit the school, helping to teach film production and donating equipment--his own and machinery solicited from various companies--to establish a multimedia center.

"If a kid were about to be marched down to the principal's office and out of school, T.H. would say, 'I'll take him,' " Grober, 45, recalls after the boat shoot. "They began to learn. They were bright kids. It became evident that I was becoming an avenue to the film production community, so that the kids could see there was something outside the inner city. If they don't know what there is to aspire to, they won't aspire to it. They're learning a marketable skill, and learning about the creative process."

Grober also brought a group of students to visit the closed set of the television series "seaQuest DSV," where they were able to speak with the cast. He has arranged for free attendance at entertainment industry luncheons. And since 1993, he has provided students a booth at Show Biz Expo, an annual Los Angeles trade show, where they can exhibit their work; after Grober paid for the booth for three years, expo organizers donated the booth this year.

"The kids go around, see cameras and other professional equipment, see occupations in the industry," he says. "I tell them to look at people's badges and talk to them."

Grober is currently focusing his efforts on establishing a multimedia center at Hollywood High School, where Culhane transferred 18 months ago. Grober produces a thick notebook of letters written to heads of corporations and entertainment industry members, soliciting equipment--he particularly needs an editing system--and monetary support.

Says Culhane, "Dozens of people helped us after the riots, but Dave is the only one who stayed. I couldn't fight the battles with teachers and the administration, and the low self-esteem of the kids without a helping hand in the real world. He's taken us to the Sundance Festival, and we're going again next year. He's taken me to just about every convention and expo in the industry. He's done more with his limited personal funds than any rich people.

"The kids felt they weren't doing anything significant, that no one would pay attention to them," Culhane says. "As soon as they saw that they could interface with other people who are professionals, their attitude changed and they rocketed forward."

One such student, a veteran of two "Mammals of the Ocean" shoots, is Cecilio Vega, 18, a Jefferson High senior taking classes at Trade Tech college. "I was doing really bad in class. I met T. H. through a teacher, and the next thing I knew I was doing videos," he says. "It gave me motivation. I think I'd still be messing around and being a high school dropout. This shoot on the boat was wonderful, great. I've learned about sea lions, and it's fun to be on camera. It gives you a chance to express yourself, set yourself free."

For his efforts, Grober, who is also a Jewish Big Brother, was nominated by Hollywood High to be an Olympic torch runner last April. "I was running on the course in Marina del Rey, and everybody was screaming and yelling," he says. "And I thought, 'What did I do to deserve this?' It was nice."

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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