More Than Money
Issue #33

Embracing The Gift

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories: Hometown Destiny”

Based on an interview with Mara Peluso and Pamela Gerloff

I had "the perfect life." I was living in Hollywood with my wife and daughter, in a neighborhood full of celebrities. We had a dream house, beautiful cars, a hot tub-everything. But I argued with my wife; and I wondered: Why aren't we happy?

I had originally gone to Hollywood for an innocent reason: I wanted to tell my story and impress a girl. For a summer job, I had been working as a bellhop at the St. Elmo hotel in Chautauqua, New York and had developed an intense crush on a waitress there. I was very shy and she was very nice to me. She ended up leaving the job early and rather than just forget about her, I became madly infatuated with her. I went back to school in the fall, but couldn't get her out of my head. Eventually, I decided to write a story for her. I thought of it as a love story and mailed it to her. But when she read it, instead of responding to my emotions toward her, she said, "You're a really good writer. Have you ever considered pursuing a literary path?"

I was pre-med when I started college, but wound up getting a scholarship to Universal Studios, based, in part, on that short story, which served as the initial inspiration for the film St. Elmo's Fire. I subsequently co-wrote the script with director Joel Schumacher.

I had grown up in Pittsburgh and I thought this would be just a short trip to Hollywood. I remember talking to the actress Andie MacDowell while we were shooting and I told her that right after finishing St. Elmo's Fire, I was going back to Pittsburgh to write short stories. At the time, that seemed to be what my heart was telling me to do-my destiny.

But then my agent came to me with an offer to write a screenplay for a very successful producer. I told him no, because I was going to write my own stories. He said, "We don't say 'no' here in Hollywood. We just ask for more money than we think they will pay." So we asked for a lot-and they gave it to me.

Soon I found myself writing more screenplays and making good money. As the years went on, though, I grew tired of the ups and downs of the movie industry and went into television instead. For seven years I wrote for shows like Saved By The Bell and Hang Time. Television work wasn't the best thing for my career, but it enabled me to have a house I loved, the right cars, a nanny, a gardener, a maid-the staff list was incredible. But I wasn't really happy.

Then, out of the blue, a funny thing happened: I had sent a contribution to the prep school I had attended on scholarship while growing up in Pittsburgh. Because of complications processing the donation, I ended up talking with a development officer, who mentioned to me that one of the English teachers was going on sabbatical for the year. Teaching had always been a fantasy of mine and before I knew it, she had connected me with the head of the English department at the University of Pittsburgh and I was offered a teaching job there. At the urging of my wife, who was concerned about my growing unhappiness, I accepted, and moved my family back to the place of my childhood.

To me, money is security; so I was terrified to sell our house in Los Angeles and give up my healthy six-figure salary. When we came back to Pittsburgh, I figured we would be moving back to Los Angeles after a year. (I had been hired as a visiting assistant professor.) But after the first year, my wife bought a house in Pittsburgh. She felt Pittsburgh was the right place for me to be, that I was a better man here, and that it was the right place to raise our daughter.

As I was teaching, I started bringing back people from the film business who had regional roots, like Looney Tunes: Back in Action producer Bernie Goldmann, Save the Last Dance producer Robert Cort, and Jim Carrey's manager, Eric Gold. They enjoyed speaking to my students and immediately made a tremendous difference their lives. Soon, my students and members of the film studies department began to discover along with me that there were an incredible number of people from Pittsburgh who were working in the entertainment industry. It even turned out that Rob Marshall, who directed Chicago, the year's Best Picture, had spent his wonder years just blocks from the house where I was living and his father had taught in the same office I was using. With the remarkable number of expatriates we were discovering, we began to see an opportunity.

Pittsburgh is a town struggling to reshape its identity. It has a strong tradition of philanthropy; the Carnegie, Mellon, and Hillman families have all been generous benefactors, and through their contributions, the great museums, libraries and galleries were created. Thanks to all that philanthropy, children here grow up with access to the arts. That was what, initially, had gotten Andy Warhol started. When Rob Marshall was nominated for an Academy Award, he said that growing up in Pittsburgh had been like feasting on a buffet of the arts. Even though Rob and many others had left the city to work in their chosen professions, they still harbored good feelings about where they had come from. So we started thinking: What if we could connect these folks with this city, which is having trouble holding onto its young people?

This began as a student organization, Pitt In Hollywood, ( ), but then community leaders got involved and it is now evolving into its own nonprofit. We are hoping to help the city convert some of its rich arts heritage into entertainment products, so that people can make a living here and help the town grow. Our first event is a film summit, which will bring back some of the city's illustrious alumni and connect them with city leaders. We are hoping it will evolve into other projects.

The response has been amazing. Not only are these very busy people volunteering their time-in the midst of very hot careers-they are also coming up with their own ideas of what they can do. Some are saying, "I have done well, but now what?" Some have come back to speak for free. Others have hired students as interns. One of the biggest manager/producers in Hollywood has offered to let students pitch movie ideas to him, so they will get a sense of the process.

In L.A., you hear stories of how tough people can be, and often, I have found that to be true. But those who have come back have been just incredible. They have shown such heart and decency. It has taught me a great lesson. I have the sense that a lot more people would help if we gave them the opportunity. Getting people connected to the entertainment industry may seem superficial to some, but it is really about validating people's dreams and letting them know that with a lot of hard work and persistence, dreams are possible.

The involvement of these people has little to do with me. I am just the vessel for this idea. I remember a sign that hung in my prep school. It said, "Do it because it is right." Many of us who went to that school were just stupid enough to believe it. Now we are trying to create an entertainment industry where people can give back to society-just because it is right.

In Los Angeles, the first two questions people seem to ask when they meet you are, "What do you do for a living?" and "What type of car do you drive?" I started to get used to that, and to get comfortable with that type of value system. But in Pittsburgh, it's different. Even though it was one of the birthplaces of the industrial revolution, it doesn't seem to be all about profit; it is more about community. In its effort to re-brand itself, the city recently came up with a motto, presenting itself as a town where "one person can make a difference." Teaching, along with the rest of my experience here, makes me feel that way.

In my second year of teaching, I have come to terms with the fact that I am not going to get through to all of my students, but I have a terrific handful of them in whose lives I am making a difference. I think there will be a few who say, "Hey, he really cares." That's the real reward: the sense that these people may do something different because I was in their lives.

I know my life is richer now than it was in Hollywood. Ironically, the gift that the moneyed life gave me was the awareness of what was missing in my life. It took awhile, but eventually, it led me back to my destiny.

After writing the story on which the movie St. Elmo's Fire was based, (anonymous author) became a sought-after Hollywood and television writer. He spent 17 years there before moving back to his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he is now a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Kurlander was profiled in the best-selling book, What Should I Do with My Life? by Po Bronson and has appeared on Oprah to tell his own life story.

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