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03/13/2008 - By Gayle Davis
A Gift Who Keeps on Giving…
In Hollywood the term “triple threat” has been coined, referring to someone who can sing, act, and dance. In Holmdel, a gentleman by the name of Michael Smolanoff brings new meaning to the phrase “in his own right.” The Juilliard School graduate is a composer, writer, and producer and has many reasons to be proud. Once a music composition professor at Rutgers University and the Philadelphia Music Academy, this most compelling man soon realized how to turn his talents into a successful career.
Currently, Smolanoff has two feature films in the works that are based on a couple of books he has written. The Oval Portrait will feature Christopher Walken and Eric Roberts. Incidentally, Smolanoff wrote the soundtrack that will be recorded by the Prague Symphony, and Roberta Flack will sing the title song of the movie, also written by this modern-day marvel. The Scary Kids Club is Michael’s next project to hit the big screen, with an offer on the table to Asbury Park’s very own Danny DeVito to star in the flick. Twin Faces East Entertainment, of which Smolanoff is president, says both films should be released sometime in 2008.
It doesn’t stop there. Smolanoff is also working on an animated feature film that is based on another book he has penned, “Pages From a Rabbit Journal.” Barry Manilow and Bette Midler are set to bring the characters to life with their unique voices. The movie is also expected to be spun off into a 26-episode TV series! It is based on a children’s book that depicts stories the writer told his own son as he was growing up.
Yet another of Smolanoff’s projects involves the late Albert Einstein. It’s a documentary that will air on PBS and the History Channel, featuring never-before-seen footage (that the producer owns) of the scientist in the making.
Living In Holmdel sat down with Michael Smolanoff, who gave us a glimpse of what it is like to be such an accomplished and gifted man.
LIH: Where did you grow up?
MS: I grew up in the Bronx for the first 16 years of my life, and then my family moved to New Rochelle, NY, and I went to New Rochelle High School and graduated from there.
LIH: Why did you choose to move to Holmdel?
MS: It was a long trek before I got to Holmdel. Before that I lived in New York…in Syosset, Long Island, then in Patchogue. I owned a record company that I was president of in 1982. I was fortunate to produce Santana’s Malo V, which hit the Billboard charts and was the best Latin Rock Album of the Year. It was very interesting because I found the lead singer of this group, which originally started in the Mission District in San Francisco back in the early ’70s. They had a very big hit called “Suavacito” with Warner Bros. I found the lead singer, Arcelio Garcia, working there as a mechanic. Somebody sent me a tape and I put the band together using great musicians: Tom Bones Malone from the “Blues Brothers” movie, Randy Brecker, Machito… I did that for a number of years, and then I moved down here to become partners with Richard Catena, who owned Richard’s Auto City, but I was in the entertainment end of it.
LIH: Any relationship to Ray Catena?
MS: Yes, he’s a brother. We moved down to Jersey because it became crazy going from Patchogue down to the Freehold area for a 5-hour trip one way. I was doing all kinds of different things. I was producing children’s projects such as “How to Relax Your Pet,” and I ended up on the Regis Philbin show with my African grey parrot that is now 25 years old. It was a whole spoof on how to relax your pet and it was very funny. Toby was talking and talking in the rehearsal room, and we get out on stage…he doesn’t say a word! On the way back home he said, “Michael, I love you…Michael, I love you.” I said, “Toby, I’m going to kill you…Toby, I’m going to kill you.” So I did that with Richard Catena. I was producing the “Caring for Your Pet” series, teaching children how to take care of their pets.
LIH: For television?
MS: No, actually, these were audiotapes, like “Caring for Your Puppy: A Child’s Guide.” They [kids] couldn’t read the books, but they could understand what was being said on the audiotape. We were promoting and doing all kinds of creative and funny things. I did a live recording of pet jokes, with Jackie Martling who wrote for the Howard Stern Show. It was recorded live at Chuckles on Long Island, and I was going to Long Island bouncing back and forth from New Jersey at that time. Eventually, we moved to a house in Holmdel. We saw that the school system was very good. My son was about 7 years old when we moved here. He’s now 18.
LIH: Your list of accomplishments is quite extensive. Can you break them down, starting with your days as a professor?
MS: As a professor at Rutgers, my contract was that I was a composer/teacher, so I had to produce, create, and publish. I have about 40 compositions that are published in the classical area, and I have been very fortunate in that regard. It’s interesting, though; you can’t live on these types of publications. Today composers who are writing this kind of music cannot get published. It’s virtually impossible because there was no market for it. One of the students I had was John Davis, who wrote the music for “Beverly Hills, 90210.” I was teaching John composition and one day he came to me with a check for $100,000, which was from the Burger King commercial that he had just written. The thought that immediately popped into my mind was that I am doing something really wrong here. You start to lose some of your idealism when you see this kind of thing. Here you work on a concerto for 6 months, all the parts, and you maybe get one performance. I was making about $18,000 a year, teaching John to make $100,000. I was at Rutgers for 8 years and I left and freelanced in New York. I became involved with a lot of good people. I worked with Duke Ellington’s son, Mercer Ellington, and I did a whole series of concerts called “Music Under the Stars” at the Cathedral of St. John the Devine near Columbia University. Right after that I started a new record company and I actually forced Warner Bros. to reissue “Suavacito” from the group that Santana was in, Malo V, which was their big hit. I got to learn a lot about the record business. I had dinner with Arnold Rosen, who was President of Warner Records at that time, and I remember him saying to me, “How much did it cost to put this album together? It’s incredible!” I said, “$25,000”; he said to me, “Get out of here…it had to have cost you $250,000 for a record like that!” I told him I didn’t take any kickbacks!
LIH: What made you decide to trade in your teaching profession for a career in composing, writing, and producing?
MS: I was pretty fed up with what was going on with the educational system at that time. I was on the Fine Arts Committee at Rutgers and was very disenchanted with the way things were turning out.
LIH: Is there one “hat,” so to speak, that you enjoy wearing more than another?
MS: No. We are now in sort of a multi-media society where even a kid can put out a good recording in his garage because of the digital recording equipment we have available. But what I really enjoy is thateverything is coming together. My going into writing scripts is just an outgrowth of the music…then putting the music to the film. I have written children’s books. That’s one of the things that I enjoy the most. “TheTown That Arrested Santa Claus” will be a 1-hour TV special. I wrote the story and the music. It was in the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks stores…it did very well.
LIH: Let’s talk about your current projects, The Oval Portrait and The Scary Kids Club.
MS: The Oval Portrait… Director Ronan O’Leary suggested that I put this into book form because usually you have a book and then put it into script form. I did the opposite. I had a script and then wrote a novel from the script. It’s a vampire movie. It’s about a very sophisticated vampire who’s lived through the centuries, over 25 years; he runs into this model and sees her in the paper. She’s in this oval portrait at the gallery, and he’s been looking for her for all these years and [he] falls in love with her to her detriment.
LIH: So that movie is in the works right now?LIH: Who is starring in it?
MS: Yeah. Ronan O’Leary, the Irish director, will be directing that one also.
MS: Well, we have Christopher Walken and Eric Roberts so far.
LIH: What’s going on with the Scary Kids Club?
MS: Well, there are two things. We are in talks with Danny DeVito right now. What he would do is actually bring the project to Universal or Paramount or one of the major companies like that to do the whole project. So it wouldn’t be a $5 million movie, a low-budget movie, it would probably be a $30 or $40 million movie.
LIH: And you wrote that one as well?
MS: Yes. Scary Kids Club…it’s interesting. It’s about a couple of boys and a girl who spend every Friday night in a cemetery telling scary stories, and they have a competition. The one who tells the least scary story has to spend the night in a crypt. It’s a series of stories that are all connected. The book has 10 stories, told by each kid. So we’ve taken four stories for the movie, and what we plan on doing is taking more of the stories for a sequel. Ronan O’Leary feels it would pick up where “Harry Potter” left off.
LIH: That’s a pretty big compliment!
MS: It’s fun stuff. Danny DeVito would play the Gnome doctor who is crazy. He would be perfect for that!
LIH: Do you have anything else in the works?
MS: This book right here is one of my favorites. This is ready for print…and there are going to be a lot of toys involved in this one – “Pages From a Rabbit Journal.” They find a baby rabbit at the end of a rainbow and are forced to move because the builders are putting up condominiums where they have their rabbit holes. It’s going to be a series of cliffhangers. This book was created from animation cells…clear material where the artist draws backwards on it. With the software available, you can make anything move.
LIH: I guess you’ve seen a lot of changes!
MS: It’s just incredible!
LIH: Is this going to be made for television?
MS: A full feature for the theaters first, and then it will be turned into episodes for TV…a total of 26. Each book has a moral to it. There will be toys licensed from the story; there is also a play for children, to teach them tolerance and respect for others.
LIH: So it’s a multi-faceted production?
MS: What we plan on doing is give part of the licensing fees and income to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, so we plan on doing things like that. That’s very important to me.
LIH: Are you hoping for a Pulitzer Prize or an Oscar?
MS: No. Ronan wants me to write the music for the end of the Scary Kids Club. He said I might as well get an Oscar nomination for that! He feels that it could be up there.
LIH: Have you ever been nominated for an Oscar before?
MS: No, but I am a member of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and have been a judge for the Emmys for a number of years.
LIH: Do you have any acting aspirations?
MS: No, not at all. I always like to stay in the background.
LIH: Tell me about your connection to Albert Einstein.
MS: In 1992 I was sharing an office with my attorney and he said, “I have a client named Peter Bucky who traveled with Albert Einstein and he has all this original film…would you like to do a documentary on it?” I said, “Of course I would.” So he introduced me to Peter. I went up to see him at 86th Street, to his house on the East Side. And what was interesting…Peter’s father was Albert Einstein’s best friend, Gustav Bucky. They had one patent together, the photoelectric eye. Most people don’t know that. The U.S. government made them turn it in when they came to the United States. Peter as a young man had the best camera around. He traveled with Albert Einstein and he just photographed him. Einstein didn’t mind it all. So I have some incredible, incredible film.
LIH: So what are you going to do with the footage you have?
MS: When CBS produced “The Man of the Century,” they had a lot of stock footage on Einstein, but they didn’t have what I had, so we received a call because they saw on our website that we had film! We went into CBS, played the film, and let them use some of it. We plan on doing a documentary and approaching it from a different angle. It’s very interesting because Einstein’s achievements were all done within just a few years and then nothing after that. His first wife was crippled and he married her. They were both at the Physics Institute. At that time it was incredible that a woman went to this type of scholar program. She was a fantastic mathematician, and they think that a lot of the work was done by his wife because Einstein promised her that when he won the Nobel Prize he would give her the money. He did win and [he] gave her the money! So we are investigating it from a different angle, which most people probably won’t like…that he really did not do most of the work. It was the work of his first wife.
LIH: Very interesting. Now, getting back to you…how do you make your career succeed, living out here in the suburbs?
MS: With computer, e-mail, travel…my office for Twin Faces East Entertainment is in Las Vegas. My partner and the CFO of the company are there. Another partner is in Malibu, California. It’s just a couple of hours here and there. I handle all the creative work for the company, so I may be in New York at a studio… I’m never in an office. I write in my kitchen looking out the window with my little computer!
LIH: What has been the highlight of this journey through the arts that you have indulged upon?
MS: I think what is incredible to me is when I look back I have been really fortunate to have had so many interesting people touch my life. I was the editor of EB Marks Music Corporation. I put together the “Anthology of Jewish Music.” It was a limited-edition anthology (5,000 printed), and they commissioned Mark Chagall to do the cover. So I got to meet Mark Chagall, and I did get a few copies of the book. When I moved to New York, that carton with those books was lost…of all things! Those books are now selling for $25,000 each! I saw it at an antique store.
LIH: How far do you want to take your career?
MS: I’m happy where everything is now. It’s very exciting. Everything is pretty much settled in. We have decided we want to give back to the community. That’s why when the “Pages From a Rabbit Journal” is done we will be giving a percentage of the licensing fees to hospitals and different organizations.
LIH: Every success is loosely based on some failure. Your successes are obvious. Do you care to share a time that you thought you may not have achieved your goals?
MS: It’s all the time. I’m always ready to try something new. There’s a saying in the record business, “You’re only as good as your last record.” My biggest “banging my head against the wall” has been with literary agents. I had never been in the book area before. When I had my record company, I learned that you never turn anyone away…you listen to everything. If I didn’t listen to that one cassette, I would have never produced Santana. We put the whole thing together and had a big hit. You know, there’s a lot of luck involved in it, too.
LIH: What are your other passions, when you’re not working?
MS: I like photography and I love traveling. We have had the opportunity over the past 10 years to travel to many countries. My son doesn’t even realize it yet, [but] we’ve traveled to Barcelona, Munich, and then there were the castles in Bavaria. We’ve also been to Hong Kong twice.
LIH: You have one son?
LIH: Have you encouraged him to follow in your footsteps when it comes to his [own] career?
MS: He wants to be a recording engineer…so he’ll be going to college next year. How scary is that?
LIH: What legacy do you hope to leave behind one day?
MS: That I contributed creative projects that touched people and had meaning to them…and that I was able to give back something to the community that I live in.
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