When I received a phone call last week from the great-grand-daughter of the first President of Temple Israel of Hollywood, Sol Wurtzel, who asked me to officiate at the funeral of Sol’s only son, Paul Wurtzel, her great-uncle, I could not say no.
I never met Paul nor his father, who died in 1958. But the “Wurtzel” family name is not only significant in the history of my synagogue, but in the history of Hollywood’s golden era of film-making.
Paul Wurtzel’s death marks the end of an era. Though he himself did not reach the pinnacle of power and influence that his father enjoyed, nevertheless, Paul was well-respected as a long-time assistant director of television series. His credits include hundreds of episodes in series such as The F.B.I., The Fugitive, Barnaby Jones, and The Thin Man, and he was the production manager on the 1980 television movie The Twilight Zone.
More than any of his television credits, Paul was beloved as a humble, unassuming, generous, funny, and gracious man. He married briefly, but had no children. Paul adored his sister’s four grandchildren and doted on them who considered him like a grandfather. His funeral this past Sunday was a veritable love-fest that attracted close to one hundred people – not a small thing for a 92-year old who had no children of his own.
At one point I stopped the service to share with those assembled that I have conducted many funerals in my 35 years as a congregational rabbi, and that the spirit at each is unique because the deceased and the mourners are unique. This one for Paul was memorable because of the palatable love, camaraderie and joyful banter amongst the mourners. I told them that their spirit was testimony to the positive and enduring impact of Paul’s life on each of them.
Paul’s youth and career could not have been easy for him. His father was a powerful man and his family shared with me that he was especially hard on his only son. Paul grew up in the lap of wealth in his parents’ Bel Aire home, but he had to rely upon his own resources. His family said Paul essentially raised himself. When he had knee surgery that kept him in bed for a month as a child, they took a six-week European summer vacation and left him with a care-taker.
Perhaps sensing that the young 8-year old Paul was unseen by his father, George Gershwin, a guest at the family home one night, told Paul to sit down at the piano after Sol had left the room for a few moments. Gershwin then played Rhapsody in Blue and quickly darted out of sight when his father returned only to see Paul sitting with his hands over the piano keys.
All that aside, Sol Wurtzel was one of the principle creators of the golden age of Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s and had a significant impact upon the careers of some of its most illustrious stars.
Sol was hired in 1917 by William Fox, the founder of Fox Film Corporation, to be his personal secretary in New York. Fox, however, hated coming west to California, so he sent Sol to run production in Los Angeles.
Sol headed up Fox’s “B” rated movie division that included the popular Charlie Chan series and “Bright Eyes” (1934) starring Shirley Temple who sang “The Good Ship Lollypop.” He helped discover and make popular Will Rogers, Spencer Tracy, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Ray Milland, Glenn Ford, Ginger Rogers, Robert Taylor, and the young Norma Jean Baker before she became Marilyn Monroe. Sol also promoted the young director John Ford who became a multiple academy award winning director and delivered the eulogy at his funeral in 1958.
Sol was among a handful of founding members of Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1927. When the congregation moved in the early thirties to a building vacated by the Hollywood United Methodist Church (now at Highland and Franklin Avenues), Sol commissioned Fox Studios to create and build an Ark. When we moved from that building in 1948 to our current Hollywood Blvd facility, those Ark doors were stored and eventually installed in our synagogue’s small chapel in 1955.
Those Chapel Ark doors constitute the only Aron Hakodesh ever created by a Hollywood film studio props department. It graced our Ark continually from 1955 until October, 2013 when our Chapel was demolished as part of a rebuilding project to be completed before this coming High Holidays.
Though we will not be using these Ark doors in our new Chapel, we will display them as they are iconic to our congregation and they bear historic significance in the history of Los Angeles Jewry and early Hollywood.
In Paul Wurtzel’s memory, Zichrono livracha – His memory is a blessing.