L.A.’s unlikeliest angel: Looking back on Jack Singer

He went to Hollywood to get Francis Ford Coppola’s autograph, and revitalized a studio instead

L.A.’s unlikeliest angel

Grant Gallelli

He was a real estate magnate, arts supporter and unlikely Tinseltown power player. Jack Singer, 95, died Saturday, and was laid to rest today in Calgary.  From our archives, here’s a look at how the one-time boxing champ became “an angel in the City of Angels.” (Story first published November 29, 2011.)

Ask Jack Singer how he became a Hollywood player and he’ll deliver the same line he’s been using for nearly 30 years: “I went there to get an autograph and I ended up owning a studio.” The autograph—not to mention the studio—belonged to Francis Ford Coppola, who, in 1981, was filming a movie called One from the Heart. At the time, Coppola was a big-time director celebrated for The Godfather films, had recently bought a studio and, luckily for Singer, needed money to finish his film. Singer was a big-time real estate developer from Calgary, a one-time Canadian boxing lightweight champion and, luckily for Coppola, a man who liked to take risks. They met when Singer, who’d been golfing in Palm Springs, took up a friend on an offer to tour Coppola’s studio. Perhaps, the friend said, they’d snag his signature. In the end, Singer snagged much more. A meeting with Coppola that day turned into a $3-million investment in his film, an invite to stay in a bungalow on set and, ultimately, the beginning of Singer’s long relationship with Tinseltown. “I believe in fate,” he says. “Everything good or bad that happened was fate.”

Singer was recently recognized for all the good that came from his fateful encounter with Coppola. In October, a Los Angeles city council member presented a special resolution honouring Singer for his “vital role in the revitalization of the District of Hollywood” and for his work in establishing the facility known as Hollywood Center Studio, which he bought in 1984, as a “world-class resource for feature film and commercial production.” The resolution ends declaring him “an angel in the City of Angels.” Remarkable, considering Singer is a frail 93-year-old living in a modest bungalow in Calgary.

These days, few would recognize him but many know of him; one of Calgary’s finest venues for live music, the Jack Singer Concert Hall, bears his name. He hasn’t been in ages, though. Singer spends much of his time in bed, watching sports and chatting on the phone. Lately, he’s been ill. At the time of the ceremony in Los Angeles, held for friends and family at Hollywood Center, Singer was battling pneumonia in hospital. Soon after he was released, he fell, broke his hip and underwent partial hip replacement surgery. In between hospital stays, Singer gave a brief interview to Maclean’s. The topic: Hollywood. He said he hasn’t been there since his 90th birthday party at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Did famous people attend? “There were some stars there, but I didn’t even meet them. I was busy getting drunk.”

Singer loves the one-liners, which brings us back to how he came to own Coppola’s studio. Singer’s first movie foray did not go well. One from the Heart flopped, causing a lengthy battle over the loan he expected to be repaid. Meanwhile, Coppola’s studio went into receivership. When bankers placed it on the auction block in 1984, Singer decided he’d like to try making movies. He dragged his son Alan, who was against the idea of buying it, to the courthouse. “I told him, ‘Dad, we’re in the real estate business, not the movie business.’ ” To appease his father, who’d put down a multi-million-dollar deposit to earn a bidding paddle, Alan said they would bid first. The courtroom was filled with reporters and people they believed to be buyers. From their seats at the back of the room, Alan raised his paddle to place the first bid at $12.4 million. No other paddles shot up. “The auctioneer said, ‘Going once, going twice, sold!’ ” says Alan. “It turns out only one other person had put up money to be a bidder.”

Alan moved to Los Angeles to run the studio, which they renamed Hollywood Center Studio, and oversees it to this day. Since 1984, they’ve revamped the studio’s facilities, nearly doubled its size and encouraged business development in the area. Though Singer never fulfilled his wish of making movies himself, a wide range of commercial, TV and movie productions have been shot there, including The Addams Family, Home Alone 2, Mad TV and MTV Unplugged. “I didn’t know anything about owning a studio,” said Singer. “Alan has done a great job and brought in the right people.” Singer suspects that was the problem for Coppola. “He was a great director but didn’t have the right people. He had guys that toadied up to him and they didn’t know anything, I guess.” Looking back, he has no qualms about what happened. Buying the studio had nothing to do with the loan, which was eventually settled privately between Coppola and Alan. “I respected Coppola and I didn’t try to steal his studio. He would’ve lost it anyway because the picture did terrible.”

To Singer, buying a studio was like making any other deal—and he was well versed in the art. Singer’s mother, Bella, was a Polish immigrant who, while cleaning rooms at Calgary’s Palliser Hotel in the early 1900s, was quietly buying and running rooming houses. By the age of 11, Singer was acting as the rent collector and bookkeeper for the family business. At 17, he bought his first building in Calgary. Singer’s real estate empire eventually grew to include countless malls, buildings and hotels across Canada and the U.S. He saw the studio as another real estate investment, but one that would open an important door to a new world. “Jack grew up in the Depression. Downtown Calgary was rundown and the only glamour you would see was on the silver screen,” says Tyler Trafford, an author who’s written biographies on both Singer and Bella. “Jack just loved that. Not just the glamour, but how interesting those people were.”

Backing Coppola in 1981 catapulted Singer into the spotlight. “Nobody in Hollywood had ever heard of him before,” says Trafford, citing the press that came from media such as Variety and Canadian Business. “He comes in and is involved with Coppola, who’s the big name at the time, and he’s hanging out at the studio. Who is this guy? Nobody could figure him out.” Singer didn’t seek the publicity, says Trafford, but enjoyed its fruits—mostly, the people he met. He became friends with many, including George Burns and Truman Capote, who wrote Singer letters about various goings-on. As Singer told Trafford for his biography, he did not keep Capote’s letters because it was their friendship—not the fame—that he valued. Singer’s son, Stephen, who lives in Calgary and handles the family’s business in Canada, says it was not in his father’s nature to be showy. “He didn’t care about expensive cars or jewellery. To him, it was about making the deals and meeting interesting people,” he says. “He was a real character.”

Stephen says his father is recovering from surgery and is eager to get home. The framed City of Los Angeles resolution awaits him; it’s hanging on a bedroom wall. Sitting on the edge of his bed at the end of October, before he returned to hospital, Singer pointed to the resolution and said, “It’s quite the deal, this proclamation. Maybe I’ll get a [spot on the] Hollywood Walk of Fame.”

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