Photos: Steven Krause
Story: David Bolling
Jerry Seltzer is approaching 85, sometimes wears an oxygen tube in his nose and has a résumé that is exhausting just to read. Spend any time with him and you realize that his real age is closer to 35, that he still has the enthusiasms and the emotional energy of the man he was 50 years ago, and that he still delights in discussing life’s many absurdities.
His years have unspooled across the country, from Chicago, to L.A., New York, San Francisco, Oakland, Sausalito and Sonoma. The stories he has to tell are legion and Sonoma audiences may know him best for co-founding the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, now known in shorthand as SIFF. But that’s just a chapter in a very long book.
Following in his father’s footsteps, he was the Rajah of Roller Derby, a promoter who filled stadiums from coast-to-coast for 15 years with a raucous spectacle resembling professional wrestling on wheels. He founded BASS tickets and Ticketmaster, and now represents Brown Paper Tickets. He partnered with a pair of Hells Angels to jumpstart Willie Nelson’s sagging career in the ’70s, and threw a Willie concert in the San Francisco Opera House with box seats reserved for the Angels, decked out in formal wear.
The stories pour out of him like water. Ask him a question, sit back and let it flow.
The Sonoma International Film Festival, how did that start?
“I was friends with the Ed and Carolyn Stolman. Carolyn called me one day. She was a member of Sister Cities, and one of the cities was somewhere in Italy. She says, ‘I want to put together a little Italian film festival. But I’m not good to be at the front of something. Will you just front it? There’s no work involved.’ I believed her. Big mistake.
“We got together and formed a little group—people from Sister Cities, some others and, of course, Suzanne Brangham gave us a meeting space. One of the early volunteers was Rosemary McNeely. So, you see, the string goes way back. We had somebody who knew something about films (although), there weren’t that many very good Italian films.
“The best thing was John Lasseter, because John loved the theater, loved the town, had already done, I guess, Toy Story, and he got ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) to commit to send some of their people down. He got Richard Fleischer—who did 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Disney—to come. He would do a program, and then we found some people in town who had affiliations in the film industry.
“We discovered we had no stature whatsoever, but we started getting films anyway, and we started getting commitments and hearing from a ton of independent filmmakers. Of course, with the showmanship aspect, we decided to have a party the night before in the Plaza—a band and dancing, and people came dressed as their favorite movie star. And there was a contest, which Jeff Gilbert won, of course, doing Clark Gable.
“The funding wasn’t fully there, but somehow we came up with the money. Ticket sales were OK, but there were so many seats that couldn’t be used in the theater, it was a problem. We even talked to Sam Sebastiani who felt terrible about ever selling the thing. We’d get contributions from various people in town, and then we came up with the best idea, which is really in the true Seltzer realm of things. The city doesn’t own the theater, somebody else does, but let’s sell the seats.
“We sold the seats. I bought four at the top price, whatever they were. I don’t know. We raised $80,000, $90,000, $100,000. I have no idea. With Roger’s people and the volunteers we had we were able to put in new carpeting, and we redid every seat in that theater. The theater was painted. That was the whole purpose of the festival by the time we got through.
“So, then Carolyn comes to me and says, “You know, I think we should do a second year. So I headed the second year also. It was easier. I don’t remember a lot about it, other than the fact that we committed to do the lighting for the stage so that they could bring live performances in. We were able to do that. It was maybe $40,000 or whatever.
“The ultimate thing for us with the festival was really the theater, which is a little gem, as we all know. Ed Stolman’s interest in the theater went back to an insurance company he sold back in Tennessee. When he did that he acquired a theater in Franklin, Tennessee.
“Turns out he was related to the Sara Lee people in Chicago, and when he played golf with them, this Greek family would bring these bars of ice cream covered with chocolate. He said they were the best things ever, so he wanted to get them for his theater in Franklin. He contacted the family, and he got the son. The son said, ‘You know, it’s our father’s formula. He’s old. We’re going to shut it down.’ Ed said, ‘What if I and my brother gave you the money to get the equipment. We’ll invest. We’ll each have half.’ So he did that, and he sold this ice cream bar, which became the Dove bar. And that’s why he cared so much about the Sebastiani Theatre.”
Seltzers stories are like Russian wooden nesting dolls, one tumbles out of another in endless succession.
But the best may be the one about Willie Nelson and the Hells Angels.
“One day when I walked into my office in Oakland there were two fearsome looking men, members of the Oakland Hells Angels. Oh my God, was I going to get shaken down? They politely introduced themselves as ‘Fu’ Griffin (because of his drooping mustache and slight beard) and Deakon Proudfoot, a mountain of a man with beard and hair in all directions. Thus began a strange relationship that went on for several years.
“They explained that Deakon was doing security for Willie and at a recent concert at the Oakland Auditorium the stagehands had shut down the lights and sound at midnight while Willie was still playing. Deakon was offended and asked Willie what could be done. Willie suggested that Charlie Magoo productions, a name that the Angels had created to honor a fallen brother, take over the Bay Area appearances. So they went to a friend who suggested that they ask me to work with them.”
Seltzer produced a string of highly successful sell-outs for Willie Nelson, but by far the best one was at the San Francisco Opera House.
“I really wanted it to be a special event and managed to get the San Francisco Symphony’s string quartet to play in the lobby. Also, we held out the box seats by the Grand Tier for the Angels and their friends. It was a secure area, usually the location of the blue bloods of the opera association. I requested of Deakon and Fu that all the Angels and their friends dress in formalwear. Fu loved it, Deakon hated it.
“On the night of the event, Deakon showed up in his coveralls and a tux T- shirt. The string quartet (two men and two women) were in western shirts and jeans, and were the hit of the crowd. They were mobbed as they played Vivaldi, Hayden and Mozart, reaching an audience that probably had not heard this music before. Just as the lobby lights were flashing, a roughly dressed bearded man came running across the area toward the seats, but suddenly stopped, as if struck, in front of the quartet. He listened until they ended their performance and reached across and dropped a hundred dollar bill on the group. ‘We have never had a tip before,’ one of them said.
“The concert was amazing; I can still hear how Willie sounded that night in the acoustically perfect Opera House. One of the aged ushers who had been fearful of the crowd told me, ‘This was the most respectful audience I have ever seen. They spilled nothing and were very polite, not like the snobs we usually get.’”
The stories still pile up, albeit more slowly now, as master promoter Jerry Seltzer continues to ply his trade, these days with the bargain booking company Brown Paper Tickets. But the film festival holds a premium position in his story list.
“I love it, he says. “I love the fact that it works, that it’s here. I cannot say enough about what Kevin has done and what it means for Sonoma.”