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Remembering a Hollywood Original

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By Gordon Meyer
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A certain Dr. Seuss story recently got a lot of press because a certain US senator read it into the Congressional record.  The story is “Green Eggs and Ham,” and it’s about this strange fellow named Sam-I-Am who’s trying for the entire book to get a grumpy person to try green eggs and ham.  When I hear about this story, that senator and his politics are the last thing on my mind.  I first remember how it was used in a sales training course I took many years ago as a practical lesson in persistence and never accepting “no” for an answer.  The textbook example of someone who successfully applied those principles was and equally strange and eccentric fellow named Gary Shusett, who succumbed to cancer about a month ago. 

Gary ran the Sherwood Oaks College, even though it was never a college in the traditional sense. But it was a place where people had the opportunity to meet and interact with some of the most talented and influential professionals in the business.  Since starting the school in the 1970s, the list of teachers, speakers and alumni is a virtual Who’s Who of Hollywood.  In the early days, Gary had legends like Lucille Ball and Rod Serling teaching classes.  Some of the people I’ve met through Gary’s classes include Peter Falk, Ridley Scott, Jeff Arch and Shane Black. 

Gary had a passion for the movie industry, storytelling and helping people break into the business.  When I first met him, Sherwood Oaks had long since moved out of their regular digs in Hollywood and his classes and workshops were held all over town, often in studio conference rooms. He deliberately kept the class sizes small to make it easier for his students to interact with his A-list Hollywood guests and, in many cases, because of that intimate situation, guests agreed to accept writing samples and pitches that normally would never get past an assistant.

How did Gary manage to get so many high level professionals to speak to his students?  He was a real life “Sam-I-Am” who fearlessly approached A-listers any way he could, whether it was by phone, fax, email or ambushing them when he saw them in person.   He was persistence personified. And the funny thing is, even though he could be quirky and annoying, more often than not, once he got a Yes from someone he wanted as a guest, more often than not, they happily came back to speak at other classes – just as the character in the Dr. Seuss book learned to love green eggs and ham once Sam-I-Am actually persuaded him to try it.

Gary’s longtime colleague Christine Owens organized a memorial celebration that took place today, appropriately enough at the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax.  Appropriate not because of the “Silent” part, because while Gary could be described many ways, “silent” was rarely one of them.  It was the perfect venue for the SRO crowd because it’s a place for people who are passionate about movies and Gary was a joyfully passionate man. 

Even though I knew and worked with the man off and on for the past 15+ years, watching all those loving tributes today and talking with my fellow Sherwood Oaks alumni and supporters proved to be a touching reminder of how unique Gary was for his generosity, his passion and the number of careers he influenced.  Thankfully, he had been grooming Christine to take the reins so that Sherwood Oaks will continue.  I trust that, when it comes to recruiting A-list guests, she will continue to exemplify the kind of charismatic tenacity that Gary embodied, because Hollywood needs an institution like Sherwood Oaks. 

At today’s tribute, one of the guests commented that he could see Gary approaching Hollywood legends like Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart in heaven to get them to talk to his students up there.  Knowing Gary, he not only wouldn’t stop there, he’s already putting together an all-star roster for an ongoing series of heavenly classes.  There is only one Gary Shusett.  I am grateful, both personally and professionally, that he was a part of my life. http://www.sherwoodoakscollege.com/

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Listen to Gordon Meyer and Jeff Levy talk about the latest in gadgets, gizmos, home entertainment and the world of consumer electronics on “The Gizmo Guys” – Friday evenings at 7:00 PM PDT on www.LATalkRadio.com.  Listen live or by podcast on your computer, iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone or Android tablet (with the free app).

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