on an interview with Mara Peluso and Pamela Gerloff
"the perfect life." I was living in Hollywood with my wife
and daughter, in a neighborhood full of celebrities. We had
a dream house, beautiful cars, a hot tub-everything. But I
argued with my wife; and I wondered: Why aren't we happy?
I had originally gone to Hollywood for an
innocent reason: I wanted to tell my story and impress a
girl. For a summer job, I had been working as a bellhop
at the St. Elmo hotel in Chautauqua, New York and had developed
an intense crush on a waitress there. I was very shy and
she was very nice to me. She ended up leaving the job early
and rather than just forget about her, I became madly infatuated
with her. I went back to school in the fall, but couldn't
get her out of my head. Eventually, I decided to write a
story for her. I thought of it as a love story and mailed
it to her. But when she read it, instead of responding to
my emotions toward her, she said, "You're a really good
writer. Have you ever considered pursuing a literary path?"
I was pre-med when I started college, but
wound up getting a scholarship to Universal Studios, based,
in part, on that short story, which served as the initial
inspiration for the film
St. Elmo's Fire.
co-wrote the script with director Joel Schumacher.
I had grown up in Pittsburgh and I thought
this would be just a short trip to Hollywood. I remember
talking to the actress Andie MacDowell while we were shooting
and I told her that right after finishing
I was going back to Pittsburgh to write short
stories. At the time, that seemed to be what my heart was
telling me to do-my destiny.
But then my agent came to me with an offer
to write a screenplay for a very successful producer. I
told him no, because I was going to write my own stories.
He said, "We don't say 'no' here in Hollywood. We just ask
for more money than we think they will pay." So we asked
for a lot-and they gave it to me.
Soon I found myself writing more screenplays
and making good money. As the years went on, though, I grew
tired of the ups and downs of the movie industry and went
into television instead. For seven years I wrote for shows
Saved By The Bell
work wasn't the best thing for my career, but it enabled
me to have a house I loved, the right cars, a nanny, a gardener,
a maid-the staff list was incredible. But I wasn't really
Then, out of the blue, a funny thing happened:
I had sent a contribution to the prep school I had attended
on scholarship while growing up in Pittsburgh. Because of
complications processing the donation, I ended up talking
with a development officer, who mentioned to me that one
of the English teachers was going on sabbatical for the
year. Teaching had always been a fantasy of mine and before
I knew it, she had connected me with the head of the English
department at the University of Pittsburgh and I was offered
a teaching job there. At the urging of my wife, who was
concerned about my growing unhappiness, I accepted, and
moved my family back to the place of my childhood.
To me, money is security; so I was terrified
to sell our house in Los Angeles and give up my healthy
six-figure salary. When we came back to Pittsburgh, I figured
we would be moving back to Los Angeles after a year. (I
had been hired as a visiting assistant professor.) But after
the first year, my wife bought a house in Pittsburgh. She
felt Pittsburgh was the right place for me to be, that I
was a better man here, and that it was the right place to
raise our daughter.
As I was teaching, I started bringing back
people from the film business who had regional roots, like
Looney Tunes: Back in Action
producer Bernie Goldmann,
Save the Last Dance
producer Robert Cort, and Jim
Carrey's manager, Eric Gold. They enjoyed speaking to my
students and immediately made a tremendous difference their
lives. Soon, my students and members of the film studies
department began to discover along with me that there were
an incredible number of people from Pittsburgh who were
working in the entertainment industry. It even turned out
that Rob Marshall, who directed
Best Picture, had spent his wonder years just blocks from
the house where I was living and his father had taught in
the same office I was using. With the remarkable number
of expatriates we were discovering, we began to see an opportunity.
Pittsburgh is a town struggling to reshape
its identity. It has a strong tradition of philanthropy;
the Carnegie, Mellon, and Hillman families have all been
generous benefactors, and through their contributions, the
great museums, libraries and galleries were created. Thanks
to all that philanthropy, children here grow up with access
to the arts. That was what, initially, had gotten Andy Warhol
started. When Rob Marshall was nominated for an Academy
Award, he said that growing up in Pittsburgh had been like
feasting on a buffet of the arts. Even though Rob and many
others had left the city to work in their chosen professions,
they still harbored good feelings about where they had come
from. So we started thinking: What if we could connect these
folks with this city, which is having trouble holding onto
its young people?
This began as a student organization, Pitt
In Hollywood, (
but then community leaders got involved and it is now evolving
into its own nonprofit. We are hoping to help the city convert
some of its rich arts heritage into entertainment products,
so that people can make a living here and help the town
grow. Our first event is a film summit, which will bring
back some of the city's illustrious alumni and connect them
with city leaders. We are hoping it will evolve into other
The response has been amazing. Not only
are these very busy people volunteering their time-in the
midst of very hot careers-they are also coming up with their
own ideas of what they can do. Some are saying, "I have
done well, but now what?" Some have come back to speak for
free. Others have hired students as interns. One of the
biggest manager/producers in Hollywood has offered to let
students pitch movie ideas to him, so they will get a sense
of the process.
In L.A., you hear stories of how tough people
can be, and often, I have found that to be true. But those
who have come back have been just incredible. They have
shown such heart and decency. It has taught me a great lesson.
I have the sense that a lot more people would help if we
gave them the opportunity. Getting people connected to the
entertainment industry may seem superficial to some, but
it is really about validating people's dreams and letting
them know that with a lot of hard work and persistence,
dreams are possible.
The involvement of these people has little
to do with me. I am just the vessel for this idea. I remember
a sign that hung in my prep school. It said, "Do it because
it is right." Many of us who went to that school were just
stupid enough to believe it. Now we are trying to create
an entertainment industry where people can give back to
society-just because it is right.
In Los Angeles, the first two questions
people seem to ask when they meet you are, "What do you
do for a living?" and "What type of car do you drive?" I
started to get used to that, and to get comfortable with
that type of value system. But in Pittsburgh, it's different.
Even though it was one of the birthplaces of the industrial
revolution, it doesn't seem to be all about profit; it is
more about community. In its effort to re-brand itself,
the city recently came up with a motto, presenting itself
as a town where "one person can make a difference." Teaching,
along with the rest of my experience here, makes me feel
In my second year of teaching, I have come
to terms with the fact that I am not going to get through
to all of my students, but I have a terrific handful of
them in whose lives I am making a difference. I think there
will be a few who say, "Hey, he really cares." That's the
real reward: the sense that these people may do something
different because I was in their lives.
I know my life is richer now than it was
in Hollywood. Ironically, the gift that the moneyed life
gave me was the awareness of what was missing in my life.
It took awhile, but eventually, it led me back to my destiny.
writing the story on which the movie
St. Elmo's Fire
was based, (anonymous author) became a sought-after Hollywood
and television writer. He spent 17 years there before moving
back to his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he is now a visiting
professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Kurlander was profiled
in the best-selling book,
What Should I Do with My Life?
by Po Bronson and has appeared on Oprah to tell his own life
© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved