Hollywood producer puts the 'power of film at the service of the poor'

Hollywood producer puts the ‘power of film at the service of the poor’

BURBANK, Calif. — Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore once starred in his productions, but no glitterati appear in his more recent work. And this former CBS television executive and one-time “General Hospital” producer knows you won’t spend a Friday night watching his films. But even here, in this intensely self-conscious

BURBANK, Calif. — Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore once starred in his productions, but no glitterati appear in his more recent work. And this former CBS television executive and one-time “General Hospital” producer knows you won’t spend a Friday night watching his films. But even here, in this intensely self-conscious city, where TV shows beg for Emmy consideration on giant billboards, Gerry Straub is okay with that.

Just a couple of miles from the sprawling, palm tree-lined Warner Bros. studios sits Straub’s one-story home, doubling as his office and video-editing studio. There, he pops in a DVD and hits play. A startling image appears.

Naked from the waist down, their legs shriveled from the effects of polio, a pair of young Ugandan children lay in the middle of a dirt road. They try, in vain, to move themselves. A girl carrying a bucket of water approaches and washes them, shooing away the gathering flies. Nearby, a missionary sobs.

It’s a scene from “The Fragrant Spirit of Life,” one of Straub’s 22 films highlighting what he calls “the plight of the poor.” He avoids politics and culture wars. Instead, he wants to open American eyes to the suffering caused by extreme global poverty.

“My hope is that when people watch the films, there’s some transformation in their hearts,” he said.

***

Straub, wearing a baseball cap to cover his mostly bald head, still looks younger than his 67 years. He sports metallic wire-rimmed glasses and every now and then you hear hints of a New York accent leftover from his youth despite a move to Southern California more than three decades ago.

He attended a high school seminary for a semester, left, and then graduated from a Brooklyn Catholic high school in 1964. He was introduced to the world of television through a summer job on the Ed Sullivan Show. When he finished his project a couple of weeks early, he roamed CBS Studios aimlessly. Someone asked if he was lost and wanted something to do. A few days later, at age 17, he accepted a full-time clerical job.

He rose quickly, and remarkably, by age 21 he was an executive in the network’s operations division. He coordinated news bulletins from the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street in New York, collaborating with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. But Straub wanted to work on the creative side, and he couldn’t see a path at CBS. So he headed off to Pat Robertson’s “The 700 Club” as a producer, but with the understanding that he could do creative projects, too. It wasn’t an ideal fit for the then-atheist Straub. “It really turned me off to religion,” he said. (He recounts his experience in his 1986 book, “Salvation for Sale.”)

Straub’s big break came with a call from ABC, which needed a new producer for General Hospital. “Boom, I go from Pat Robertson to Luke and Laura on the run,” he said.

As the credits piled up, so did the cash. Soaps producers in the 1980s could bring in five, maybe ten thousand dollars a week. But Straub was restless. “I just really had some really deep questions about life, and I really wanted to go on a search,” he said.

So in March 1995, while on a visit to Rome, he stepped into a small, empty church. Not to pray, he said, but to rest. But something else happened.

“It had been a dozen years since the last time I had spoken to God,” Straub wrote in the preface to his 2007 book, “Thoughts of a Blind Beggar.” “Within the space of a fleeting moment, I knew … that God was real, that God loved me, and that the hunger and thirst I had felt for so long could be satisfied only by God.”

A few months later, in September, Straub returned to Rome to teach a course on communications at the Pontifical Gregorian University, which traces its roots back to Saint Ignatius Loyola. While there, Straub asked the Rev. John J. Navone, the Jesuit writer and author, to read the manuscript of a novel he has been writing. Navone was brutally honest: The manuscript was lousy. He advised Straub to ditch that project and instead focus on the life of St. Francis, who had been a character in the book.

So he did, writing “The Sun and Moon Over Assisi,” which went on to win a top Catholic spirituality prize. He was on to something, but wanted to learn more about poverty.

“I lived a very affluent life,” he said. “I was making a lot of money at the network. I didn’t even know any poor people!”

After the success of his book on Francis, the Franciscans asked Straub to help them tell their story through television. He agreed, and was sent to Philadelphia to meet the Rev. Francis Pompei, a charismatic friar who ran a soup kitchen at the St. Francis Inn.

“He shows up in an army jacket and a beard, he’s down there in a gutter, and I said, Wow!” Straub said, recalling Pompei’s work alongside the indigent.

Straub thought Pompei was the perfect spokesman for the Franciscans, so he moved into the friary, located in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood.

Straub was moved by a homeless veteran who spent frigid nights in an abandoned warehouse, afraid to sleep because of rats. He was moved by friars’ work with the poor, and thought more people should see it.

“I knew nothing about documentary filmmaking. Zero. Nothing,” he said. Undeterred, he called up old friends who worked at Good Morning America. They sent a crew and got to work.

The result, “We Have A Table Ready for Four,” a 58-minute documentary about the friary, was shown on nearly every PBS station in 1997. More than $200,000 in donations poured in, enough to build a larger soup kitchen.

It convinced Straub to take his fight against poverty to a global stage. “I thought to myself, this is it, to put the power of film at the service of the poor,” Straub said.

***

With the assistance of Franciscans around the world — former Franciscan Minister General Giacomo Bini took an interest in his work — Straub visited nearly 40 cities in 11 countries in little more than a year. He filmed and photographed in the Amazon, Central America, Peru, Calcutta, Uganda, and in Skid Row in Los Angeles.

That material led to a 2002 film, “When Did I See You Hungry?” with Martin Sheen, whom he met at church, narrating.

Straub and a few supporters formed a nonprofit group, The San Damiano Foundation, in January 2002 to produce and distribute the films. Each production cost about $30,000, well-below market value, in part because some of the services are donated by Straub’s Hollywood contacts. The foundation then gave the films to charitable organizations to use for fundraising. Straub visited Catholic high schools, colleges, and parishes to give presentations and retreats based on his footage – more than 150 in five years. His efforts have resulted in tens of thousands of fundraising dollars for charities, and untold numbers of volunteers.

The Hogar San Francisco De Asis, a home for children with severe medical needs in a poor section of Lima, Peru, has been the subject of two of Straub’s films, “The Patients of a Saint” and a follow-up, “The Smile of a Sick Child.” Dr. Anthony Lazarra, who moved from the US to open the clinic 31 years ago, said the films have brought close to 100 volunteers to the home. One couple even spent their honeymoon helping out.

“He knows what to film and how to film it,” Lazarra said. “They’re very moving. There are some amusing parts, and some very, very sad parts. He sort of mixes these two elements well.”

But the success put stress on the foundation, and pushed Straub’s already frenetic schedule to the extreme.

A board member said the “pray and beg” business plan wasn’t sustainable. Plus, Straub was exhausted. His pastor told him he was stretched too thin. Something had to give.

So in August 2010, Straub announced his resignation from the organization he created. He wrote to supporters that he was “on the verge of exhaustion” and that “Nightmares of starving people often wake me up.” He wrote that he had “made a mess of his personal life” and he was seeing a neurologist about PTSD-like symptoms.

***

His rest was short-lived.

After just a few months, supporters urged Straub to get back to work. So in December of that year, he launched a new ministry, Pax et Bonum Communications.

At first, “It was very, very hard because we had nothing. I had built up a nice donor base at San Damiano, and we were now starting from scratch,” Straub said.

When San Damiano folded, his old films were returned to him. Meanwhile, Pax et Bonum has produced 5 documentaries, including “Wings of Love,” which tells the story of Catholic Charities of Los Angeles.

“Gerry is a very articulate and very sincere and very compassionate person, and one of the strong points of the film is that he presents compassion to the poor not as an option, but a need for everyone of us to do,” said Mary Romero, a regional director at Catholic Charities.

Straub’s voice gets soft when he talks about “Mud Pies & Kites,” a film about the devastation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He witnessed amputations with no anesthesia, limbs littering the streets, dogs gnawing at the dead.

He’s working on two more books about St. Francis, as well as a book about the Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s struggle with his faith, part of his effort to expand his scope.

“There’s a real spirituality poverty [in this country]. I think the churches are filled with people who are hungering for a deeper experience of God. They’re just not getting it at Mass on Sunday,” he said.

Straub’s sole full-time employee, a video editor, pieces together Straub’s footage. Earlier this year, Straub headed to Honduras to film the Medical Missionaries of Mary, nuns who are also doctors and nurses. The documentary, “Rooted in Love,” premiered in September. But Straub isn’t taking a break; he’s already committed to filming a young American volunteering in Bolivian prisons sometime next year.

He married his wife, Ecarlatte, a Haitian artist he met while filming, in 2011, and he has 3 grandchildren from a previous marriage he said he doesn’t see enough. So why, approaching 70, keep going at full speed?

He returns to the story of Sam and Esther, the Ugandan children with polio he found stuck in the street, and their sister, Jane. Because of his filming, he was able to find a donor in the US to pay for their medical care and rehabilitation. Sam is even able to walk with the use of braces.

“One day I was feeling down about this work, because you know, it’s very hard. It’s emotionally draining, it’s physically draining, it’s spiritually draining,” he said. When he returned to his office, he had a voicemail.

Straub remembers listening to that message: “She just simply said, ‘Hello Gerry. This is Jane. I am happy.’ And hung up. That one message was worth more than all the big Hollywood paychecks ever were.”

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