Filmmaker shares reels on Hollywood hush-hush

By: Robert Taylor
Source: Contra Costa Times
January 20, 2004

Jim Forsher Mother worked for Elvis Presley
Jim Forsher Mother worked for Elvis Presley
On a wall of Jim Forsher's home office, there is a framed clipping from a 1956 newspaper with a headline that reads, 'The Job Every Girl in America Would Love'. The photo shows a pert secretary taking notes on a steno pad while her boss, apparently dictating a letter, reclines on an office couch.

The secretary is Forsher's mother. Her boss is Elvis Presley.

Forsher's mother, Trude, went from being a bored Westwood housewife to a freelance writer to Presley's private secretary and publicity coordinator in Hollywood. Her son grew up to become a documentary filmmaker, a film historian with a collection of 3,000 reels and videotapes, and a university professor.

All of these elements come together Friday when Forsher presents 'Elvis Night' at Cal State Hayward's Concord campus. The 90-minute program will explore the creation of the Presley legend using film clips, newsreel footage and interviews with people who helped create that legend, including his mother.

'Everybody who wanted to talk to Elvis had to go through my mother', Forsher recalled in the office of his Berkeley home, surrounded by movie posters and publicity stills. As he spoke, he rummaged through boxes of letters, photos and shorthand notebooks that his mother left him when she died four years ago at the age of 80.

Forsher was just a kid when his mother worked for Presley, and he has only a few memories of seeing him, around the time he was making such movies as 'Loving You' and 'King Creole'. He has a more vivid picture of Colonel Tom Parker, who controlled every aspect of Presley's career.

But Forsher has plenty of resources, including an interview his mother did for the documentary Elvis in Hollywood and a photo of himself as a boy, with Parker aiming a toy gun at him while his mother looks on.

If ever this man was a high-pressure film mogul, there's little sign of it now. Forsher's an easygoing guy who can chat about his childhood, his career and future projects while juggling the attention of his 4-year-old daughter, Lily, and a pair of scampering pugs. It may help that his wife, Neena, spent recent days baking chocolate chip cookies.

At 50, Forsher has an extensive collection of his own works, created during 30 years as a documentary filmmaker specializing in Hollywood stories, censorship issues and wartime propaganda. He put aside much of that two years ago when he joined Cal State Hayward as a communications professor, heading the broadcast program.

But he didn't put his past aside completely. Forsher set up his film and video collection on the Concord campus and named it the Center for the Study of Media and American Culture. He hopes it can be the nucleus of a media arts center.

'There are a lot of collections of films, probably 1,000 across the country', Forsher said. 'But nobody has a collection that documents the history of the media over 100 years. It's not just a history of Hollywood; it's a history of the times'.

The collection is tucked into two small rooms near the computer center, and the labels on film containers show the range: 'FDR Funeral', 'Japan Surrenders', 'British Hippies'.

'The scope is incredible', said Rick Giachino of Orinda, a producer and filmmaker who was searching through the collection last week.

The former chairman of Cal State's mass communications department, John Hammerback, said the collection was 'a wonderful windfall for the university, a resource for our students and our community. It has great potential'.

Forsher has been combining academic life and filmmaking since he was in college. While studying psychology at UC Santa Cruz, he helped complete a made-for-TV biography of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton (Paris Hilton's great-grandfather). He was paid $200.

'Even then, teaching was a practical way to survive', Forsher said. After teaching in the UCLA film school, he began producing full time, and his work included the 'Hollywood Chronicles' series for the Discovery Channel and such documentaries as 'Hollywood Ghost Stories' and 'Hollywood Uncensored'.

'I was working awfully hard, and I still had no retirement plan', he said. So it was back to teaching, this time at Florida State University. After a few years in Tallahassee, he returned to the West Coast.

Since he settled in Berkeley, Forsher has been writing about movie theaters as well. His book, 'The Community of Cinema: How Cinema and Spectacle Transformed the American Downtown', was published last year by Praeger.

'Theaters transformed the American downtown in a way that had never been seen before: They brought people in masses', Forsher said. He is heartened by the success of such restored theaters as the Orinda and Grand Lake.

Cultural critic, university professor, film director, historian: That's a wrap on Jim Forsher's career. But what about the other story -- his mom and Elvis Presley?

Trude was in her early 30s when she took a writing class at UCLA, published an article and then, through Presley's music publisher, set up an interview with the singer. Colonel Parker asked her to come work for them.

Not really interested in being a secretary, she became the team's office manager instead. Forsher said she was perfect for what the colonel called his 'snowmen's league', designed to snow, or con, any adversaries at the movie studios.

'They were hillbillies', Forsher said. 'She was just the person to have up front, a respectable Jewish woman from Westwood with an Austrian accent'.

He remembers seeing Presley at the Paramount movie studio, probably during filming of 'Loving You', and again at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where the singer was living in the penthouse.

'My mother stopped off to deliver some papers', Forsher said, 'and I remember a big room, a lot of people running around; Elvis was tall, wearing funny clothes, almost looking like a mannequin'.

A few years later, Trude and her engineer husband, Bruno, broke up. 'He was sure she was having an affair with Elvis', Forsher said. Was she? She was 35, Presley was 20, and thousands of teenagers were already screaming for him across the country, Forsher notes.

Trude worked for Presley and the colonel from 1956 to 1962 and for a time produced short films and local TV game shows. 'But she had enough of being a woman in Hollywood, and threw in the towel', Forsher said. 'She went to work as the assistant to a rabbi in West L.A'.

- The Love Me Tender Years Diary

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