Family, Donora gave Weiss firm foundation life
She has lived and worked in Boston, New York City, London and Hollywood, but fond memories of her hometown of Donora are never far away for Paula “Polly” Weiss.
“Growing up in Donora with its ethnic and economic mix was a vibrant environment,” said Weiss, a longtime resident of busy Boca Raton in Palm Beach County, Florida.
“I was able to appreciate the cultural richness of the community and also the differences. It allowed me to look at people as individuals, not as a group.”
Weiss is the daughter of the late Meyer Weiss and Irene Feldman Weiss.
Her father and his brother, Joseph Weiss, founded Central Pharmacy at Sixth Street and McKean Avenue in Donora.
“Uncle Joe later opened a pharmacy in Monessen and ran that store for many years,” Weiss recalled. “My father, who was well known and respected in the community, continued to run the Donora store, which became a landmark there. After my father died on Jan. 4, 1959, his younger brother, Herman Weiss, owned and operated Central Pharmacy. My father was only 51 when he died; he had just celebrated his birthday a week earlier (on Dec. 27).”
The Weiss siblings, natives of Donora, had another brother, Maurice Weiss of Steubenville, Ohio, and four sisters – Sara (Sandra) Berkman of Steubenvile,, Helen Stadler of New York City, Lillian Wolkowicz of Monongahela and Pearl Weiss of Donora.
Polly's mother was a native of Monessen and a member of one of that city's pioneer families. She was a teacher for many years at Jefferson Elementary School in Monessen.
“My grandparents, Emanuel and Sadie Feldman, had the first Jewish wedding in Monessen,” Weiss said. “They were a prominent family and are a prime example of the American immigrant experience. Both came from Austria-Hungary, raised and educated four children, brought over siblings from Europe and were actively involved in the community.
“My grandmother was the world's best cook. I was fortunate in having such grandparents and uncles living close to me, as they were exceptional role models with strong values, and each member of the family had a distinctive personality. The women were not only very attractive but strong. This created a big influence on me, knowing that women did not have to sacrifice their femininity to be successful.”
Dr. Eugene Feldman, a retired orthodontist and the youngest of Polly's uncles, lives in Lewistown, Pa. He is the last surviving member of the original Feldman family of Monessen.
His late brothers, Arthur (Art) Feldman and Frederic (Freddie) Feldman, were well-known in Monessen and the Mon Valley.
“Uncle Art was an outstanding basketball player on the scholastic, college and independent/semi-pro levels and also enjoyed success as a coach,” Weiss said. “Uncle Freddie also was a very good basketball player whose 40-year career in education included being a teacher and coach (basketball and tennis) in Monessen. Everyone in the city knew Uncle Freddie for his many years as director of recreation activities and for his tireless work as a dedicated advocate for veterans and a leader of veterans organizations. All of my uncles possessed qualities and values that anyone would do well to emulate.”
Weiss, who attended public schools in Donora, carried those family lessons and values to Virginia Intermont in Bristol, Va., where she graduated.
“It as an excellent two-year high school college prep for women that was attached to a junior college of the same name,” she recalled of her education at Intermont. “It is now just a college.”
She continued her formal education at Boston University, graduating with honors with a bachelor of science degree in film and communications.
While studying at BU, Weiss had an internship at WGBH-TV in Boston, a public television station. She also hosted a classical music program at WBUR, the school's radio station, which is now part of the National Public Radio (NPR) network.
She lived in nearby Cambridge, Mass., during the summer of her senior year and studied modern theater at the Loeb Drama Center at Harvard University.
Later, while living in California, Weiss took graduate classes in screenwriting and story structure at UCLA and the University of Southern California. She also was a student at writers' workshops.
“The internship at WGBH was held during my last two years at Boston University and was a great entree and learning experience for me,” Weiss recalled.
“It was like working in summer stock for an actor; I did everything and anything that was asked of me. They operated on a tight budget, so it was a great training ground for someone who wanted to produce.
“I loved, and still value, the experience and the opportunity it afforded me to learn the business.”
Weiss moved to New York City after graduating from Boston University and was “very fortunate” to land her first job as assistant to Lucy Ferri, producer of the long-running soap opera, “The Guiding Light,” on CBS-TV.
“Lucy, at that time, was one of the few women producers in television and was a great role model for me,” Weiss recalled.
“She gave me a lot of responsibility for a novice. I worked on script changes, solved production problems and handled a wide range of production details in assisting her.”
Ensuingly, she worked on such major projects as these:
• Production secretary on “The Defenders” and “The Nurses,” TV series shot in New York City and produced by Herbert Brodkin. “The Defenders,” she said, is still considered “one of the best TV series ever ... it had great scripts by the best writers of the period.”
• Assistant to producer Jerry Bresler in London. Bresler took over the original production of “Casino Royale” from Charlie Feldman, who died during the project. She lived in London for two years.
• A return to New York to work as production secretary on “The World of Henry Orient,” Peter Sellers' first United States film, which was produced by Jerome Hellman and directed by George Roy Hill.
• A job with ICM (formerly the Ashley Famous Agency) working for literary agent Jay Sanford, who sold the book “Midnight Cowboy” to John Schlesinger for production of the award-winning film starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.
“Thus began my journey into the literary end of motion picture production and my love for story development,” Weiss said of the ICM experience. “For me, everything begins with a strong story to tell. If this doesn't exist, there is no film.”
She left New York to test the waters in California and worked with Larry Turman of Turman Foster Productions, reading and evaluating scripts. Turman was the producer of “The Graduate” starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft and “a man of wonderful taste,” Weiss said.
She also worked with Lew Weitzman, an agent at William Morris Agency in Los Angeles who left to form his own business.
He represented many television writers and Weiss was assigned to reading material and looking for new writers to represent.
She later was associated with other television projects, including “Medical Center” at MGM, where she worked with story editor Jack Guss on scripts.
“I met my former husband, Dr. Gil Callis, an internist and rheumatologist in Los Angeles, while working on ‘Medical Center,'” Weiss said.
“Because he was a physician, we often called on him to supply some ‘medical jargon' for key scenes. That was a lot of fun,” she added.
Weiss also did some freelance work as a reader in motion picture development for some friends in the business.
She moved to Florida after she and Callis divorced and is currently working with a medical marketing company on a physician awareness program.
“We contact doctors to inform them about the availability of a newly developed treatment and diagnostic tests for a very rare genetic disease that can cause early death in patients,” Weiss said.
“I find it very challenging and rewarding because we are saving lives.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.