Obituaries

Berkeley’s legendary producer Saul Zaentz dies

Saul Zaentz Photo: Saul Zaentz Company

Saul Zaentz. Photo: Saul Zaentz Company

Saul Zaentz, who produced three Academy Award-winning films and whose Fantasy Records building on Tenth Street in Berkeley became an international center for music and filmmaking, died in San Francisco on Friday at the age of 92.

His death marks the end of an era that started in 1971 when Zaentz moved his Fantasy Records into what was then a two-story building on Tenth and Parker streets in West Berkeley. For close to 40 years, because of Zaentz, Berkeley has been synonymous with high quality film and music production.

Zaentz, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, was born in Passaic, N.J. in 1921, and ran away from home at 16. After serving in North Africa and Sicily in World War II, Zaentz came to San Francisco where he went to work in 1954 for Norman Granz, a jazz producer and promoter. Zaentz managed Granz’s touring company and went out on the road with jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and Stan Getz.

In 1955, Zaentz went to work in 1955 for Fantasy Records, a jazz and comedy label founded by the brothers Max and Sol Weiss in San Francisco in 1949. He ended up buying the company with a group of investors in 1967. It went on to become the largest jazz record label in the world.

Fantasy had signed a single rock band, The Golliwogs, led by a Fantasy shipping clerk, John Fogarty, according to Chronicle. The group rechristened itself Creedence Clearwater Revivial and went on to sell five million albums.

Creedence was “a lightning strike,” Zaentz told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1970. “If we ever find another group that sells half as much, we’ll be delirious.”

Zaentz and Fogarty later battled numerous times in court. Their relations grew so strained that in 1985 Fogarty wrote a song called Zanz Kant Danz with lyrics that said: “Watch him or he’ll rob you blind.”

Films produced by the Saul Zaentz Company

Films produced by the Saul Zaentz Company

Zaentz formed The Saul Zaentz Company in 1972 and moved into film production with the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on the book by Ken Kesey. It won a Best Picture award and Oscars for its director Milos Forman and its stars, Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.

His 1984 effort, Amadeus, also garnered a Best Picture Oscar, as well as gold statuettes for the director (Forman again) and actor F. Murray Abraham, as well as five other Oscars. Other successful films included The Unbearable Lightness of Being with Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche and The English Patient with Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas. That 1997 film won Best Picture and Best Director.

Zaentz, who was a big reader and got most of his film material from novels,  obtained the rights to J.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. He made an animated version of Lord of the Rings in 1978, but sold the film rights to Miramax in 1997. Director Peter Jackson took the project to New Line Cinema after Miramax could not fund it, and the franchise went on to make more than $2.9 billion. Zaentz, who was famously litigious, twice sued New Line, according to Variety magazine. The case was settled out of court in 2005.

The Academy awarded Zaentz the Irving G Thalberg Award in 1997.

In 1969, Fantasy Records purchased a 2.64 acre property on Tenth and Parker Streets in Berkeley from the Peterson Trucking Company. The record company moved into a two-story building in 1971. The financial success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest enabled Zaentz in 1980 to add a new seven-story building that has since become one of the defining features of West Berkeley’s skyline. The new structure contained a fully equipped dubbing stage and picture and sound editing suites. Zaentz added a second film mixing stage and additional editing rooms in 1989.

The Fantasy Records building at 2600 Tenth St. Photo: Google Street View

The Fantasy Records building at 2600 10th St. Photo: Google Maps

It became known as The Zaentz Media Center and was used by filmmakers and musicians from around the world.  Numerous successful albums were recorded there including Green Day’s 1994 Dookie and Santana’s 1999 Supernatural, which went 15 times platinum and garnered nine Grammy Awards.

In 2004, the Concord Music Group purchased Fantasy Records for a reported $83 million. The seven-story building at Tenth and Parker Streets was not included in the transaction, but the record company continued to lease space there.

In 2007, Wareham Development paid more than $20 million for the 2.64-acre property. The Fantasy Building is still used by independent filmmakers, musicians, gamers, and television producers from around the world. Fantasy has also given free recording time to musicians with the Berkeley High Jazz Program.

Zaentz is survived by four children, Dorian, Joshua, Athena, Jonnie, a nephew, Paul Zaentz, who is also a producer, and seven grandchildren.

Feel free to share your messages of condolence and/or memories of Saul Zaentz in the Comments.

Berkeleyside is always honored to publish, at no cost, obituaries of members of the Berkeley community. Please email text and photo(s) to editors@berkeleyside.com.

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  • Chris J

    Sorry to hear of anyone’s passing. Most curious about the relationship between he and Fogarty/Credence Clearwater Revival. Sounds like the group didn’t negotiate a very good deal for themselves or something.

    No disputing the guy’s contributions to film and music, though…overall.

  • Phil Brown

    The story is well known. Look it up.

  • sue tomasello

    Yes, sad and definitely a Berkeley legend. I am such a John Fogarty fan that I never quite forgave Zaentz, even though I don’t really know who was the demon in their feud. I just made my mind up early that it couldn’t be Fogarty’s fault.

  • serkes

    “The English Patient” – “Unbearable Lightness of Being” – “Amadeus” … and all the others.

    Wow

  • Chris J

    I am of a similar bent; siding with creatives over capitalizers. A knee jerk reaction admitted. I appreciate the other poster’s simple solution to google it. A simple and cold suggestion, given that one hopes for more generous spirit in these publix forums.

  • Fraga123

    A huge loss.

  • Berkeley Southside

    Here you go:

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/27501/time-john-fogerty-was-sued-ripping-john-fogerty

    Zaentz is part of an inglorious tradition of record producers screwing over talent. If it weren’t for CCR, where would he have gotten the money to purchase all those jazz labels and finance these films? He ranks down there with Nat Tarnopol, Morris Levy, Herman Lubinsky, and the folks who signed Teena Marie to her Motown contract. (See Frederick Dannen’s Hit Men for more background). In my opinion, Morris Levy could have been talking about Zaentz when he said, “if a guy is a **** sucker in life, he don’t get to be a saint when he dies.”

  • grey raven

    It’s well known Fogerty begged Zaentz for another shot after the album he made for the Weiss Brothers when they owned Fantasy tanked. So, If it wasn’t for Saul giving him and the band a second chance, Fogerty would of been stuck in El Cerrito playing frat parties for $20 bucks a pop.

    And as for Fogerty not making any money–total BS. He made millions with Fantasy and so did the rest of the band. That’s why Stu Cook, Doug Cliford and the late Tom Fogerty were all on good terms with Saul and Fantasy.

  • Sherlockjr

    I often was invited to the Fantasy Building holiday parties and all the CCR band except John
    Fogerty came and had a good time, brother Tom included. A lot of jazz artists had long careers with Fantasy so somebody was doing the right thing. Eventually John ad Saul came to terms and put the tensions behind them.

    Zaentz made his movies the way he wanted and was a very creative collaborator who filmmakers and writers often returned to work with more than once. He avoided making distribution deals until after the movies were complete hoping they would be good enough to obtain enthuiastic releases. Zaentz and his team worked hard with distributors to make certain these films, generally considered “difficult,” found audiences. And they often surprised everyone in the movie business to become huge critical and audience successes.

    Though Zaentz did produce an animated LORD OF THE RINGS he was disappointed in it and held off on allowing live action versions to e made until the right creative team presented their concepts. Legend has it a lot of powerful people tried but it wasn’t until Peter Jackson made his presentation that approval was given.

  • Geech

    The Blue Velvets signed to Fantasy in 1964 and Zaentz bought the label in 1967, where the group was re-christened from the Golliwogs to CCR and set with a new contract. So yeah, Zaentz gave them a break there, but it in no way justifies the treatment that the band and JF received financially. In addition to wresting away copywrights to the songs and records, Zaentz sourced CCR material into all kinds of media placement without the bands’ consent, including using “Fortunate Son” in a Wrangler jeans commercial. Wrangler subsequently pulled the ad once hearing of JF’s disapproval. Finally, Zaentz later lost a considerable amount of the band’s money in an off-shore tax haven scheme.

    It is well known that JF and his bandmates fought over control of CCR, especially with his brother Tom. As the others didn’t write or produce the material, they had a difficult time understanding JF’s perspective with regards to Zaentz and the ownership of the band’s output. JF felt besieged on all sides and decided rather than to continue and carry the others who profited from his work, to dissolve the band, relinquishing additional rights to the material in the process just to break free.

    Even if you somehow believe that JF and Zaentz knew what they were getting into on a contractual basis and was fair, the famous lawsuit that Zaentz brought accusing JF of plagiarizing himself on “Run Through The Jungle” (owned by Zaentz, written and produced by JF) in 1985 was just ridiculous and emblematic of the poisoned vindictive nature of their relationship. Zaentz unambiguously lost and the Supreme Court later ordered him to pay all of JF’s attorney fees.

    They appeared to reconcile a bit in 2004 when Concord Music bought Fantasy Records and CCR material rights were restored to JF to some degree, but JF and Zaentz never did. Upon hearing of Zaentz’s death, JF merely tweeted a link to the “Vanz Can’t Dance” video from 1985, where he mocks Zaentz in no uncertain terms.

  • grey raven

    And do you think it would of been any better for Fogerty if he signed with anyone else? If CCR were (un)luckily successful when the Weiss Brothers owned Fantasy they would of taken every nickle they made from and still make them wear those silly Golliywog hats they were forced to wear. Saul stepped up to the bat and took a gamble with a group of musicians–who for the most part were not even well liked even in the Bay Area–and helped make them a worldwide success. A feat, that back then could only be accomplished in the record industry by connections , know how, and a lot of money to get the music played on the radio and records in the stories.

    Even more important then CCR, was Saul Zaentz contributions to the film industry and people in the Bay Area working in that field.For years, Fantasy would let struggling filmmakers set up shop in their building to finish their projects–sometimes without even charging them rent! Ask for that at some Hollywood Studio and they’ll laugh into your face.

  • Geech

    Zaentz saw CCR as an investment whose output was to be commoditized. It worked out phenomenally well for him from a business perspective, but it ended up poisoning the golden goose after only a few years. He helped make the band stars and destroy them at the same time. The loss here was for music fans as JF retreated into self-imposed exile for over a decade, and didn’t come to embrace his CCR material until much later. It could easily be argued that taking the high road and renegotiating JF’s contract to more favorable terms would have earned him far more money over the long term as JF would have ostensibly kept writing and producing music for him.

    He may have contributed a lot to the film industry, to the Bay Area, etc. but that doesn’t justify what he did to JF in any way.

  • dmdh

    I met John F at his home in Bezerkly I went with a studio musician that was invited. The man was the biggest Azz I have met in the business.. Ugg so full of himself, Jerry I ran into outside of one of his shows in San Fran and he was the sweetest man after a long show. Others Prince after Purple Rain show in Oakland sweetest smile in the world. With his little purple Mercedes. Both of these other men huge and more talented then the holier then everybody Mr. F. The guys full of big dog turds!!!!!