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.

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