Jerry Neuman may spend his days negotiating multimillion-dollar real estate deals, but at nights he’s often sipping Grey Goose as the co-owner of a popular Hollywood dance club. So he’s not your typical government advocacy and land-use attorney. Further evidence of that: He once worked as an off-Broadway director in New York. His real estate projects include working on the Hollywood & Highland development with TrizecHahn Corp., a renovation of the Capitol Records building with New York developer Millennium Partners, the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” studio and Walt Disney Co.’s campus in Glendale. Playhouse, a nightspot he co-owns with L.A.-based Muse Lifestyle Group, was named L.A.’s best club last year by Penthouse Magazine and is known for trapeze artists performing above the bar. He’s also on the boards of non-profit affordable housing developer Hollywood Community Housing Corp. and Mission Valley Bank, and serves as chairman for two downtown L.A. organizations: architecture school SCI-Arc and Home for Good, which addresses chronic homelessness. Neuman recently met with the Business Journal at his downtown office and talked about how his parents survived the Holocaust, his first memories of Hollywood and how he once got New York actors to play dinosaurs with an addiction to nicotine.
Question: So how did a land-use attorney come to co-own the Playhouse nightclub?
Answer: I had never done nightclubs before and it’s not what I wanted to do in my practice. But these guys came in and pitched me on this idea. It was kind of a theatrical place and very different from anything Hollywood had before. I started representing them. As I got to understand their business more, I thought this would be fun. I’m up all night long anyways because I rarely sleep; I figured out this is a good thing to do with my time.
What’s it like?
It’s kind of fun. It’s the crossroads of music, theater and kind of a nightclub. This is an old theater that was built in 1915, but it’s no longer historic because everything was ripped out of it, unfortunately. We tried to get it designated as historic but nothing was left.
How was the idea received by neighbors?
We said we are a dance facility that is going to have great music; we are not trying to masquerade as a restaurant that becomes a nightclub; and we want to stay open until 4 a.m. People appreciated the fact that we were willing to be honest about it and up front.
So do you dance there?
I discovered it’s not cool to dance. It’s cool to stand there; you don’t really dance with your feet anymore. You dance with your hands and move a little bit, so I’ve figured it out. I’m an OK dancer, but my moves are past. I love swing dancing and I’m actually pretty good.
How did you get involved in theater?
I met a friend in law school who had a play. I told him if he lets me take it, I will produce it, direct it and find a place to put it on. So I called friends and cobbled together some money. I found an off-Broadway theater that had a spot in its calendar and really wanted it and liked the idea of sponsoring a new director.
What was your first production?
The first one was “The Paleontologist,” about how smoking killed dinosaurs. They were intelligent creatures but they smoked so eventually it affected their reproductive system. Getting some of these New Yorkers to become dinosaurs was a very fun thing. This was before dinosaurs were cool. We were at the cutting edge of talking animals. It was pre-Barney.
How did you become involved in Hollywood?
When Hollywood & Highland happened, I was like this is the opportunity that I was waiting for to make a difference. It set the tone for how Hollywood would change and set my engagement in making sure that Hollywood kept changing, which I’ve done from then on. While I work throughout California, there’s a certain love for Hollywood because of that project. That is always my home touchstone.
What was it like to work on the Capitol Records building?
When I came in, the first thing I asked (the developer) was to support the listing of the building as a historic monument. They immediately said yes, and that was great. Knowing that I can now work to build a project that will ensure kids coming from Arizona will see that same thing and be inspired to do the same thing I was is amazing.
What made you interested in Hollywood in the first place?
When I was growing up in Tucson, my parents were relatively religious and we kept kosher. There was one kosher butcher in Tucson. My dad had a fight with him so he refused to buy meat from him. Every vacation from that time on that I can remember was driving to Los Angeles to go to Fairfax to buy kosher meat, freezing it, sticking it in a car and driving back across the desert as fast we could to get it into a freezer. The way I always knew when I arrived in Los Angeles is when I saw the Capitol Records building and the Hollywood sign. When I moved here, I would go to Hollywood and it was a disappointment for me in many ways. It’s one of those things. … When you see the opportunity to make a difference you jump on it.
Can you tell us more about your parents?
I grew up with parents that were completely devoted, having been Holocaust survivors. During the war, my father lost his family in the concentration camps. He had a wife and three kids. Both my parents were saved by the Swedish Red Cross. My mom was liberated the day before she was supposed to be killed. My father, on the other hand, pretended to be dead on a pile of bodies for a number of days and made his way into the pits of latrines for three days, trying to figure out how to escape when he heard the Russian army and called out. They found my dad and two other men.
How did your parents meet?
They dated for four years in Sweden and my father finally asked my mom to marry him. Right after that, my mom got papers to come to America and that was the opportunity they had been waiting for. My mom took off to Cleveland (and sponsored my dad later).
How did their experience affect you?
Being socially responsible, being proud of being American, understanding how your country works and being vigilant that you have to be engaged or bad things can happen are things I grew up with. You learn a sense of, I can be somebody but with a sense of humility; that it’s just a series of fortune or unfortunate accidents in many ways.
How do you spend your working day?
Usually, I’m doing something involving work by 7:30 a.m. Sometimes, I don’t get to the office until later. I try to do at least one to two teambuilding things every day with people in the office. The rest is running around. In the evenings, I try to get to the house to tuck the kids in by 7 p.m. Then at 9, I’ll go meet people for drinks or dinner until 10 or 11, or if it’s a night that the club’s open, I get home at 1 or 2 a.m. I average three or four hours of sleep.
How do you balance time between work and family?
Time is a tough concept for me. I think I can do it all and I try to make everything fit. Sometimes you can do it and I think I’ve been pretty successful at it. I try the best I can to not work weekends and give that time to my family.
What is the best advice you ever got?
The advice I always come back to is my father’s. He always told me never think you are better than anyone else and never believe that anyone is better than you, and that set up a pattern as a foundation for respecting everyone no matter what their position is.
What’s the worst mistake you ever made?
The worst mistake I ever made was being too quick to trust that a client’s intentions were as honorable as I expected. I failed to see the signs that they were getting in trouble that I couldn’t stop them from. That was a guy who started a card club, Crystal Park in Compton. He had a gambling problem and ultimately lost the facility and respect in the community. It wasn’t a mistake to create it; it was to not recognize the person and trouble.
What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you?
After a long night, I finally got my son to sleep in my arms while watching infomercials. Six weeks later, a package arrived at the door; I was told it was the turkey fryer I ordered while I was asleep. So I had to use it right? I waited for Thanksgiving and, being a male who knows everything, I decided I didn’t have to look at directions. As I’m dunking the turkey in the fryer in the laundry room with a linoleum floor, the oil spilled out and started melting the floor. I get the idea to move it outside, start lowering the turkey and yet again it overflows. It’s so hot that it burns through the gas hose and that becomes the true fire hose with flames.
So what happened?
I realize all I have for Thanksgiving in two hours is a quarter-cooked turkey in a vat of cooling oil. Relying on my old skills of fixing anything, I became a mechanic at fixing up the turkey fryer; I got clamps and a new hose and finally had turkey for dinner in 2000.
Do you travel?
Everywhere; I love traveling. I love Europe. I love Southeast Asia, China. I didn’t think I’d like South America but fell in love with Argentina. It’s amazing how much within America that we don’t see, so every year I take my kids to see the United States.
What do you do to relax?
I never liked relaxing. I only found one place I could relax, on a boat in the middle of the ocean where you are disconnected from everything and all of a sudden you find yourself at sea with nothing around. You can just stop for 10, 15, 20 minutes. There’s a certain tranquility.
FIRM: Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP
BORN: Tucson, Ariz.; 1962
EDUCATION: B.A., political science, philosophy and accounting, University of Arizona, 1984; J.D., Columbia University, 1987
CAREER TURNING POINT: Getting involved in the Hollywood & Highland project at Allen Matkins.
MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE: Prominent land-use attorney Doug Ring, who was his first real estate law boss and mentor for 10 years; former downtown L.A. civic leader Ira Yellin; former U.S. Sen. Morris Udall.
PERSONAL: Separated; has a home in Hancock Park and an apartment in Hollywood; two children, Jacob, 11, and Jade, 8.
ACTIVITIES: Skiing, late-night eating at a diner while debating the world’s problems, watching cartoons, traveling.