My name is Robert Kahn, I was born in Orlando at Orange General Hospital, July 23, 1945… I grew up in Orlando. My family’s first home was a garage apartment on Palmer Avenue. They didn’t have numbers back in the day and that first home that they bought my parents said was at 41 Tampa Avenue between Central and Washington near Lake Lorna Doone.
LISTEN Part I
Is that where you grew up?
Well, that’s debatable depending on how you want to define growing up. I have to interject this story right now, and that is, I left Orlando upon graduation from Edgewater High School to go to Baylor University in Waco which is another long story. But that first semester I came back home for Christmas vacation, one of my friends dropped me off at the door. I went to walk in and the door was locked. I’d never seen a locked door before; we didn’t do those things. And finally, somebody came to the door and said, “May I help you?” I said, “Who are you? This is my house.” She said, “No, it’s not.” My parents moved and they forgot to tell me they bought a new house over in Ardsley Manor on the far side of Lake Silver…
How did you become a ball boy for the Washington Senators?
I just walked in the door and said, “This is what I’m going to do.” And they said, “Okay.” And Charlie Dressen, who was the General Manager at the time said, “I like your attitude, c’mon.” Now also keep in mind we lived on the other side of Lake Lorne Doone which was then Tinker Field, the ball playing place. And it was very customary back in those days that if you were black you couldn’t stay in the hotels where the white players were. And on occasion, my father would invite black players to stay in the house or to come over and eat with us which was a totally unique thing. So, we were big guys for all things considered….
What did your parents do for a living?
My father [when I was ] growing up worked for a jewelry store in downtown Orlando and then he finally, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, bought a jewelry store from a long time resident who had passed. My mother, after the three of us were in school, started teaching school… In the beginning she taught at Memorial Junior High. She also wrote a cookbook.
My father was a Holocaust survivor…
But to begin with, my father was a Holocaust survivor. When he reached legal age he enlisted because he felt like he owed this country for giving him a chance. Came to Orlando, which this was a clandestine operation here, for Orlando Army Air Force Base. I don’t know if you know much of the history there? But they had an operation where they were teaching the forerunners of Army Rangers to go behind enemy lines. And in Germany, when he was teaching local dialect and language and geography and whatever. But coming down here he got to meet my mother. But there was a fellow who was an Army hero who was on break or whatever, and he was out in Lake Mann and died. Fell into a hole and died. And father was a Red Cross safety instructor with all the accomplishments. He went to the local Red Cross and asked for assistance in going out to the black community at the time to teach swimming which was not allowed by the American Red Cross. You can’t mess with black folks.
Taught Swimming at Jones High School
And he was highly condemned. At one time he was set up and arrested. A policeman pulled in front of him on Orange Avenue to cause him to bump their rear bumper on that car. They took him to jail. He was gone for like four or five days nobody knew where he was… [all because he was trying to teach the black community how to swim]. And his claim to fame was he convinced the people at the high school – Jones High School – to teach swimming and diving there. And, of course, they couldn’t compete anywhere because there were no other black schools that had swimming programs. And he learned that the state meet up in Gainesville and he arranged with friends and whatever to snuggle the team up to Gainesville. They had road blocks set up because they knew what he was going to do. He was able to manage to get through and demanded to be in – half of the crowd finally turned and backed him. They won several swimming events, and they won the diving event. But whatever. We had swastikas painted on the house and cross burnings in the yard.
And this is your house in Ardsley Manor?
No, this is our house on Tampa Avenue.
Were you old enough to remember?
Oh, very much.
Mrs. Kahn: It was interesting when his father passed away, all of those past black swimmers, they had all become very accomplished and now they’re teaching school. And they all stood up to speak about Bob’s dad, you know, how he influenced all their people.
Mr. Kahn: You know, he didn’t do this for show or any sort of personal benefit. He did it because he felt like he had to. I mean he was practicing integration way before it was fashionable.
Mrs. Kahn: Well, I think he felt because he was in the Holocaust and he was persecuted that he felt he needed to stand up for somebody else when nobody would stand up for him.
Mr. Kahn: That in itself is a movie. We’ve tried a couple of times.
Jane: A documentary?
Mr. Kahn: Here again this is Hollywood and there are only so many categories in different films that you can do in any one year. And it never quite met that threshold because it was too true. It was too honest.
Mrs. Kahn: Maybe we should try again.
Mr. Kahn: We’ll try again, yes.
Mrs. Kahn: It’s an amazing story, just the swimming story. Having smuggled this whole black team up to Gainesville. They were hiding under rugs in the bottom of the car so nobody would see them. And they won…
Mr. Kahn: And my dad, as a debt of gratitude, has been the only non-student to be awarded a school letter. They gave him a letter sweater.
Mrs. Kahn: That was real nice. That was a real nice dinner.
Jane: And the city created a Wolf Kahn Day, right?
Mr. Kahn: That one event, yes.
Jane: Did people that your father worked with, did they know what was happening? Because your father worked in jewelry design at Disney, right?
Mr. Kahn: That was later on. That’s the next chapter of his life. He had a store on Church Street right across from First National Bank, what’s now SunTrust.
An after school visit with Mr. Disney…
I was there at the time because I used to go to Memorial [School] and go by the store and I’d go home with my dad. And this guy walks in and he looked familiar and two of the guys with him said, “My friend here broke the stem on his watch can you fix it?” He said, “Well, sure, let me see the watch.” And he replaced the stem. And he says, “How much is that?” He says, “Well, you know it’s a .25 cent part. For you, it’s nothing because maybe you’ll come back when you want something nice.” And the guy standing there says, “Do you know who I am?” He says, “You know, I’m not really sure, but you look like this cartoon guy I see on TV.” It was Walt Disney. He was there with Bob Allen senior and I can’t remember the other guy. They had just come from a meeting at the bank because they had several people who were fronting for them and buying up land. And he was very interested in my father’s windows because watches are Swiss, whatever, and he had all his windows that he built himself. He was quite an accomplished artist and he had my railroad train going through one of them.
Fine Jewelry Designer for Walt Disney World
He said, “Did you build all this?” He said, “Yes, I did.” He said, “If I asked you to take that dial and put like a Swiss dial on there could you do that for me?” “Oh, yes, in a heartbeat.” “How would you like a job?” “I’m interested.” He says, “You know who I am? We’re opening up a park here.” He says, “Oh, that’s nice. I know nothing about it.” He says, “How would you like to come to work for me and design jewelry? And design things like that?” “I’m interested.” And, ironically, my father had been broken into three times in the prior 90 days and was about to lose his insurance. He says, “How would you like to come to work… and when would you be available to start because we have a lot of work to do.” “I have some great ideas and you’ve given me more.” He says, “Well, it will probably take me a couple hours to shut the store.” And that’s literally what happened. My father was one of the first employees and designed what was going to become the three stores at Disney at the time. Designed all their fine jewelry with Disney logos on them, themed and the crystal characters, too. When he retired he was like 75….
LISTEN Part II
Did you know your grandparents?
Absolutely. All four of them.
Richard and Alice Kahn
My father’s family was Richard and Alice Kahn. Richard was very high up in German government because he was the equivalent of the Attorney General. His family dates back to the 12th century and he was ‘found out’ as they said back in the day. He was arrested and brought to Berlin. How could you be this kind of a person? He feigned a heart attack before getting to Berlin. They took him off the train. He was able to get word and bribe some people and get him smuggled out of the country. In the meantime, my grandmother, Alice, was able to also know that the Gestapo were coming. They dug a trench in the front yard and I think it was like 27 relatives were mowed down. But they were able to get out thru England and book passage to Baltimore.
After my grandfather circuitously got out of Europe and into America, he was able to assimilate very quickly. He was Dean of the law school at Catholic University in Washington under Eisenhower; was head of the Fish and Wildlife Department of the Interior. Every international fishing contract that exists today was his creation. And his library is stored at the University of Miami for those who care to enjoy it. Very pompous, very aloof, very aristocratic.
Morris and Esther Wittenstein
My mother’s family, the Wittensteins, my grandfather was Morris, my grandmother was Esther. Their family was from Russia. And, if you’ve seen “Fiddler on the Roof” that’s their prologue, literally. They were hidden by friends who were Catholic because they were killing all the Jews as they normally do. And they were able to use their name and get out. They wouldn’t let them into the United States. They settled in Argentina. And then they were able to book passage to the various places. They ended up, my grandfather’s family, in the Pittsburgh area working in steel mills and in factories, what have you. My grandfather’s father, Lewey was the first down here and he bought the first homestead, 160 acres.
They bought more land, it was relatively cheap like maybe 9 cents an acre. And gave 40 acres to a couple of brothers and when they got here they surveyed the property to find out, but 32 of the acres were into Lake Ivanhoe, and they couldn’t have their cattle for their dairy farm into the lake so they sued the government to get their 9 cents an acre back.
My Uncle Joe Wittenstein, who wrote quite a family history, his original house was on Ivanhoe, there’s a house that is now occupied on that corner. But that was the last piece of fallow land…. and they tore it down several years ago, built a new house. But, it’s known as the Wittenstein pool which is the largest pool in Orlando sitting in their backyard. Because you can’t build them that big anymore. They got a special dispensation for that second house on the west side of the street. If you go by there, the owner will tell you, “Yes, that’s the Wittenstein pool.” So there.
My grandfather was ambushed by one of the competing dairy man. He was working on the silo and [the dairy man] pulled the ladder out from under him. He fell and obviously he broke his leg. There were no doctors in Orlando. And there was a doctor up in Mellonville which was Sanford, who would come down here like once a week, and then over a period of a year or two amputated all the way up to his thigh on his right leg.
424 E. Central Boulevard
But they owned a lot of land downtown and lost a lot of property during the Depression. They sold what they really had to be able to survive. And, I remember, the original, the only home that I knew my grandfather to live in was at 424 E. Central. And in order to survive, they turned it into a rooming house and added on to it. And that was their livelihood for their lifetime, my grandmother and grandfather. That was on Lake Eola. Their front yard was Lake Eola.
They probably had winter visitors that came down?
And your grandmother, what was she like?
Esther. Very nurturing. Knew her place. There were only certain things that she could do, that was how life was. And she would take us for walks along the lake. And just other than being a phenomenal cook compared to what they had to work with, she was quite the lady. And had diabetes early and died early, and so is life. My grandfather lived into his 90’s… Finally, Uncle Joe became the manager of the estate and sold it on behalf of my mother’s brother and sister. It’s now a row house and offices and whatever. 424 is still there. And as you go along the side, there’s some of the trees that were in the back that were there that my grandfather planted. They’re still there so that’s kind of cool. You can see that from the street.
Did you go to synagogue together in downtown Orlando?
Yes, which is another story. Because I would be dropped off early and I would walk with my grandfather, who obviously had a wooden leg and he walked around about with his leg when he walked. And unbeknownst to me not knowing to do otherwise, I imitated him. And we would walk together and we would both kick out our leg and walk. And we would go over to the new Congregation Ohev Shalom several blocks away and I would help him up the stairs and yadayadayada. We would come back and crunch and learn and by the time I was 13, I had memorized all the primary literature and liturgy. The five books of Moses and so forth in English and Hebrew which was, whatever, an accomplishment. Most people don’t do that anymore. But people were getting concerned because they thought I had a problem. They couldn’t figure out what it was, but when I walked, I walked just like my grandfather… doctors couldn’t figure out what it was – I was imitating my grandfather….
You mentioned that you went to school at Memorial, were there others schools that you went to?
Went to West Central Elementary which was, I don’t know if the building is still there, but they turned that into a neighborhood center or the remains of it. Graduated from Edgewater High School. I was born and bred to be a dentist because you have to be a professional and I took the top dental schools in the country, applied to them… Baylor sent me a telegram as an acceptance. Nobody else did. That blew me away. That told me I was wanted. So I immediately committed, went to Baylor University in Waco, TX.
What was it like? Did you like it?
How can I say that in a nice word? No. I found that I was with a group of people that were very different than I had run across growing up. Part of going to Baylor was taking both Old and New Testament and getting a whole new rendition on what Old Testament actually said, what they said it was supposed to mean. At the time, I guess you would call, I was the token Jew on the campus which is something kind of unique in Waco, TX, all things considered.
Does that mean you were highly respected as chosen?
I was chosen, but I had to be perfected. And that never happened. It was an interesting experience. I had a good time when I was out there. And having gone to that school, which was just like little baby steps you take in life, got me to the place that I ended up being. And, happened to be in the right place at the right time. Just getting this phenomenal job that I had no idea that I just landed. Just by luck. And it’s been a lot of fun ever since.
Tell us how you landed the phenomenal job.
Well, I had already taken a job with an ad agency in New York because that was my goal after I got fired my first week. So being married, because I had got married when I was a sophomore in school, and having to assume some responsibility. There was another job that was offered at the Dallas Times Herald which was one of the two daily newspapers in Dallas. It was still available and I took it. And with all my academic and out of the ordinary ideas, I wasn’t treated very graciously by the establishment. Very difficult to get along at that paper. And one blustery rainy cold October afternoon I said, I’m just getting out of here and go to an ad club meeting which was at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas. I happen to say, “Come over here there’s an extra chair at our table. And it turns out it was the guest speaker and they were from MGM. I had no idea.
Vice President of Production for MGM
One of the guys asked the waiter for a glass of Scotch. And he said, “Sir, Texas is dry.” “What do you mean Texas is dry? All you cowboys drink all the time.” “No, sir, there’s a club upstairs and I’ve got a membership.” And we went up and started talking and that’s where we spent the afternoon. And at the end of the day, he says, “I like you. How would you like to cone to work for us?” And I never thought about it, but I said, “You know, right place, right time, right deal, I’ll listen.” And he said, “You know, I like your attitude. The things you’re talking about. I’d like you to come to work for us. This is Thursday. I’m going to arrange to have a ticket. If you’re in New York on Monday morning you have a job. And I checked and there was a ticket at American Airlines. So I called in sick and went to New York and had a phenomenal career. I was with MGM for seven years and was able to retire. And knew nothing about the movie business. I knew there was a camera. I didn’t know anything. But just being in the right place at the right time and some fabulous opportunities with some great movies, good names, I was vice president of physical production.
So how did you get there as far as your career path?
My academic path was industrial psychology which some people know nothing about. But call it management game theory on the one hand and creating a production live on the other. And, we’re sitting there talking and I said, “You know, you could take a script and I bet you could combine all the same scenes together and do it all at one time. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You start at page one and go all the way through.” Let’s say you’re having a movie and it takes place in somebody’s house and every 15 minutes they’re showing another scene in the kitchen and having breakfast in the kitchen and having whatever – why not do them all at one time? “Well, what if it’s another day?” “Well, what if it is another day, so you change your clothes.” It was so ridiculously crazy that became the new way of doing things. They’re still doing it that way. So I just, as I said, “Got lucky.” I said the right words and then I kept my mouth shut.
And what was so cool is I was alternating with LA & New York or Culver City and New York. And I wouldn’t say a word, I’d just walk, and the crowds would part and the people were scared. And I couldn’t believe it. Florey’s seen that. But when you saw it real good is when we were doing “All the King’s Men” in New Orleans, everybody parts. So, it’s fun.
Was there a particular movie that stands out?
Probably the biggest ones at that time were “Tora, Tora, Tora” , which was the largest location movie ever shot because everything was sent to Hawaii. [And then, this new guy that I found, his name was Bruce Lee. You ever heard of him? Bruce used to come and visit and spend the weekend because he could get away and nobody knew him. And that was his first movie. He’s in the scene for right at 60 seconds when he walks into James Garner’s office and destroys the office. That was his first movie. And the Peter O’Toole movies, “Goodbye Mr. Chips” those were the big coming of age movies.
LISTEN Part III (19:32)
Then this guy one day, Ted Turner, walks into the company and I get called by the president, this little yoke from Atlanta wants to buy our library and I met him for the first time and he offered 25 million to buy the library. And I thought it was stupid, crazy. And he said, “If he wants these old, dirty films, then we’ll sell them.” That was Kerk Kerkorian, who was president of MGM at the time. And that became Turner Broadcasting Network. You know, the family was then outdoor board business, road signs, and that became Turner Classic Movies. It’s sort of like Forest Gump. You know, how the story goes and you’ve seen the movie, and these things are happening. He doesn’t realize it’s happening. What is it… nobody paid attention, but everybody laughed. And I went through the same set of circumstances, didn’t realize it was going on. It happened.
And then you decided to move back to Central Florida?
Came back to Orlando originally – got a divorce- came back to Orlando to play golf and go fishing because I made all the money that I really needed to make. I didn’t need any more. It was in the mid seventies and then people started calling me. I need help – don’t know how to get from here to there. And then I started my company in 1982.
TBI Motion Picture and Television Logistics, and you started that in Florida? What was it like to start a business in Florida?
Well, to begin with it was originally Truck Brokers Inc. which was not a name I selected. Back in the day you applied for a corporation in Tallahassee and you gave them three choices and if there were other names that were similar they had the choice to accept or reject. So they named my company, the State of Florida. And we’re not a broker and we don’t sell line trucks. And, as the story goes, if you don’t know who we are, you have no business being in the movie business. Did you look at our website? We’re currently finishing up “Bad Boys III.” We’re doing “Jumanji” right now. We just got a new one today called “Greenland,” I don’t know anything about it. And we have no less than two dozen movies and TV series that we’re doing at any one time.
As far as starting the business here, and proceeding once you got the paperwork done was it fairly easy?
Oh, yeah, it was strictly on my reputation which is my problem today… It’s a lot of fun when you’re sitting around our little scrawny office in Winter Garden and getting calls on a weekly basis that will blow you away.
So you enjoy the business, you know, you live here with your residential life and the business comes to you.
We haven’t made a sales call. It just comes to us, is right. We have a good number of people under most accounts, who would be taken as a celebrity and they call us religiously to chat or to talk about ideas or let’s go make a movie. And that I find refreshing.
Do you mind explaining a little bit about the company? So you pick out locations for them?
They set up their own locations. We arrange for the things they need to make their movie, either behind the camera or in a lot of cases in front of the camera. We’re doing a new show – they haven’t decided on the name yet. But we also did the movie “Unstoppable” which was a runway train. Well, we’re doing it again. Somebody referred us because they were on that show and they know what a great job we did. We’re out right now buying up train cars because we’re going to destroy another train. That’s fun!
Now the Bob Kahn Casting is that a separate company?
That’s no longer in existence. At one time when we were very active here in Florida, we were a one stop shop because there was business in Florida and this was in the late 80’s. This was going to be Hollywood East. It could have been if we had a government that was able to look into a crystal ball and see what a beautiful future this would have been had they only listened. We did things like “Parenthood,” “Passenger 57,” golly so many, “Bad Boys II” in Miami. Bunches of stuff. We did dozens of Disney TV shows. You could come to us, we would do your day, we would do your extras casting. Extras Only was my company. If you want locations we would do that. We were your office away from home because there was so much. And there could have been so much more, that’s what was happening. We did, “Separate But Equal” was here, primarily out at Disney, by the way. And Burt Lancaster who’s a dear friend, Sidney Poitier, were one of those who begged to be on that show because it was going to be one of those special shows. It was all about Thurgood Marshall coming of age. And that was the so called black film of the year. And we hit a home run. The show won I think like 11 Emmys that year.
What do you look for in casting? You were in charge of casting, right?
For certain principal casting. I didn’t do the extras. I didn’t do any of the day players or what have you. But, if somebody wanted something special, I could get it because I knew everybody.
So you would already know what this person is looking for and you would be thinking in your head of a character…
Thinking of who could play the role, sure.
What do you see as the future of the film industry now here in this area?
Until somebody wakes up and smells the roses, it’s not going to be here. There is no infrastructure. There is no core foundation. And most important, there is no government support or state support, and I’ll just come right out and say it other than for their own special interests. And it’s sad. It’s so sad. We had a movie that was going to be coming to town and they made it so difficult. It was a Jodie Foster film, picked up and left. That was the last serious one I think I got involved in here. Because there are so many things that they can do; they call them incentives. And they say, “Well, you’re giving away money.” Well, actually you’re not. So what. How many businesses that you know of don’t charge sales tax? How many services don’t charge sales tax? So what’s the difference if you go to the store and buy 1,000 dollars worth of copy paper so you get a rebate for the sales tax. Big deal. You hire local people and the state will give you an incentive.
Why do you think it’s so great a plan in Chicago or New York or New Orleans? Movies, like everything else got stale and they want to show different scenery. Very simple. You could do a desert here in Orlando. Go over to Lakeland. Go over to the mining areas and you can see desert. It’s just how it is. And this business was right for the picking and we were major contributors to making that happen. Universal didn’t want it because it created problems for their visitors. They didn’t want to have something shooting along so called New York Street and have to keep the crowds away. But the crowds, they loved it. Same thing at Disney. And they loved it! Such and such is shooting out there today, let’s go to the movies! Let’s go to the parks! They missed a golden opportunity.
And the problem with the local unions was just mind boggling. You can go out and get a job at any of the parks or whatever. Say you have wardrobe or makeup or lighting or camera or transportation. You know, they all pay fine, contractual salaries to their union members. They all pitch fits because the rates for the same jobs in California were more money. But there’s state income tax, cost of living, everything is so much more. But they can get up here and picket, or do dastardly things beyond legal to keep productions out. And they did a good job. And they chased things away. You know $25.00 an hour say for a wardrobe person. Well, we get $29.00 in California, we want $29.00. Well, we can’t do it because your contract says $25.00. Well, then your wardrobe may just mysteriously catch on fire or your trucks, maybe. And things like that happened. And they just picked up and left. Sad. Really sad.
Even though that’s happened… there is still a possibility in the future that there could be a shift…
I would be pleasantly surprised but I doubt that it would happen. There’s been too much damage. You know, burned once, burned twice is my problem, that kind of thing. But there is no incentive. I don’t see that happening. I don’t see them making this an easy market to do business. I mean, they don’t create garbage. They don’t create pollution to the atmosphere. My goodness, a film comes in and they spend a fortune. We would take over hotels back in the day. And at face value, if the state would be kind enough to rebate the sales tax. Big deal. I mean, all these people for the most part were living and spending the night in their hometowns sleeping in their own bed. They paid for plane tickets to get here; all the accoutrements to support them. And they don’t take that into account. Yet, there was no infrastructure even to get people trained and educated in this industry because they couldn’t see their way clear to do it.
And we have Full Sail, great. There’s a thousand people, whatever, one or two does real well. There was a film school out at Valencia, and there was one out at UCF. My God, I can’t tell you how many hours I spent out there lecturing for free, for free. And, Ralph Clemente, I don’t know if that name means anything to you, but he headed up the program out here. Just pushed himself silly trying to get some cooperation because it’s a legitimate profession. Why not? But, at Florida State they have an active school where they teach stuff you can learn on Broadway or whatever. But, not in front of the camera. What can I say? It’s sad. But you see what they’re doing in New Orleans, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago, even Albuquerque, they all have incentives.
LISTEN Part IV (16:39)
So it’s the incentive part that needs to change.
To begin with, to provide an infrastructure to train people in the academic environment how to work those jobs. You know, that is an investment in people that will come back to build and build more. A further incentive, if you hire local, you get a rebate. No big deal. Just give me an incentive to be here. You know, make it worth my while. I’m going to come here in 90-120 days, I’m going to drop 25-50 million dollars. What’s that worth to you? That’s how you look at it. And the state will not do a thing. They think you’re giving away good money to liberals and free thinking people who really don’t make any difference. They don’t make any decisions. And why should you give something to one industry and separate them from everybody else. Well, as far as I know, every company that’s here of any size or influence gets some kind of bargain. No property tax, no sales tax, whatever else. It’s all there. So why not. It’s all good business. And that’s it. That’s my opinion. That and $2.00 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s.
Well, I think it’s really an important part of the history, especially the commerce history and economic development. And we’ve seen other developments. We’ve seen the technology development in this area. Now, we’ve seen the medical development. And so, this is another component of that multi-layer economy that keeps this area successful. So knowing from someone who has all your experience and knowledge, it’s good to have a frank discussion and say what was the missing piece. Why isn’t this working?
You also have an interest, you and your wife, have been involved in art and history. Would you tell us about how you got started?
Well, way back in the day, we went to an art show and Florey saw a painting, I think it’s still in the bedroom. A piece of art and it was $200. Remember that? And you started crying, nobody’s ever spent $200. on a piece of artwork in my life… so we spent a lot of our time going to auctions, to estate sales, traveling around. And early on I became intrigued with these paintings. We became intrigued with these paintings that were early Florida. You’ve seen them, right?
Florey and Robert Kahn on their wedding day with Ron Palillo.
The Florida Highwaymen painting, yes.
We started buying them up like crazy and you’d see them for nothing, literally. And at one time, we didn’t have a space closet because they were full and so we got involved with some people and all of a sudden got to meet some of the artists. And there was something that was moving about it. And the thing that was moving was their story, in that they were between crops. They had no income. And this guy, Bean Backus, who was an artist in Fort Pierce, he by chance met a couple of the guys and taught them how to paint. And he said, “You know, while you’re between crops and whatever, why don’t you take your pictures and take them around and try to sell them and make money?”
And they listened and they brought in some of their other friends and pretty soon they had this gang of eight. And they were running like a production line. A couple of guys would go to house construction sites and steal walls and pieces, whatever, gypsum board, whatever. And guys would take pieces of base board and they would make their own frames and make what appeared to be a canvas. They weren’t, but they looked like it. And they were selling this stuff. And they would go around to the businesses around town, $5, $25 whatever they could get. And at the end of the day they had a lot more money than they could get picking oranges all day long. And they would set up these little places on the side of the road, Highwaymen, that’s where it all came from.
Mary Ann Carroll, Highway Women Painter
And individually, there’s a couple of stories. A couple of brothers, the Newton Brothers, that did exceptionally well. There is Mary Ann Carroll, a female person, we have one of her original paintings…. But we got involved with some people and then there was a documentary that ended up on PBS which is still floating around today. And we made the first donation to the Orange County Historical Museum, so far, I don’t know the exact count, but we’ve given over 200 paintings. And at one time we gave them another collection that they picked from that are supposedly used by a touring show to go to various museums around the country on loan.
The Smithsonian came here picked out some paintings…
And then when the black history and culture museum was announced, they called us and they came. The Smithsonian, they came here, picked out some paintings they wanted. We gladly gave them to the museum. We were honored by invitation for their night for honoring all their donors, whatever. Had no idea how big of a deal that was. It was, you know, we’re on the official website there. Our story, we made the donation in honor of my father and mother…
Florey and Robert Kahn’s Invitation to the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture Collection Donor & Reception
What do you enjoy about living in Central Florida?
Well, there aren’t too many mountains, that’s a given… we just moved up here recently… so we can be closer to Florey’s daughter and her family and her mother at the time. She just passed away at 101. She lived in a retirement home about 5 minutes from here. It doesn’t really matter where we are… We have a place over in Daytona so we go over there occasionally… The company doesn’t matter where we are. We can be anywhere. That’s what phones and computers are all about today. And if you pass our office building on Dillard Street in Winter Garden, you’d never know what it was. Nobody does. Some people think they do, but that’s another story.
Do you like Winter Garden?
We bought it because most of our crew lives out in Clermont, that part of the county. It’s convenient for them. We were at Universal for many years. We got notice. They were cancelling our lease as well as everybody in the building. They were bringing their international department from California – everybody’s being evicted. So we found an interview office until we were able to find a place rather than pay rent. So we bought the building and we refurbished it. So it’s good for them. It’s a pleasant drive to think about other things while doing the trek. But it’s not bad.
Is there still a possibility that you might want to do a film about your dad?
I could see it as a feel good movie. Whatever. It could happen. I came real close and got beat out a couple of times. So, maybe. We’ll see what happens….
Interview: Robert Kahn
Interviewer: Jane Tracy
Date: May 20, 2019
Place: Residence of Robert and Florey Kahn.