Screenwriter’s ‘Big Sunday’ Idea is a Hit

Los Angeles Times
May 6, 2006

Screenwriter’s ‘Big Sunday’ Idea is a Hit
David Levinson Wanted to do some Civic Good. Now His Pet Project May Have 25,000 Co-Authors

By Bob Pool

He never expected Big Sunday to be a big deal.

Hollywood writer David Levinson was just looking for something to do that would show immediate results eight years ago when he put together a modest list of community fix-up projects that he and his friends could tackle.

Screenwriting, he’d discovered, was a numbingly slow process. Scripts took years to make it to film, if they ever did. TV story lines were sometimes reshaped so many times they were all but unrecognizable when they finally aired.

“I’d written a lot of movies that hadn’t been made. I went year after year talking about the same movies that were in development. I had projects that were stuck in development hell for years,” he said. “I wanted to do something that had tangible results. Something you didn’t have to ask yourself why you were doing it.”

About 300 people from Levinson’s synagogue, Temple Israel of Hollywood, volunteered to work on small painting, landscaping and cleanup projects that day in 1999. It was such a success that they decided to stage a “Mitzvah Day” again the next year.

And the next, and the next.

Soon, other religious groups, schools and clubs were asking to take part. Struggling social services agencies around town were begging to be beneficiaries.

On Sunday, an estimated 25,000 volunteers are expected to fan out to 250 locations from Anaheim to Palmdale for this year’s Big Sunday. They will paint out graffiti, plant thousands of shrubs, touch up dozens of old murals and clean classrooms.

It will be the biggest Big Sunday by far, in large part because powerful names have discovered it. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has lent his name to the event. (Last year, the mayor sponsored his own Citywide Day of Service, but this year he has folded that event into Big Sunday.)

There are also major corporate sponsors, including Toyota, Disney and Paramount Pictures, which have contributed cash to the program’s $650,000 budget.

No one is more surprised at how big Big Sunday has grown than Levinson.

“I totally backed into it. At a certain point it just took on a life of its own,” said the 46-year-old Hancock Park resident. “If you’d told me eight years ago I’d be standing today outside a Catholic Charities center, I’d have said you are nuts.”

Levinson had stepped outside the El Santo Nino center on East 23rd Street in South Los Angeles this week after surveying areas where volunteers on Sunday plan to install a new kitchen and create a teen study area.

New cooking equipment has been donated. So have computers and the makings for desks that volunteers will construct to create a homework center for neighborhood youngsters.

“It’s not just the rich helping the poor, the haves helping the have-nots,” Levinson said. “Everybody from every community will be involved.”

Participation has steadily grown from the original 300 temple volunteers, almost doubling many years: 600, 1,000, 1,500, 2,500, 5,000 to last year’s 8,000 workers.

“The growth has been organic, word-of-mouth. People volunteering one year would want their church or school involved the next year. One man in an Episcopal church quit and joined a Quaker church and brought them in, so now we have both Episcopalians and Quakers involved,” Levinson said.

Judy Dryland-Shapiro, a Laurel Canyon sculptor who volunteered for the first Mitzvah Day, said participation has proved addictive.

“My first honest reaction eight years ago was, ‘I’m so busy, I don’t have time,’ ” she said of the 1999 event at Wonderland Elementary School, where children and parents filled baskets with donated kitchen supplies for homeless people entering transitional housing.

“But it was amazing. The kids learned about homelessness. Everyone was so excited we decided to make it an annual event,” said Dryland-Shapiro — whose daughters Hanna, 17, and Esme, 14, will volunteer Sunday along with Dryland-Shapiro and her husband, Paul, a TV director, at the El Santo Nino project.

As more diverse groups of people volunteered, Levinson decided four years ago to rename the event “Big Sunday” instead of Mitzvah Day, which loosely means “charitable work day” in Hebrew.

But he hopes the mission remains the same even as Big Sunday attracts more attention.

“I was definitely pleased when the mayor joined us. He could have taken us over and squashed us,” Levinson said. “But I’ve made it clear all along that it’s important to keep Big Sunday folksy, not political.

“People have urged me to get a celebrity spokesperson. I won’t do it. Everybody’s equal at Big Sunday.”

Levinson and his network of organizers attempt to make the day enjoyable for volunteers, lining up food and entertainment.

“It has to be fun or else people won’t do it again, at least for me,” Levinson said.

Sunday’s projects include painting projects at the L.A. Free Clinic in Hollywood and a women’s center in North Hollywood and landscaping work at AIDS hospices and halfway houses in Echo Park and Long Beach.

Volunteers will put in a sprinkler system at the Navarro House in Pasadena and construct a new wall at the Teen Canteen in Hollywood. They will cook meals for the Downtown Women’s Center, Turning Point, Step Up on Second and the Languille Shelter.

They will visit and entertain seniors in retirement homes, including the St. John of God Nursing Home in the West Adams district and the Sunrise Home in Woodland Hills.

Carson High School seniors will throw a party for senior citizens in Hollywood. Carson High juniors are staging a party for oldsters at St. Barnabas Center near MacArthur Park. A “multigenerational” day of activities is planned for the Reseda Park Community Center.

Schools in a dozen communities will be sites for garden planting, playground beautification and classroom cleanup.

Groups such as Heal the Bay and the Surfrider Foundation will work with volunteers to clean beaches.

Tree planting, brush clearing and branch pruning are planned in Pasadena at Eaton Canyon Park and at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in South El Monte. The TreePeople group will work with volunteers in the San Fernando Valley. North East Trees will do the same in northeastern Los Angeles.

Volunteers will serve a pancake breakfast to low-income families at the Los Angeles Mission. They’ll barbecue for about 400 at L.A. Family Housing. Parties are planned for foster children at Penny Lane in the San Fernando Valley and for United Friends of the Children at the Hollywood Center Studios. An “old-fashioned garden party” is scheduled for the Sunshine Mission for Women.

Levinson, along with his wife, Ellie Herman, and their children, Becca, 16, Jack, 13 and Izzy, 10, will be volunteering Sunday at Figueroa Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles.

As for Levinson the writer, could there be a future screenplay about Big Sunday as it grows even larger? He’s written screenplays purchased by several big studios, though none has been produced yet. He’s also done episodic shows including “Chicago Hope” and “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and written and directed a play, “Early Decision,” which was staged last year in Santa Monica.

“People keep telling me to write about it, but I don’t know,” he said. Nonetheless, some memorable moments have played out in front him as he has planned Big Sundays.

“We went to Covenant House the third year and asked what we could do to help them, and they said, ‘No, the kids want to help others. What can they do to help?’ ” Levinson said of the shelter, which assists troubled teenagers living on the streets of Hollywood.

“So they went out and had a carwash and raised money for a Mexican orphanage. At the end of that day the Daughters of the American Revolution hosted the kids and the ladies served dinner to them all. It sounds trite to say, but it was people helping people.

“And it didn’t take a natural disaster or anything like that to bring people together.”

(Copyright © 2006 Los Angeles Times)

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“To All at Big Sunday, Now, more than ever, we need the goodwill that you share and the good works that you do”

- — L.B., Los Angeles