‘What Do I Do Now?’
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‘What Do I Do Now?’

Onetime North Jersey auto magnate RJ Konner talks about his career in cars and films

There are some names that are just part of the background in northern New Jersey. Names that you see all over, on stores, in signs, on license plates.

Car dealership names. Like, say, Konner, a last name that with a few different first names — Malcolm, or RJ, among others — was visible all over. The family sold cars first in Caldwell, then in Paramus, and then pretty much all over the northern part of the state.

RJ Konner, one of Malcolm and Florence Konner’s four kids, spent decades selling cars; he loved doing it, but eventually the market changed, and he stopped. He’s now a film producer and actor, and he’s just made a movie that will premier in the Ridgewood Film Festival.

He has a part in that film, called “What Do I Do Now?” He plays the rabbi who loomed large in his childhood, Aryeh Gotlieb, who headed the Jewish Community Center of Paramus.

Now, that’s a story!

Malcolm Konner Chevrolet in its heyday.

To start at the beginning, RJ’s grandparents, Jacob and Rae, were the first Jewish family to settle in Montville, RJ said. (There are too many Konners not to call them by their first names.) That was in the early 1880s, soon after they and their parents arrived in the United States, three from Austria, one from Romania. “They bought a farm and a hotel,” RJ said. “The whole town has the Konner name all over it.”

Somehow, he’s not exactly sure how, his grandparents had a garage, and eventually that became a car dealership. “I was third generation in the automotive business,” RJ said. He does know that among his business acquaintances — not quite friends, but definitely at least acquaintances — his grandfather counted “Louis Chevrolet and Walter P. Chrysler,” he said, although “I can’t say they were close,” he added.

RJ’s father, Malcolm, born in 1914, was the oldest of Jacob and Rae’s three children. “They all worked at the dealership,” RJ said, although eventually they all left to start their own businesses, all in the same field. It was a wide open field then. “There were three brothers, and they all were very close. They weren’t in competition with each other. My dad was building a dealership in Caldwell. And then Pearl Harbor got attacked. My dad enlisted.”

While his father was in Europe, “my mom ran the dealership,” RJ said. That was not what women usually did. “She was young, and she was pregnant, and she did everything but work on the cars. When my dad got back, the dealership was doing well.”

Over the years, the family’s stores have sold many makes of cars; Chevrolets, DeSotos, Plymouths, and Corvettes, among others.

Malcolm and Florence had one daughter and three sons; the family moved from Caldwell to Short Hills. “I grew up in Short Hills until seventh grade,” RJ said. “Then my father decided to build a new dealership in Paramus, just north of Route 17, which had a dirt median then.” That was 1976. The family moved to Washington Township.

RJ Konner as himself, center, and as the rabbi in “What Do I Do Now” at the hero’s bar mitzvah, left, and at his wedding, right.

The family also had a dealership in West Caldwell, which remained in business until very recently. “It was 99 years old,” RJ said. “It stayed in business for 99 years.”

When they moved to Paramus, the Konners joined the JCC of Paramus. “Rabbi Gotlieb was a character,” RJ said. “He was controversial. He was a tough character. I always liked him. He was edgy. He would say everything that he wanted to say.”

In 1974, RJ opened his first dealership, the one in Westwood. (There were others in Park Ridge and Englewood Cliffs, among other places.) Until then, he’d been going by his actual name; he’s Robert Joseph Konner. But when he tried to call his first place Robert Konner, the sign painter told him that it was too long. Too many letters. “I had to think fast,” RJ said. “What could I call it?” RJ Konner, of course; by now, he’s not at all Robert. He’s simply RJ.

After her sons left the family business, Florence continued to work with Malcolm, and the two won all sorts of awards. “They used to win trips,” RJ said. “Back then, they sold Chevrolets, and Chevrolet had phenomenal trips for dealers. People think that dealers are each other’s enemies, but they’re not. They’re all best friends.” So high-achieving dealership owners were able to win all-expenses-paid trips with their good friends — “they’d never have to take a penny out of their own pocket,” RJ said — where they’d talk business and help each other grow.

“In 1983, my parents were on a trip to Italy. They’d been on the Orient Express and were at the Vatican when my father passed away. At the Vatican. He was 63.”

Families looked at cars inside the Caldwell Konner dealership in the 1950s.

When Florence got back home, she went right to work. “She became the first woman Chevrolet dealer,” her son said; yes, during the war she’d run the dealership, but it was not in her name. It was now.

RJ’s sister, Linda Lee, had married another car dealer and they moved to the West Coast; RJ, his older brother, Ken, and his younger brother, Gary, all worked with their mother at first, then moved on to their own business once the initial shock wore off.

The family eventually got out of the car business entirely; the economics changed, and so did the car manufacturers’ relationship with the people who sold the product. The Konners had been in and out since 1995; in 2005, they sold their last dealership, with Dodge, in Butler.

Ken Konner is an attorney, so he went back to practicing law, and Gary Konner is in real estate.

Now RJ had to decide what to do next.

He thought about what he liked best about the car business. “My father always had us work in every aspect of the business,” he said. “I am not a mechanic, but I can do everything else. I really like advertising and marketing.”

Malcolm and Florence Konner are in the Caldwell dealership in the early 1950s.

RJ had spearheaded the Konners’ media relations. “I never get nervous in front of a camera,” he said. He knew that early on, because it seemed that whenever a TV network news reporter would want an interview with a car dealer, that reporter would talk to RJ. It made sense, RJ said; he was right across the river, and reporters knew that he wouldn’t babble or freeze.

RJ also knew how to use the media to help the business.

“In the early 80s, we used to do radio ads,” he said. “We were one of the biggest radio advertisers in the tri-state area. I used to write the commercials that the DJs would read.

“One time I was driving home and I heard Dr. Ruth on the radio.” That’s Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the diminutive world-famous Holocaust survivor, veteran of Israel’s war of independence, sex educator, and all-around human dynamo. “Dr. Ruth had a show where she’d talk about sex for 10 minutes,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”

He talked his father into sponsoring the show, although at first it seemed counterintuitive. But it worked. Dr. Ruth would read the intro to his commercial. “She’d say, ‘I want you to listen to my friend RJ Konner,’” he said. “It was Dr. Ruth for sexuality, Malcolm Konner for cars.”

RJ knew how to grab the zeitgeist. “In around 1980, I told my dad that we should take a month of our advertising budget and print out 1,000 American flag decals that say ‘Free the hostages’ underneath.” That was during the Iranian hostage crisis, when Iran’s revolutionary government held 52 Americans for 444 days. “We gave them out free, and took out an ad in the Times explaining it. And all of a sudden, there were endless news stories. We gave away over 40,000 decals and one of the sales reps came to me and said ‘All these guys are talking about you. You should advertise more on the radio.’

From left, Corvette specialist Pete Zichello stands with Cathy, Florence, RJ, Gary, and Malcolm Konner on the second floor of the family’s Corvette showroom.

“They were talking about us for free, and this guy was trying to get us to pay for it.

“Finally, I decided to do commercials myself.”

He and the company also had a good instinct for publicity. “We did Toys for Tots every year,” he said. “We were the second largest distributor, after Giant Stadium.

“I started doing a lot of radio, but I couldn’t be an actor. I was in the car busines, and with the hours I had to keep, I couldn’t do both.”

So he kept that ambition hidden — an ambition he’d had since he was young — until the last dealership was sold. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to be in the movies,” RJ said. “So in 2006, I became an extra.”

He didn’t know much about the film business then, Mr. Konner said. “But I learned. You sign up to be an extra at central casting. But being an extra is not being at the top of the totem pole. You’re at the bottom. You might sit in a church basement for 12 hours and be called for five seconds.”

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, center, is flanked, from left, by Florence, RJ, Malcolm, and Gary Konner.

But RJ combined his lack of obeisance to the protocol — partly but not entirely the result of his not knowing the protocol — with a certain reluctance to hang back unnecessarily. That got him to the front of a scene in what he calls “Eddie Murphy’s worst movie.” It’s called “Meet Dave.” “The movie was horrible,” RJ said. And Eddie Murphy had to do take after take after take after oh-god-no-not-another-take walking down the staircase in the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

But back up a second. RJ knew Eddie Murphy, who used to live in Alpine, and then in Englewood, before he decamped to California, from his Englewood Cliffs dealership. “Eddie used to travel with an entourage,” RJ said. “He would come in and say, ‘I want these four cars.’ He’d buy them for his friends. He was a good guy. We weren’t friends, but he’d come in and ask for me and I’d take care of him.

“So one day, he said ‘I want to take these four cars,’ and I said, ‘You have to pay for them first.’ And he said ‘Call Mark,’ and I called Mark, and Mark said ‘I’ll wire you the money.’ Which he did, and Eddie Murphy’s friends left with their cars.”

But now RJ was out of the car business, and he was an extra in Eddie Murphy’s movie, which, he says, was a coincidence.

“Eddie came down the stairs, kind of robotically, and he did it 20 times and screwed up 20 times. And finally he did the scene correctly, and he got down the stairs, and he looked at me — he hadn’t seen me for 20 years — and he stopped and stared at me and started laughing and ruined the scene again.

“That afternoon, at lunch, one of his assistants called me over and said ‘Give us your number. We want to talk to you. And two or three weeks later I received a round-trip ticket and room and board on Rodeo Drive for three and a half weeks. I was an extra in the second worst movie he ever made. It was called ‘Imagine That.’ He had a daughter and the daughter had a blankie and the blankie was giving her stock tips…

RJ is the rabbi in the new film, “What Do I Do Now?”

“The coolest thing was when they picked me up at the hotel and took me to Paramount Studios and I got there and I said ‘I’m RJ Konner,’ and they said, ‘Mr. Konner, we were expecting you.”

From there, RJ became a producer; for the last 11 years, he and his two business partners, Mark Lipsky — the Mark who wired him the car money so many years ago — and Bob Agueli created WOF Entertainment. (WOF stands for Who’s On First, RJ said, “but it’s a baseball thing and I’m not really into baseball.”)

And RJ also acts. He loves to act. He moved up from being an extra to character parts. “I’ve been in about 75 TV shows and movies,” he said. “They’re not all big parts, but I did a lot of stuff. I enjoy the business a lot.”

In the last five years, he’s been in four movies. The first, “79 Parts,” is “kind of a mob comedy movie,” he said. “And then I connected with the director Joshua Coates.” RJ and Joshua have made three movies together — “Deliver Us From Evil,” a horror movie in which RJ was a detective, and “Hollywould” — that’s not a typo, it’s as in what someone named Holly would do — where he was a train conductor.

That’s how we get to the next movie, “What Do I Do Now.” The one where he plays a character based on Aryeh Gotlieb.

“When I was the train conductor, we were shooting in Pennsylvania, and there were five or six actor playing passengers on the train,” RJ said. “This older gentleman was Yale Schwartz.”

Yale Schwartz (center) with actors Nick R. McCormack as Yale, and Beth Caponigro as Nina

And did Yale Schwartz have a story!

This is how RJ tells it. “Yale approached Joshua Coates, the director,” he said. “He’d written a move that he wanted Josh to direct. He was very impressed with how Joshua worked with the cast and the crew. He’d been diagnosed with incurable cancer; with little money to spare on the production, he still hoped that Joshua would produce and direct his film.

“Joshua, a compassionate man, read the script and decided to go forward. And miraculously he completely filming in just  two and a half weeks after pre-production,” RJ said. “Joshua rushed an abbreviated version of the film for Yale to see, and a grateful and emotional Yale watched his love story unfold once again.” He died soon after the screening.

It’s not accidental the RJ is involved in this film. “Joshua is African-American; knowing that I’m Jewish, he asked me to both be a consulting producer and to play the part of the rabbi in the film.”

In the film, Yale was a 24-year-old, just out of college, when his Aunt Shirley asked if he would assist in helping her newly widowed 39-year-old friend Nina, who had five children and was preparing a birthday party for one of them. (Her husband had died of what they called “the big C,” as if merely calling the disease by name would release its deadly power.)

But then Yale met Nina, and despite their age difference and her children, despite everything, really, they fell in love.

RJ played the rabbi who presided at Yale’s bar mitzvah, and then at his wedding. The part was underwritten, so RJ had to give it life. He chose to model it on his own rabbi, Aryeh Gotlieb.

He did not know what the rabbi should say at the ceremony — it wasn’t in the script — so RJ had a brilliant idea. He found, watched, and rewatched the video of his own wedding, and used the words Rabbi Gotlieb had said to him and his now ex-wife, Kiki, for Nina and Yale.

“Kiki and I still are friends,” RJ said. “We talk. We have three kids together. So I sent the vows to Kiki, and I said, ‘You want to see something? These are the vows I’ll be saying when I act the part of the rabbi at the wedding.’

“So she reads them, and she says, ‘They’re really beautiful. And they sound familiar.’ She didn’t know then that they were ours.”

 

The scene outside the Warner Theater at the last in-person film festival in Ridgewood.

RJ Konner, Val McAdoo, Director Joshua Coates, Elizabeth Caponigro, and Nick R. McCormack

Not only is RJ Konner an actor, a producer, and a former car dealer, he’s also on the board of Ridgewood’s international film festival. “It’s 10 years old, and I’ve been involved for nine years,” he said. “We get people sending ideas to us for movies from all around the world, and we have the festival at the Ridgewood Theater in April.

“Over the last five years, the three movies that I was in premiered in Ridgewood. It was really cool. How many people can say that the movie they were in premiered in their hometown — unless their hometown is Hollywood?

“So we were going to have the 10th film festival and the premiere last April.”

Then covid happened.

The film festival board held off on its 2020 show, hoping to have it in person, but now its 10th year is almost over, so plans have changed. The films will stream from Saturday, February 27, through Wednesday, March 3. “It will have 85 films from all over the world,” RJ said. “There will be special classes, interviews, a Zoom workshop. It will be a lot of fun. And I will be one of the judges.”

Can he judge his own work? No, of course he can’t — but he won’t have to turn down his role in the festival, either. He’s holding out for an in-person premier and red-carpet turn for “What Do I Do Now?” So this year, the festival will stream only the film’s long trailer, as a teaser.

RJ Konner hopes that readers will go to ridgewoodguildfilmfest.com to learn more about Ridgewood’s streaming film festival, and he hopes that later this summer they can show up in person for the red-carpet premiere of “What Do I Do Now?”

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