Berkeley teacher, playwright Ernest Weiss dies at 96

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Ernest Weiss earned fame as a playwright in his native Vienna. In the Bay Area, where he made his home for 34 years, he was better known for his aphorisms "There is an unwritten play in every drawer" and "Determination plus talent equals success."

He uttered the latter so often his playwriting students at San Francisco State University bought him a T-shirt bearing the phrase.

Weiss died Sept. 19 at the age of 96, but his words live on — often through his students.

He took pride in teaching Pat Conroy, author of "Beach Music" and "The Prince of Tides," and Jack Finney, who wrote "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," at SFSU. And after years of newspaper reporting, Weiss' former student and now minister Dick Alexander is writing plays.

"I'm so grateful to him," Alexander said. "I still have all my notes from his class, which I took nearly 22 years ago."

Born in Hungary Raoul Ernst Weiss, the young playwright fled Austria in 1938 and worked as a singing waiter in New York — where he met his wife of 54 years, Jeannette — before making his permanent home in Berkeley.

He had made a name for himself in Vienna at 21 when his first play, "The Little Saint," debuted. Two years later, Weiss presented his most famous work, "The Room of Dreams," which later played New York's Empire Theater.

When he came to the United States, Weiss spent hours in movies houses just to learn the language.

"He used to say, `There wasn't much call for someone who tells stories who doesn't know the language,'" recalled Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman of Berkeley's Congregation Beth Israel, where Weiss belonged for more than 30 years.

But Weiss learned quickly and entered a drama writing competition soon after he arrived in the Bay Area. He lost.

"He wanted to know why, so he confronted the judge," according to Weiss' only daughter, Leslie Tuchman, of Los Angeles. The judge "told my father he wrote a comedy and it was a drama contest. And then he offered my father a job."

Weiss taught playwriting and English at the U.C. Berkeley Extension since 1950 and SFSU since 1961 under the name Ernest White.

"Translation," Tuchman said, explaining the name change.

The country that Weiss left under duress in 1938 lauded him late in life. In 1992, he was invited to Vienna by the Austrian government, which was honoring Austrian-born Jewish artists. The following year, the Austrian government awarded him the country's highest civilian honor, the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art.

"He was really proud of winning that award," Finkelman said. "He said, `To think, 50 years ago I barely escaped with my life and now they're inviting me back with honors.'"

In his later years, Weiss endured bypass surgery, cardiac arrest and pneumonia. His greatest frustrations were his inability to get around freely and vision problems.

But until the end, he continued telling stories.

"He had that kind of twinkle in his eye that said, `I'm having a lot of fun now, but you can't even guess what I'll do next,' especially when he told stories," Finkelman said. "Even if he told it to you before, he told it so deliciously that it was a pleasure to hear it again."

Weiss is survived by his wife, Jeannette, and daughter Leslie Tuchman. He was buried at Home of Peace Cemetery in Oakland.