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Ideas matter: How a forlorn Russian changed lives

  • By Matt Walsh
  • | 10:00 a.m. August 29, 2014
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Sometimes, albeit rarely, ideas have extraordinary, lasting power.

They can change lives, sometimes profoundly.

Ayn Rand did that. And she still is — changing lives ... for the better.

No one could have predicted it. Indeed, how can anyone possibly explain how this forlorn-looking daughter of an ordinary Russian pharmacist would leave her struggling family for America by herself in the mid-1920s and go on to write 30 years later one of the most influential, most powerful books in all of history?

It may be presumptuous to say, but most of us know the book: “Atlas Shrugged.” And we know the ideas and themes: individualism, freedom, the virtues of capitalism and, above all, man's ability to reason. Its heroes are — a rarity in literature — business people: principled, uncompromising characters who embody the highest virtues of entrepreneurial capitalism, what Rand's heirs call “a solemn commitment to thought, integrity, courage, responsibility, tenacity.”

Their ideas — Rand's ideas — change the world.

In two weeks, on Sept. 12, a highly successful New Jersey entrepreneur; a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer; and a Sarasota entrepreneur and his wife, among other investors, will release in theaters around the U.S. “Atlas Shrugged Part III,” the final installment.

A week before that, Sept. 6, the Sarasota couple, Joel and Diane Schleicher, will host a screening of the movie for invited Rand devotees at the Ringling College of Art and Design, along with a conversation and visit with one of the series' producers, the L.A. lawyer who served as the COO who brought the trilogy to fruition.

In the scheme of world, national, regional and local events, the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy will never reach “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” cult status. Nor will Part III — considered the best of the trilogy — ever come close to generating the tsunami of tweets and Facebook posts of a Justin Bieber meltdown. It won't go viral like the Ice Bucket Challenge.

But the stories behind bringing Rand's novel to the screen, nonetheless, can serve as potent testaments to the extraordinary power of ideas and the extraordinary, life-changing influence of Rand's philosophy.

Let's meet John Aglialoro, the entrepreneur who took 22 years to make the movie; Harmon Kaslow, the low-budget movie lawyer in L.A. who had never read Rand until he started working on the film; and Joel Schleicher, the Sarasota entrepreneur who with his wife, Diane, became Kickstarter investors in Part III because they “wanted to support the message.”

John Aglialoro
'It hit me. It shocked me.'

By the time Part III hits the theaters, Aglialoro will have spent close to $35 million of his own money bringing the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy to life.

He can afford it.

A Philadelphian, Aglialoro is one of those all-American success stories that would qualify him to be in Galt's Gulch, the fictional capitalistic utopia in Rand's novel. His father was what Aglialoro called “a gut-instinct entrepreneur;” he sold used cars, women's clothes and other products. “I'd ask him in the mornings what he was going to do that day, and he'd say, 'I don't know myself,'” says Aglialoro. But his father provided for his family and showed the virtues of a work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, which obviously influenced his youngest of four.

As a boy, Aglialoro would take the trolley to the ice store, carry a 50-pound bag of ice back to the trolley and then carry it to set up his snow-cone stand outside the Haddonfield City Hall.

Aglialoro went on to build an empire of businesses after a stint on Wall Street and dabbling as an actor. With $150,000 of his and others' money in 1972, he and his second wife started a cardiovascular stress-testing center in New Jersey. Thirty or so acquisitions later, it was one of the largest cardiac-diagnostic businesses in the country.

They expanded into dialysis centers; providing physical exams for companies' employees; and into the manufacture of high-end fitness equipment, better known as Cybex equipment.

Aglialoro says he found his guiding principles for business in Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. “She gave me a grounding in reality-based thinking,” he says. “You need a vision, a mission, a strategy, capital, employees and tactics.”

Aglialoro's embracing of Rand came shortly before age 30. At the time, he was an actor in a regional theater company. A woman in the stage crew kept urging him to read this book called “Atlas Shrugged.”

About a decade earlier, Aglialoro's mother was cleaning out old boxes of photos and books. She asked Aglialoro if he wanted any of them. In the box: a copy of Ayn Rand's “The Virtue of Selfishness.” He read it.

“It hit me. It shocked me,” he said.

When the stage crew member wrote down the author's name of “Atlas Shrugged,” Aglialoro remembered.

He read it; he became an Objectivist.

“It changes your perspective on life,” he says of Rand's opus.

A few years later, while living in Philadelphia, Aglialoro took a train once a week to the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City to take classes on Objectivism from Leonard Peikoff, heir to Rand's estate. They became friends. Aglialoro also became a consistent contributor to the Ayn Rand Institute.

This friendship led Peikoff and Aglialoro to discussions about the “Atlas Shrugged” movie. Others could never pull it off. In 1992, Aglialoro purchased from Peikoff a 15-year lease to the rights for $1 million.

“I thought, 'This should be easy,'” Aglialoro said. “I thought, 'Who would turn down a winner like this?'”

Five years passed. Then six, seven, eight. Aglialoro made little progress with Hollywood. He was ready to give up. But his wife convinced him he would regret it.

In 2010, with pressure of the lease about to expire, Aglialoro and his partner, lawyer Harmon Kaslow, completed Part I. Aglialoro negotiated with Peikoff to purchase an extension on the lease to finish Parts II and III.

While he has spent almost four times more than the first two parts have generated in revenue at the box office, Aglialoro is predicting Part III will reach $25 million in box-office sales. “You can quote,” he says.

Over time, he believes the trilogy will mirror Frank Capra's Christmas classic, “It's a Wonderful Life,” which also was a flop at first. It took 30 years before it won popularity.

No matter what, Aglialoro says he will have no regrets or misgivings that his $30 million-plus could have been put to better use.

Says he: “It has been enjoyable for me because it's about someone who changed my life for the better.”

The power of ideas.

Harmon Kaslow
'The enormity of this ...'

Harmon Kaslow and John Aglialoro became producing partners out of necessity. Aglialoro needed someone connected in Hollywood who could get things accomplished — find directors, screenwriters, actors and film crews and negotiate contracts.

This was Kaslow's specialty — the independent, low-budget movie niche.

When he signed on with Aglialoro, he had never read a page of an Ayn Rand book. He decided he better.

And in the process of making the movies, he met and worked side by side with people who were in Rand's inner circle — David Kelley, who read Rand's favorite poem, “If—”, by Rudyard Kipling, at her funeral; Nathaniel Branden, one of her first disciples and Rand's lover for a while; and Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute.

On the second day of filming, Kaslow received a page from his 1969 high-school yearbook from Kaslow's brother. It was a picture of Kaslow with an Ayn Rand quote: “The words 'to make money' hold the essence of human morality.”

“That's when I grasped the enormity of the life-changing aspect of this,” Kaslow said.

Through the four years of filming, Kaslow felt he lived the story of Rand's novel, repeatedly encountering obstacles in Hollywood's establishment and from government. “They're like the villains, because they interrupt the flow of the free market,” he said. “And they saw us as villains, not as job creators.”

With the three parts completed, Kaslow is now reading “Fountainhead.”

Rand has changed how sees things.

Joel Schleicher

'I read it once a decade.'

When Joel Schleicher was a junior at the University of Minnesota, his date handed him a copy of “Atlas Shrugged.” “You might like this,” she said.

It changed his life, all right. He married the young lady, now Diane Schleicher.

“It's the most influential book I've ever read,” Schleicher say. “I read it once a decade.

Schleicher says Rand's book and philosophy laid out “a lot of the principles on how I run my life”: Common sense; belief in individual rights; “that mankind itself will take care of others,” Schleicher says. “I don't think the government should.”

Another one: “We will not compromise on these principles. If you compromise your principles,” he says, “that's the policy of appeasement. That's what got us into World War II.”

Schleicher cites a quote from Gen. George Patton that crystallizes for him Rand's philosophy and by which he abides in business: “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they'll surprise you with their ingenuity.”

The Rand principles apparently have served Schleicher well. After stints with KPMG Peat Marwick and private-equity firms, Schleicher became president and chief operating officer of Nextel Communications Inc.; In 2003, he founded Maryland-based Presidio Networked Solutions, a company that topped $1 billion in annual revenues before he and his partners sold it in 2011.

Schleicher has since followed that with the start of a cyber-security company that's focusing on data security for mid-tier companies. He's currently chairman and CEO of Tampa-based Sunera, which is expanding nationally.

Though not a proclaimed Objectivist, Schleicher nonetheless is deeply rooted in Rand's philosophies. He wears an Atlas Shrugged lapel pin and, with his wife, was among the Rand diehards to view the first two installments of the “Atlas Shrugged” movie. He's passing the philosophy on to the next generation of Schleichers as well.

When his eldest daughter was at Emory University, she invited him to speak to one of her classes about the growth of Presidio. Schleicher agreed on one condition: She would read “Atlas Shrugged” before he spoke.

During his visit, Schleicher sprinkled his presentation with five quotations and passages from the book — without identifying their source.

He challenged the 75 students. Whoever could identify the quotations would win a prize. They did. the prize: Schleicher handed out five copies of “Atlas Shrugged.”

In the process, he found out at least a third of the class already had read the book.

That makes Schleicher optimistic and confident about the future. He sees a new spirit of entrepreneurism among his daughter's generation:

“The internet has lowered barriers to entry; they're aware of taxes; there's a renewed sense of what America is — as long as we don't let government get in the way. Where does the Constitution say life is fair and everyone is entitled to their fair share?”

When the Schleichers host their guests at the screening of “Atlas Shrugged Part III” at Ringling College, not long after, their daughter will be hosting an event she organized for friends in New York City.
They, too, will view “Atlas Shrugged, Part III.”

The $5,000 Bet
When “Atlas Shrugged” movie producer John Aglialoro, who is also a member of the Atlas Society and an Objectivist, has encountered friends who have not read Ayn Rand's opus, “Atlas Shrugged,” he makes a bet with them. If they read the book, he says, he guarantees it will change their lives. Say Aglialoro: “I haven't paid yet.”

AYN RAND — She began writing a screenplay for the movie but died in 1982 with only a third of it completed.

ALBERT RUDDY — Ruddy is best known as the producer of “The Godfather,” “The Longest Yard” and “Million-Dollar Baby.” He approached Rand in 1972 about producing the movie. She declined to give him creative control.

ED SNIDER and MICHAEL JAFFE — Snider: A founder and owner of the Philadelphia Flyers and the Philadelphia Spectrum; former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers; a founding contributor in 1985 to the Ayn Rand Institute. He became executive producer of “Atlas Shrugged Part I.” Jaffe is a longtime Hollywood producer of TV movies.

HOWARD and KAREN BALDWIN and MICHAEL BURNS — The Baldwins, Hollywood movie producers, obtained the rights and tried between 2000 and 2004 with Burns, vice chairman of Lionsgate Entertainment, to produce the movie with big-name stars (e.g. Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts) but couldn't pull it off.


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