Their lives are as colorful as their art-filled home in Rancho Santa Fe: A.J. (Arline) Genis, an interior designer and former actress, and husband, Dan, a veteran special effects cinematographer whose work on Star Wars and Black Sunday was nominated for Academy Awards. They now live far from their Hollywood roots, but their stories are the stuff of movie scripts.
A.J., whose Dad was road manager in the Big Band era for Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, was a self-described “show biz brat” who grew up in hotels. “I was like the girl Eloise,” she says with a laugh, a reference to the series of children’s books about a little girl who lived in New York’s Plaza hotel. A.J.’s Dad knew just about everybody in the business and got her acting jobs even though she admits, “I was a lousy actress.” She claims that didn’t faze George Burns who, upon learning she could neither sing nor dance , told her: “Don’t worry. I’ll shoot you from the waist up.” When her mother decided she was too old to be an ingénue, A.J. joined her mother’s interior design business in the San Fernando Valley before striking out on her own.
In 1977, A. J. witnessed history first hand, as a set designer for David Frost’s famous interviews with the disgraced President Richard Nixon. Television crews couldn’t shoot in Nixon’s actual “Western White House” in San Clemente because Coast Guard transmitters interfered with TV relay equipment. So A.J. and her partner in a Los Angeles design firm created a set in a Laguna Beach home owned by a Nixon supporter. During the widely televised interviews, Nixon apologized to the American people for the Watergate scandal that brought down his presidency.
A.J.’s husband Dan, who is now a business consultant and investor, was a photographer in the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps during the Korean War, and later photographed such stars as Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Rooney when they toured bases for USO shows. In Los Angeles, he specialized in special effects for television commercials, eventually breaking into the film business, working on such films as Cabaret with Bob Fosse and the Superman movies. Over the years, Genis and his colleagues created painstaking special effects, including the laser sword sequences in the first Star Wars film. Effects that took many months of tedious work back then now take just weeks, thanks to computer-generated imaging. A member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Genis has founded six companies during his career, including those that supplied equipment to movie studios.
The couple moved to Montecito for a time, but Genis called it “God’s waiting room” because the pace was too slow. They settled into a large home in Fairbanks Ranch, eventually downsizing to a 3,000-square foot, four-bedroom house in the North County. The couple’s extensive art collection fills the house, including bronzes by Doug Hyde, paintings by Ira Yeager, a lithograph of Norman Rockwell’s famous “Freedom from Fear” poster, a hand-blown vase by glass artist Dale Chihuly. Centuries’ old Chinese ceramic “pillows” top the wooden coffee table, along with bronze dancers by Erte. There’s also a crystal “Snoopie,” a gift from cartoonist Charles Schultz with whom Genis worked on the Charlie Brown films “We didn’t collect famous,” says A.J. “But everything became famous.”
Genis now works as a consultant and mentor to people in the film industry, while A.J. often travels to Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles for her interior design business. Among other projects, she is creating the interior for a new restaurant set to open on Sunset Boulevard this September. She also serves on the committee for the Globe Guilders’ “Celebrating Couture” fashion show with Naeem Khan, as well as the upcoming Country Friends’ “Art of Fashion” runway show. Four grown children, including twin sons, and four grandchildren also keep them busy.
The couple, who have owned 13 houses over the years, are planning yet another move—this time “upsizing” to a larger home in Del Mar. Turns out that Dan misses his screening room. Let’s just say, it’s a work in progress. Andrea Naversen
Photography by Vincent Knakal