Dennis and Debra Scholl, JD ‘81
Dennis Scholl is an evolving being. From CPA to lawyer to art collector to philanthropist to winemaker to his latest venture: documentary filmmaker. In just six years, he has directed and produced a catalogue of documentaries telling the stories of artists, musicians, and even African-American church ladies and their hats in Sunday’s Best.
His recent film, Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound, screened at the 2014 South by Southwest festival.
It feels like he is making up for lost time. It was not until his senior year of college that he stepped into his first art museum and was drawn in by the quiet, serenity, and feeling of reverence. It was an experience that would be tucked away for another day, another time. He grew up in blue-collar Miami - son of a secretary and a steam fitter - in the 1950s, listening to music. He followed local sports teams, like many other boys his age, but Scholl had a few things many of them didn’t: ambition, drive, a collector gene, and insatiable curiosity.
“I didn’t have any cultural exposure growing up; maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about it now,” he said. Passion is a word he uses often.
Debra Schwartz Scholl grew up in New Jersey, within striking distance of New York City’s abundance of museums and galleries. Her father was a serial entrepreneur, a calling not lost on his daughter.
She earned her undergraduate degree in political science from the University of Florida with no real idea of where she wanted to go from there. She ended up at a Miami law firm as a receptionist. Reading the filings she was handling brought the realization that law school was something she thought she could accomplish.
“I went to law school with no big grandiose idea of what I wanted to do,” Debra said.
They met in law school at the University of Miami. Dennis claims she was held captive by way of the alphabet. “We met the first day of law school,” he said. “She was next to me in every class. She had to like me.” They would graduate together in 1981.
“Law school was the single greatest intellectual experience I’ve had in my life. Full stop,” said Dennis. “I loved the honing of your analytical mind in law school. I had some great, great professors to do that. I had Professor Hausler for contracts, Professor Boyer for property, and I had Minnette Massey and Bruce Winick for civil procedure. They were strong, thoughtful teachers who really felt like they had an obligation to help you reshape your mind and cause you to become very, very analytical. There was a lot of investment in risk-reward ratio and things like that; the ability to look at a problem and parse it out in a way that you can break it down into components and solve for each of the components. And that is how I do business, that is how I do personal projects, art projects and collect art.”
In law school, they worked part-time in a mall gallery with art to match your sofa. From that, Dennis and Debra would delve into the world of fine art on the road to becoming world-class collectors, with a traveling show, No Boundaries, currently showing their collections of Australian Aboriginal abstract contemporary paintings.
“When I graduated,” Debra said, “I got a job working for a mortgage lender and did regulatory work which led to a better job at City National Bank as in-house counsel. I sort of just kept moving along.
“When Dennis and I married in 1981, we had one car. I would take him to work, then I would go to work,” she said. “We did it to save money because we wanted to buy real estate.”
They bought their first building on South Beach in 1987, eventually acquiring and restoring twenty Art Deco apartment buildings. Debra transitioned into property development full time, Dennis continued to practice law, his income financing the real estate investments. In the late 1990s, they started investing in property in Wynwood. They ended up buying an old gym - World Class Boxing - because they had purchased a piece of art by the Scottish artist Simon Starling, House for a Song Bird, which was 14 feet height and took up 300 square feet. Keeping the name of its former tenant, the 4,000-square-foot gallery/project/art library space exhibited works from their collection.
All along, Dennis’ curiosity would lead them to new ventures. They would meet the world’s top sommelier and end up launching an award-winning wine label together. Dennis would wonder what happened to the original soul music that created the Miami sound, as was inspired to co-direct the documentary Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound.
To someone on the outside, the progression from art lover to film producer might seem obvious, but to Dennis it was a sea change. “I went from being a facilitator, to being a maker,” he said. “For me, it was a huge shift.”
Today, Dennis has lots of film projects involving Miami in the planning stages.
“Only now, is Miami starting to tell its stories,” Dennis said. “It’s exciting to be a part of that moment to participate in the telling of truly Miami stories by Miami filmmakers for Miami audiences, but that resonate internationally.”
The Scholls’s strengths complement one another - Debra is pragmatic and keeps her eye on the big picture; Dennis is more driven by passion.
“What are you personally passionate about? It is a question I ask others and always ask myself. Because when it gets tough, that is the only thing that keeps you going,” Dennis said.