Ursula Ryan has been a key player in New Jersey's film industry for a generation, working with Hollywood's top talent from her walk-up office on Atlantic Avenue.
The grandmother of three from Frankfurt, Germany, wears many hats: cheerleader for Atlantic City's film industry, career counselor for countless would-be actors and businesswoman whose storied life in many ways reflects the American dream.
"Life is hard. Life is rejection. I don't care if it's sports or jobs," said Ryan, of Galloway Township. "If you can't handle rejection, don't get into show business."
Ryan is president of Weist-Barron-Ryan Acting Workshops, which has offices in Atlantic City and New York. She and her younger daughter and business partner, Stefanie Ryan-Showell, cast commercials, television shows and feature films and offer acting classes.
Ryan is a former professional singer who got her start on stage in Wiesbaden, Germany, at the Eagle's Club, singing for Elvis Presley when he was stationed there in the U.S. Army. Elvis met his wife, Priscilla, at the nightclub where Ryan was a regular performer.
"He was shy," she recalled. "He was a wonderful person - religious. Very attached to his mother."
Ryan rubbed shoulders with many successful Americans in the years after World War II. Many worked for American Forces Network Radio in Germany.
"My parents loved young people anyway and always had the boys come over," she said.
Ryan fell in love with broadcaster Nick Clooney, whose sister Rosemary Clooney was a Hollywood icon. Ryan would go with Clooney to the top of Frankfurt's Hoechst Castle tower, where the Armed Forces Network broadcast, and they had phones to call home.
"I talked to his sister, Rosie. They encouraged me to come to the United States," she said.
Because of immigration complications, Ryan could not follow Clooney to the United States, and their romantic relationship ended.
"He was my first love. That's why we're still close," she said. "I've met his wife. She's wonderful. But we remain friends."
Clooney helped promote her first American records when he was a radio disc jockey, she said.
Later, fate would bring the Clooneys back into her life with the filming of "Ocean's 11" in Atlantic City. The film starred Clooney's famous son, George.
"Nick used to say, 'I'm going to be known forever as Rosemary's brother and George's father,'" she said.
Ryan has been influential in steering movie projects to Atlantic City, said Harris Haith, of Woodbridge, Middlesex County, an actor and director who recently finished a feature film called "The Starks Coalition," shot in Atlantic City.
"Ursula is a real people-person. I met her on the set of 'Trading Places,'" he said. "She's the key person in the South Jersey film market, from film to television. Ursula knows just about everyone in the business."
Ryan's impressive circle of American friends is all the more remarkable given her difficult childhood. She grew up amid the bombing of her home city, Frankfurt, during World War II. Three uncles were killed fighting in the war. Her father served in the military reserves as a pharmaceutical chemist, she said.
"My baby sister, Roswitha, was born in a bunker in 1945. My mom gave birth there. It was awful. No food. We were starving. But we're survivors, that generation," she said.
Her mother was sickly and had trouble walking, so it fell to Ryan's older sister, Inge, to take care of them, often standing in line for hours for food.
Ryan said her older sister suffered worse because she remembered what their life in Frankfurt was like before the war.
"The only thing I knew was wartime. I started school in a bunker," she said. "We had no food. The Quakers supplied us. We had a little canteen, and they gave us oatmeal."
Ryan moved to the United States in 1960.
"I came all by myself with one suitcase," she said. "I traveled with my dictionary wherever I went to communicate with my (American) friends."
James Preston, an old friend from her club days in Germany, picked her up at the airport. He later would become president of Avon Products Inc. They remain friends today, she said.
Ryan continued her singing career in Los Angeles before moving back to New York, where she joined the casting company Weist Barron. The company opened its Atlantic City office in 1980.
Ryan has helped cast local actors in movies starring big names such as Tom Cruise, Paul Newman and Robert DeNiro.
She also helps the Atlantic City Cinefest film festival, said President Bill Sokolic, of Ventnor.
"She'll do anything to help Atlantic City and to help our festival," he said. "She has a pretty good reputation in her acting classes."
Some of her students focus on commercial work, which can be equally lucrative.
"They get recognition. You're not famous as a movie star, but people recognize you. And you learn the business," she said.
Many non-actors take her classes, which aim to build self-confidence, develop poise and improve public-speaking. Her students have included trial attorneys, politicians and even restaurant servers.
"One of my waitresses said, 'My tips are so much better now,'" she said.
Some parents send their children to her to help improve their communication skills, she said.
"With the texting, it's getting worse and worse. People don't communicate face to face anymore. They don't have the social graces," she said.
Today, Ryan has two grown children and three grandchildren. And while she won't share her age publicly, she said she does not think of retirement.
"I'm so proud of my students," she said. "We've had people who had a terrible time with self-confidence. I get letters from parents who say, 'Thank you for saving my child.'"
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