What I Learned From My Mother
Juliana Bunim, 32, Mary-Ellis' daughter, remembers a woman who "thought bigger."
My first memory of the Bunim-Murray pairing is of a flaming turkey. Jon had just moved from New York to Los Angeles and, not knowing anyone else, came to our house in Tarzana for Thanksgiving. Anyone who knew my mom would agree she had a take-charge personality, and this sometimes extended to situations where she didn't exactly know what she was doing. She stuffed the bird, threw it in the oven, and off we all went to play tennis several miles away. We returned a couple of hours later to a house full of smoke, a flaming ball of turkey and the revelation that the thermostat on the oven didn't work. It may have been a botched dinner, but it made for a very entertaining story. Of course, to my mom, the latter was always more important.
Those first couple of years of BMP were rocky. At the time, I didn't understand the magnitude of the risk my mom had taken by leaving the security of working in soaps to start a business with a guy who had an entirely different background from hers. My mom always laughed when remembering how she and Jon signed up for French lessons because, as she said, they needed something to do while waiting for the phone to ring. But she and Jon didn't give up. Finally, one of their pilots, a show about young people living in a loft, was picked up.
I was 11 when The Real World premiered, and in many ways, as an only child, the show was the sibling I never had. Almost nightly, a runner would arrive at our door lugging several bins overflowing with VHS tapes with auditions of wannabe cast members. With my mom on the couch and me perched under the VCR feverishly feeding tapes, she'd say, "No, no, no" (with the occasional "yes") to the candidates. I quickly learned what traits resonated, what unique qualities stood out and whom she would respond to. I remember us finding Heather B. from the first Real World in New York and Rachel Campos from Real World: San Francisco. I would prescreen the tapes, pulling out the highlights on the nights she didn't have time to watch them all. I knew that for my mother, finding the story mattered most of all.
It also was really important to my mom to create something lasting. She did this by expecting the very best from people -- whether it be from Jon, myself or her employees. She never hired an assistant she didn't believe could one day be an executive producer. I had no idea that the people answering my mom's and Jon's phones when I was a kid -- Scott Freeman, Matt Kunitz, Noah Pollack -- would one day be at the top of the field.
My mom thought bigger than anyone and saw life through the lens of a storyteller. One night, my junior year of high school, we were at a Chinese restaurant on Ventura Boulevard. As usual, the conversation turned to college applications. I thought my grades, SAT scores and extracurricular activities would suffice to get into a good school. She stared at me blankly. "Everyone has that stuff," she said. "What's different?" Suddenly I felt like one of the VHS tapes overflowing in the bin, blending into all of the others. And then she said the words in all seriousness that could only come from Mary-Ellis and still make me laugh out loud. "You know what you really need to do? Either publish a book or get your pilot's license." There wasn't time for me to do either before applications were due that fall, so I decided to take my chances. Luckily, the admissions committee was more accepting than my mom, a testament that it really is easier getting into college than onto The Real World.
Today, my mom's legacy lives on in BMP. It also lives in me. I will never forget her indomitable spirit pushing everyone around her to innovate, embrace life and bring a little magic to what they do -- even if you sometimes burn the bird.
Juliana Bunim is a senior media representative at the University of California San Francisco's Medical Center and Benioff Children's Hospital