Member since 1958
Smell of Success:
An Interview with Shirley Herz
Late in 2000, Shirley Herz
(Shirley Herz Associates, NYC) sat down with us for a brief interview
and a casual look back at her remarkable four decades as a press
Q: You have been a Press Agent for many years and
seen how the theater industry, and the art of press agentry has grown and
changed. Tell us how you got into the business.
SH: I’m trying to remember the year I got in the
union – ’58 or ’59 – something like that I think.. I was personal
press representative for Rosalind Russell in a tour of BELL BOOK AND
CANDLE. She went out on the road because she wanted to find out if she was
able to do 8 shows a week. She was a big film star and hadn’t been
onstage in years and she wanted to see how she felt about the theatre. She
loved it and she was terrific – just great. And so the following year I
worked for her again when she was doing WONDERFUL TOWN – the musical –
and that was my first job in the theatre and I learned more from Rosalind
than from anyone before or since. Bright, bright woman.
How did you gravitate towards the theater industry
in the first place?
I knew I wanted to do publicity. I knew I wanted to be
in the theatre, but I didn’t want to be an actor. I found out about
press agentry and I decided "I’m gonna be a press agent." So I
took a job at George Jensen in New York selling watches. The reason I took
that job was a.) I needed a job and B) It gave me two days a week off –
it was a five day a week job and I worked Saturday, so I had Sunday and
Monday to look for jobs. As it happened, one day I was on the sales floor,
selling my watches, and an actress by the name of Barbara O’Neil walked
in. Barbara played the mother in GONE WITH THE WIND and I’d met her in
Philadelphia as an autograph hound. She saw me and said, "What are
you doing here?" I told her I was looking for a job in the theater.
When I got home to Philadelphia the next day, there was a phone call from
her, saying call so-and-so and they’ll help you get a job. And that’s
how I got my first press job.
Was it easy to build a career from such a wonderful
start? How did you get into ATPAM?
Well, from there, I kept trying to get in the union.
And in those days the union said get a contract and we’ll let you in,
and the union press office said we’ll give you a job if you get a
contract. It was just catch-22. I tried for years and I’d just about
given up all hope of ever getting in the union. I took a job working for a
man in television, who bought TV time all over the country. I was
essentially a television buyer and I was traveling a great deal. Then one
day Betty Lee Hunt, who was a friend of mine and a press agent, called to say
Dorothy Ross would hire me as her apprentice on HOUSE OF FLOWERS. I was
working as TV buyer and I was making a lot of money and I said "How
much will she pay?" It was for union minimum, which at that time was
$50 a week and I took it anyway. So I began my apprenticeship with
Dorothy. After the show closed, I moved to another office to work on DESK
SET for three weeks. And then Bill Doll called me to say he wanted me to
work for him and so I served an apprenticeship with Bill Doll and Sam
Freedman. I finished my apprenticeship and remained on with Bill Doll and
worked on all of their shows. Bill and Sam were in business, but Bill was
also handling Mike Todd. Mike Todd wasn’t supposed to know that Bill was
in business. But that’s how I started. The overall view of this is that
in those days, those guys were NUTS. They were crazy. They were creative.
And press agentry was an art.
Sort of like the SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS stereotype...
Absolutely. Absolutely. There were press agents and
personal press agents and we’d hang out together as a group. I knew them
all. Late at night we’d go to Hanson’s Drugstore at 51st &
Broadway. Walter Winchell would come by there and you’d give him column
items about your clients and your shows. Mike Hall - who was a famous
famous press agent who just died a short time ago – would plant in
Winchell all the time. You had a routine for press agentry in those days,
even as a legitimate press agent. When I worked for Dorothy Ross, each day
I knew what column I was going to sit down and do. For instance , for a
Sunday column, you took your copy over to Dorothy Kilgallen by hand. It
was very personal and a lot of fun. You would write an item and send it to
Winchell and he’d send it back to you unused. You had to wait till it
came back. Then you’d rewrite it for Kilgallen. Then she wouldn’t use
it, so you’d rewrite it for Jack O’Brian. Or Leonard Lyons. But that’s
the sort of thing you did.
What other things did you do as a press agent?
Aaahh, there were the stunts. I worked with Bill Doll and he did the Mike Todd party at Madison Square Garden, which was
incredible. It was for AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. The party itself was a
disaster, but it was incredible. I was also working for Sam Freedman. Sam
was a hot-headed redhead. And everybody who attended the party at the
Garden – every seat was filled – was promised a gift. Well, disaster
struck and struck again.– Somebody fell off the elephant that was part
of the festivities. The guests were supposed to get free drinks and of
course all the ushers were charging for drinks I came along just in time
to see Sam Freedman holding a bottle of wine over somebody’s head. The
guy was pushing a dishwasher or a refrigerator out of the Garden – he
had been promised a gift and he wanted his gift and he was going to take
it – and he found this dishwasher…
What changed all of that? Did the number of
newspapers in New York have any influence on this?
The newspapers had a lot to do with it. Because every
Tuesday you went around to the papers. You’d start with the downtown
papers and then do the uptown papers. In all there were about seven or
eight papers at the time. Whenever I wasn’t in the office, somebody
would call for me and Bill would say "Oh, Shirley. She’s out at the
That changed in the 60’s into the 70’s when the
newspapers began to fold.
As the papers folded, there was less space for coverage
and it became more competitive to get your story into the newspapers that
remained. Television came into the mix at around this time. Today you aim
for a television publicity stunt and if the papers cover it, fine.
Was it different to deal with the television
reporters vs. the newspaper reporters?
Press Agents didn’t know how to use television and
the television reporters didn’t know how to use it. It was a mutual
thing. In those days the cameras were big and heavy to lug around. We had
to learn to think visually and they had to learn to think like press
What else about those times made it so different, so
In those days, the producers were characters, too.
Everybody knows David Merrick. He was the ultimate showman. There was
Leonard Sillman, who was a character unto himself. And you could have
knock-down, drag-out fights with Leonard. And I did, many times. But then
it’d be "Come on, let’s have a drink." There was camaraderie
that doesn’t exist today.
What happens now when you’re dealing with these
conglomerates of producers?
Sitting down at a publicity/ad meeting today is no
longer fun. It is all about marketing. It’s graphics. It’s figuring
out who our "product" is going to appeal to. Nowadays we don’t
approach it as a production. It’s not the play, not the musical, but the
"product." The heart of it is gone, I think. Granted, I would
love to have a big smash musical to work on, but I don’t think I would
have the enjoyment that I had fifteen years ago on LA CAGE AUX FOLLES.
Because that was a family. Allan Carr, Fritz Holt, Barry Brown. We were
together constantly and enjoyed each other. Both prior to the production
and after the production. And it was a close-knit family. If something was
wrong with one person, the others all worried. That doesn’t happen
How has the art of press agentry changed?
Its been interesting over the years. I’ve served on
ATPAM’s Board of Governors and various Negotiating Committees as the
Union sat with the League of American Theater Producers to renew our
contracts. The League has systematically reduced a lot of our job over the
years. We used to get paid for certain things and now we don’t. We used
to do ticket trades and the like, and now there are marketing people to do
that. When I was an associate and there was a road show, I was out there
with it. I had to be out there with it in order to do my job. But today,
you can handle it from New York. That’s one of the things the producers
got away with in the negotiations, that they didn’t have to send a press
agent out on the road for each date that could be handled from New York.
In fact, an advance Press Agent would send back hotel and transportation
information, because we were always one or two cities ahead of the show.
Now travel agencies do that for the show. Or the Company Managers.
So what keeps you working? What do you enjoy?
Money. I’m kidding! I’m kidding!
Aside from that.
I keep hoping. I keep looking for the fun of the
industry. I treat the business seriously. But I want fun from it. And
enjoyment. And I keep hoping the next one – maybe that’ll be
different. I was looking forward to THE VISIT because I had Barry as a
producer. But I also knew it wouldn’t be the same as other productions I’d
done with Barry, because it’s a new world. We weren’t dealing with
eight or ten million dollars in those days even though the amount was
comparable, I suppose. But it was more relaxed, or something. You didn’t
have to go out and get commercial underwriting.
From what you’ve said, and others who grew up in
the business with you, it seems people were more interested in the
product. Today you have to go out and fight to make the theatre seem
That’s right. Exactly. I think it’s great what the
League has done to market the theatre. But New Yorkers aren’t going to
theatre. I think that the marketing has been sensational. But I know that
when I was growing up in the business, I was at the theatre – and I’d
buy tickets, I wasn’t being walked in –two, three nights a week.
Today, if I want to go to theatre, I’ll go Off-Broadway because that the
only place there’s anything decent. And affordable. But even that’s
getting to be a little pricey. I remember when I was a kid, I’d go to
half-price every weekend. I would go see two matinees. And it was ten
That’s why you don’t give up. You have that one
experience that shows you the magic of the theater.
FULL MONTY was terrific. So was PROOF and THE SYRINGA
TREE. Recently I went Off Broadway to see JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK and it was
wonderful. It was exciting. It was a production that, if I were just
starting out, would convince me to go into the theater. I’m bored!
Would you pick LA CAGE as your best experience.
Oh, that was a three and a half year laugh. I had a
fabulous time on that.
And what made that so special?
The closeness of the people on the production team and
in the cast. Allan Carr, until the day he died, remained my good friend.
Fritz, who I adored… Fritz and Barry, Marvin Krauss and Jon Wilner and
Arthur Laurents… we just all were one big family…
That’s why you go into the theatre…
That’s right. Most times you’re a family while you’re
working on a production and then… you go on to the next. On LA CAGE to
this day, the original Cagelles, frequently they still drop in here and I’ll
still see some of the featured girls, and somehow we all seem to stay in
contact with each other, just this summer, somebody got married… and
that remained a close group.
Do you think that was Allan Carr’s doing? Was he
Allan was wonderful, but it was Fritz and Barry. And
Arthur, I suppose. And Jerry and Harvey. All of ‘em.
Are there particular projects you respond to?
I’m already working on THE PLAY ABOUT THE BABY, which
is Edward Albee’s. I enjoy it because Edward and I have a relationship
that goes back a long time. I’ve handled about four or five of his
plays. And I like him as a playwright; I like him as a person. As a
friend. I enjoy working for people who are friends and who know what I do
and just let me go ahead and do it.
Are there things that you particularly favor?
I love musicals. I love musicals. I love comedy. Which
we don’t have much of that. It doesn’t have to be slapstick, but
humor. It has to be entertaining, because people go to the theatre to be
entertained. They want to laugh.
It’s alive Off-Broadway.
My biggest gripe about the theatre today is the average
person can’t afford to go. Even at the half price booth now, if the
tickets are ninety dollars, it’s gonna be forty-five bucks. Its becoming
inaccessible. And I know the American Theatre Wing and Early Stages and
all get tickets for children, which is terrific. But that’s a small
percentage of the people that should be going to the theatre.
What moment did you know you wanted to get into the
The moment that made me realize I want to work in the
theater came when I was very young. It was in Philadelphia and I went to
see Katharine Hepburn in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY. And when it was over,
after all the curtain call applause, she came out and made a curtain
speech. And it was such magic that I was transfixed and I thought, "I
have to be part of her world. I have to be in that world." I had
always thought I was going to be a doctor and that went out the window
when I saw her. Throughout my career I had plenty of opportunities to meet
this great actress. When I was working for Harvey Sabinson and he said
"You’re gonna handle COCO," and I said, "No I’m
not." And I left the office. I quit. I handled Stratford, and I didn’t
go up there when she was there. I never wanted to meet her. Zoe Caldwell
knew this story and of course they were very, very close friends and it
was at ALMOST PERFECT PERSON when it happened. I was backstage at a
matinee and Hepburn was there and I didn’t know it. I was walking down
the steps and Zoe said "Shirley, there’s someone I want you to
meet.." Well, my legs almost went out from under me. I shook her hand
and I left. I was in awe.
I didn’t want the vision of that curtain speech