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 papers.”
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 agents.
What else about those times made it so different, so special?
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 today.
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 important.
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 bucks.
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 the dad?
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? Musicals? Non-musicals?
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 theater?
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 ever disturbed.