Half the time I’m watching something on YouTube, it turns out to be something uploaded by Alan Eichler.
Eichler, 77, worked as a press agent on shows like Hello, Dolly! and Hair, later representing a wealth of vintage divas he was helping to become trendy again in the twilight of their careers — Eartha Kitt, Yma Sumac, Anita O’Day, Ruth Brown and many more.
If that sounds like every gay kid’s dream, Eichler actually came to be a publicist, promoter and producer because he was a gay kid obsessed with TV. TVs were relatively newfangled when he was a boy, and Eichler was amazed by the unique connection his provided to celebrities, particularly great female singers.
But the medium was fleeting in the ‘50s — you watched something at a prescribed hour, and then it was gone. Often quite literally. With the exception of programs whose creators had the foresight to preserve them, much of early TV vanished shortly after it was consumed. Without realizing he was prefiguring the home video market, Eichler hooked up a tape recorder to his set, recording the audio of countless items of interest — particularly talk shows and musical performances. Many of his audio cassettes are the only remnants of those shows, one-of-a-kind souvenirs that exist thanks only to the hoarding instincts of a gay kid from Queens.
Decades later, Eichler repeated the pattern in a more completist way, once he acquired his first VCR. “I got my first video recorder in ’76, which at that time was a ¾-inch U-matic, those big, clunky machines with tapes that look like cigar boxes,” Eichler told me in our recent three-hour phone call. “The tapes were $25 apiece for one hour! So anything over an hour was a big investment.”
For a born archivist, for a collector, television was always an investment worth making. Now, he spends his days uploading his hoard to YouTube, making it available to all. When I first called him, he put me on hold, saying, “Just let me get a movie started. I record all day long. I have to set the TV up. I’ll be with you in just a second.”
And after a word from our sponsor, he returned, letting me know that when he passes away, his collection will become a part of the historical record.
“I’ve already made arrangements with UC Santa Barbara to take my material for their audio-video archive,” he confirmed, “but my garage is packed from floor to ceiling with cartons and I wanna go through it all. There’s still things in the garage I haven’t found yet.”
I spoke with Eichler about what drove him to collect, his uniquely gay fascination with female artists and his fabulous successes — and fascinating failures — with some of them later in his life ...
What did you first collect?
Music. My grandfather had a music store in Astoria, Queens, on Steinway Street. When I was a toddler, I can remember I had a little phonograph — we had 78s back then — this would be the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, so I would’ve been 3 or 4 years old. I remember my first children’s records I had and which one were my favorites. My grandfather would bring records home — he lived in the same building we did in Queens — and I couldn’t read the labels yet, so I didn’t know the names of the people, but I could recognize the different labels.
Gay men tend to have one diva to whom they’re loyal — who was yours?
The one that stuck out in my head, I didn’t know who it was until later, was Patti Page. I was getting old enough to go shopping and there were record stores in the neighborhood so I collected her records as much as I could, branching out, going all over the city into Brooklyn, Manhattan, and I knew the subways because my grandmother used to take me shopping with her.
When I was 13, [Patti Page] had her own TV show called “The Big Record” that was gonna be premiering on CBS and I knew that her manager had an office, so I found the address of the office and I thought of it as her office and somehow in my mind, I expected her to be there, which was ridiculous. But anyway, I took the subway into the city to Rockefeller Center and went up to the 12th floor where “her” office was and there were banks of elevators on each side, and as the elevator doors were opening on my elevator, there was Patti Page in front of me in a full-length mink coat getting onto the elevator across from me! It was just a split-second thing, just enough for me to see that it was her. What are the odds of that? It’s mind-blowing.
You forged a lot of connections in entertainment thanks to your Patti Page fandom.
The secretary gave me tickets and I started going to Patti’s show every week. I was able to go to the dress rehearsals as well, which didn’t have an audience. The Ed Sullivan Theater — back then it was Studio 50. Her show was on Wednesdays live and Ed Sullivan’s was on Sundays. The dress rehearsal was around 5 o’clock. I could walk around and go up to any of the guest stars that were there because they were waiting to rehearse and I could just go talk to them or get their autographs. That kind of got me feeling easy with celebrities. None of this was ever intentional, it was just, everything sort of happened.
Patti would always let me come up to her dressing room after the show — it was really like a fantasy in a way. A lot of the guest stars on the show became clients later on, or people that I knew very well — Carol Channing, Johnny Ray, the De Castro Sisters, Jeri Southern, the Andrews Sisters. I worked with them all later, and I didn’t even know what I was gonna be when I grew up.
When did collecting music turn into collecting TV?
When Patti started with her television show, I got a reel-to-reel tape recorder and I found a way to hook it up to the TV and I started recording her shows every week on tape, and I started taping everything I liked — talk shows, variety shows — just the audio. Movies, just the sound. I still have cartons and cartons of these tapes in my garage.
You must have one-of-a-kind recordings.
I do. A lot of the shows that were erased, like several years of The Merv Griffin Show and The Steve Allen Show, some of the shows exist on video, but years were erased and I have a lot of those on audio. I have Jean Arthur on The Merv Griffin Show, Veronica Lake on The Merv Griffin Show.
Yes. I would tape segments of things I liked. Then I got a Beta, since they said it was a much better format. I wish I’d stuck with VHS because those have survived a lot better. They all still mostly play, but the Betas don’t really track as well anymore. Even the ones I transfer to digital, I keep the tapes because even digital doesn’t always last. Keep your originals. Same thing with a computer — a computer can crash. Nothing is permanent on digital, but if you have the original tape or 78 or whatever it is, you have that to fall back on.
It is sad to me that many of the people best positioned to preserve things are often the least interested in posterity. It’s like they’re missing a gene — or we are.
My partner, who passed away, he had no interest in any of it and thought I was crazy recording all the time.
It can be obsessive.
I have thousands and thousands of things that I’ll never watch. I’m a collector who likes to have; it’s more important than watching or listening, the having.
I wonder if the early TV that was lost had instead been preserved and had always been as widely available as the things we haven’t lost, likeI Love Lucy, if our understanding of TV and movie history would be radically different.
Maybe. The people who made films in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, those movies played for a week or two weeks. Nobody expected them to ever be seen again. Ted Turner got so much criticism for colorizing things, but if it wasn’t for him — think of all he preserved! Every MGM film, every RKO film, every Warner Bros. film, every short, every newsreel. He preserved everything, all these things nobody ever thought had a life. I wish all the studios were doing that. There’s a wealth of material with Paramount, Universal and Fox and they kinda dribble out periodically, but there’s so much more.
Wasn’t TV even more vulnerable?
Thank God for kinescopes — but nobody ever expected those to have a life again or be used again. Some people thought ahead, whether they thought there’d be a commercial value or not. Bob Hope saved all his shows, Dinah Shore, Andy Williams, Johnny Carson and several others were saved. But so much was lost. In the early days of videotape, they would erase things to reuse the tape, especially talk shows and variety shows. A lot of the sponsors saved things. Merv Griffin, when he was alive, was trying to archive his shows.
As a collector, I’m sure you must have a white whale?
The holy grail is Ethel Merman’s Annie Get Your Gun, which somehow vanished. There was a 90-minute revival of the show she did in 1966, but nobody knows if Irving Berlin pulled it or what happened. Maybe he had it destroyed.
Considering how fondly remembered she was when Elvira launched, I was surprised to realize there is next to nothing original featuring Vampira.
I have an audio of Vampira. There are lots of variety shows I’d love to see. I’m always grateful for what does survive and stay hopeful some of the other things will show up eventually.
Do you own things you would never share? Some collectors are jealous hoarders of rarities.
If I’m given something in a trade and told not to circulate it, I don’t. I used to withhold things for trading purposes, but now I started putting stuff on YouTube for fun. I don’t monetize it.
You have so much early material. Are you also intrigued by stars’ final acts?
I love the past — not everything — but yes, I’m fascinated by the later years because that became part of my career as a publicist and manager. I started finding people that I liked as a fan, older performers that were still performing who weren’t “relevant” anymore. The ones that I liked that I called “originals,” they did something that would be gone when they were gone. I managed to find several of those people — Yma Sumac, Eartha Kitt, Ruth Brown, Patti Page, Maxine Sullivan — and managed to get their careers back on track again.
What made you choose the women you chose?
Patti, I knew. When I moved from New York to California in ‘81, I was working for a big publicity firm out there. I was in touch with her and her manager, and I’d go see her perform in places and she was keeping a press agent on retainer — a very small amount. The press agent she had was leaving, so Jack Rael asked me if I would do it. Of course I wanted to be her press agent — that went back to my childhood — so I agreed, but I had to go to my boss, Lee Solters, a high-powered press agent who had Michael Jackson and Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. To him, Patti Page was a has-been in 1981. As a favor to me, he let me do it. I told him he wouldn’t have to worry about it at all — I would do all the work and he could have my fee, which was actually half my salary at the time.
That’s a fan!
I continued being her press agent even after I left, and I promoted her 50th-anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1997. She couldn’t get a label deal, even though they had recorded it. A friend of mine had DRG Records and agreed to put it out — and she won her first Grammy ever in 1999. I was part of all that, so that was incredible, considering how I first started with her back in the ‘50s.
The same happened with Eartha Kitt. I’d seen her perform several times, but I got involved with a show called Timbuktu! in 1978. I was originally gonna be the press agent, but then the producer made me associate producer instead. They weren’t gonna hire Eartha — he wanted someone younger and hotter — I hate to use that term with her. She’d been out of the picture for a while. Geoffrey Holder wanted her and I got all excited and I wanted her, so we kinda piled up on him and he finally agreed to hire her and he did.
Starting with the first day of rehearsal — the other stars were Melba Moore and Gilbert Price and William Marshall — I took Eartha under my wing and concentrated on her completely and let the show’s press agent do all of the other stuff, and I just took care of Eartha and I rebuilt her career to the point where she was a real star again.
Ruth Brown had been driving a school bus and working as a domestic. She was booked into a club in New York called the Cookery where Alberta Hunter had her comeback and I went to see Ruth and we talked and at that time I was booking the Vine Street Bar and Grill in Hollywood and I asked her if she’d like to come out and she did. So I booked her and then I started booking her many times into the Cinegrill at the Roosevelt and Michael’s Pub in New York. She had been doing a show called Black and Blue that started in Paris and the producers were going to bring it to Broadway, but they weren’t necessarily going to use Ruth, they were looking — again — for someone younger and I’ll put “hotter” in quotes. But I had her at Michael’s Pub in New York and she was getting hot again, selling out and getting rave reviews, and the producers kind of had to use her, she’d gotten so hot again. She did Black and Blue and won the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. I got her a record deal, and she won a Grammy for the album.
Geraldine Fitzgerald, who I started with her cabaret act, used to say to me, “There are some jobs you do for money, and then other jobs you do for reputation. If something is successful, the money will follow.” I was never money-motivated, I just worked to make something happen. People would laugh at me at first. When I’d tell people I was managing Yma Sumac or Eartha Kitt or Ruth Brown, people would laugh at me. Anita O’Day was working in clubs out in the valley for $100 a night and I worked her up into being a major jazz attraction again. Hadda Brooks hadn’t worked in 16 years — she was in total obscurity. I was opening Perino’s, a famous old restaurant in Hollywood but it was in its last years and nobody was going there anymore, and they asked me to book cabaret acts in it. It was this ornate dining room with huge pink banquettes, and then I looked in the bar, a beautiful wood-paneled room with a baby grand with seats around it and I said, “That’s where the music should be.” I pictured an older Black woman playing and singing.
I went down to meet Hadda Brooks. I’d never heard her perform, I’d never heard of her before and I thought I knew of every female singer. I hired her on the spot without hearing her because I liked her so much as a person. She opened and opening day I had to do everything, so I had to go to a music store and buy a sound system. We used a Muzak system that was installed there already, but we needed a mic and boom stand and I had to get a flood light and had to do the sound check by having a waiter listening downstairs while I made adjustments upstairs — we did it over the phone. Opening night, the first night I put the lights up and the mic, an L.A. Times critic came and she hit it out of the ballpark opening night, which led to her career going up and up and up and getting signed to Virgin Records as a new act — she was close to 80 and an alcoholic, and did three CDs for them. My fantasy for her was to play the Algonquin and she played it twice. I never made money, but it was all satisfying.
Did you have a favorite?
Each one was almost like having a love affair, I became so attached to them. Even though I had other things happening at the same time, I would always focus on one or two in particular. The ones that were the most important to me were Patti, Eartha, Hadda Brooks, Anita O’Day, Yma Sumac, Nellie Lutcher, Johnnie Ray — he did a video with Billy Idol and we had a movie in the works and a book deal, so things were happening but his liver gave out. Thelma Carpenter I started working for back in the ‘60s. At one point, she was working for Mott’s Applesauce as a file clerk and checking coats at a gay restaurant for a quarter a coat — and I would go help her check coats. Then she got hired as Pearl Bailey’s understudy and she went on 100 times and I got to see her playing Dolly on Broadway. That was the reward.
You’d had earlier experience with Hello, Dolly! as a press agent, no?
In the fall of ’63, I was supposed to start at a teacher’s college after two years at a community college. At the very last minute, I suddenly got the idea to be a press agent and made a list of press agent offices in the theater district and I literally went from office to office asking for a job as an apprentice and got hired by the biggest one, which was Solters/Roskin/Friedman. They had all the David Merrick shows, Barbra Streisand, Tony Curtis, Tony Perkins, Carol Channing, The Bob Hope Show, the Hollywood Palace.
I started in the mail room and worked my way up to being a senior publicist with an assistant and a secretary and was handling about 11 accounts at one time — the Rolling Stones, Bob Hope, Jimmy Dean, the Hollywood Palace. I opened Caesar’s Palace, doing all the press releases. But while I was in the mail room, I met Thelma — she had played a small club in New York — and thought she was fabulous. She had been a vocalist for Count Basie in the ‘40s and Coleman Hawkins and Teddy Wilson and she’d been on Broadway and had just had a hit record a year or two before, “Yes, I’m Lonesome Tonight,” answering Elvis Presley.
On my lunch hour, I’d go across the street to a newspaper store across the street calling TV shows and clubs trying to get her booked. I would send out press items and releases, and then Lee Solters finally found out about it and he was angry at first. He yelled at me.
But years before I got Thelma into the show, we handled Hello, Dolly! I started in the fall of ’63 and the big talk around the office was about this show in Detroit called Dolly, a Damned Exasperating Woman that they thought would close in Detroit. They pulled it together and it came into New York as Hello, Dolly! and was a smash.
Back then, they used to have to cover things late at night. Shows would start at 8:30 or 8:40, and if a star came to the show and they were going to go backstage, somebody had to be there to cover it. The regular press agents didn’t wanna have to go out at 11 o’clock at night to cover something, so they started sending me. I was probably 20 or 21 when they started sending me out to things. I covered Ginger Roger and Betty Grable — I saw all of them [in Dolly!]. So, in ’68, when Thelma Carpenter was going to be doing Dolly!, this person they had ridiculed me about, it was … not revenge, but part of the satisfaction of it all.
Did you have a sense, when you were working on Hello, Dolly! and Hair and other big shows, that they were destined to become iconic?
Well, they were important at the time, but I didn’t know they would become legendary. Helen O’Connell was interviewed one time about the Big Band stuff and she said, “If I’d known it was an era, I would have paid more attention.” [Laughs] I didn’t know they would become history.
When I started on Hair, it was already running. It was a husband-and-wife team and David Wallace, a partner, was gay. They weren’t in the union for press agents, so they needed someone in the union to sign the contract so I went to work for them. Hair didn’t become a blockbuster hit until almost a year after it opened. They papered the theater every night. It had the illusion of being a hit until the records came out. Then it took off. For the first anniversary, we did a big, public celebration in the Wollman Rink. Working on Hair really changed my life. Up until then, I dressed very conservative in gray suits with a shirt and tie and black raincoats. I was like a little old man. Hair changed me. I let my hair grow and wore beaded jackets, fringed shirts and bell-bottoms and high-heeled shoes and felt liberated.
I went on my own and the first show I did was Adaptation/Next by Terrence McNally and Elaine May. I hit it off with Terrence right away and he hired me and I worked for him on all of his subsequent shows. James Coco, who was the star, hired me as his agent as he was going into Last of the Red Hot Lovers on Broadway.
Tom Eyen was doing stuff off-off-Broadway and he hired me for one of his shows and then I started doing everything of his and he became better and better known and then ended up writing Dreamgirls and winning a Tony. I didn’t expect him to ever be on Broadway, let alone with a smash musical that would become a classic and win a Tony and a Grammy. It’s a culmination of everything you work towards.
Unfortunately, he passed away from AIDS. But Dreamgirls lives on. Of all the things I’ve done, that’s the thing that’s paid me better financially. In his will, he designated a certain number of people close to him as heirs to the trust, so I get a share of the Dreamgirls royalties periodically. That supports me still.
Speaking of AIDS, you and I chatted for Plus about how you set up the first West Coast AIDS benefit. How did you get involved in working with acts in gay clubs?
Ruth Webb was a talent agent who specialized in the older stars for the dinner theater circuit or stock. She was good with theater or television, but not good at the club scene, so she asked me for help with what she called “variety.” This sounds, I’m not making fun of her, but she set up basically an audition for Kathryn Grayson to do her act for me, so I went out to Santa Monica to Kathryn Grayson’s house, sat in her living room, she hired a piano player and a male singer she could do duets with, and I sat on this couch while she did her whole show … for me! It was kinda mind-boggling.
The other person she had me meet was Mamie Van Doren, who I had no interest in. She was in her 50s and I couldn’t imagine her at that age — there are so many women that age in Beverly Hills who have had so many face-lifts or they’ve let themselves go and are heavy and blowsy-looking, so I really wasn’t prepared for anything, but we met for lunch and I was there first and she walked in and I just fell apart. She was the most magnificent-looking, natural-looking, young-looking person I’ve met like that. She wasn’t anything like what I expected. I just fell in love immediately. Marilyn Monroe had already become a gay icon and Jayne Mansfield was becoming one and thinking of what to do with Mamie, I thought, “Marilyn and Jayne are gone, but here’s Mamie who’s still here, looks great and is alive, so I’ll try to sell her to the gay audience.”
I thought, “Well, she needs to do a dance record,” and we used a young guy who had written songs for her to record as part of some shady deal and I explained to him I wanted a dance record. He didn’t know much about it but listened to disco stuff and he came up with a wonderful song and arrangement called “State of Turmoil.” I had no idea what I was doing, but my friend, a DJ in a gay bar, told me it had to be a 12-inch record and told me about trade shows and explained how it all worked. I booked her in all the gay clubs to do her song.
The first was Probe, the heaviest leather club in Los Angeles. Everyone there was on drugs. They started at 12 or 1 in the morning and went on till daylight — very raunchy. So I booked her to perform at 2 in the morning. In Timbuktu!, Eartha Kitt had been carried out by this Black muscleman, Tony Carroll, aa former Mr. Universe, and he was now living in Hollywood, so I got the idea to duplicate that. This was an AIDS benefit, incidentally. Mamie made her entrance sitting in his hand above his head. She’d never been in a gay club before in her life. She had no problem with gay people, but she couldn’t understand why they would like her, because she had been a sex symbol for straight men. The song started charting and the record company wasn’t expecting that. They didn’t think anybody would ever listen to it. We were doing all this work making this song a hit, but there was no distribution. I even got her to Limelight in New York.
Did gigs like that offer you some validation, as a gay fan?
Yes. And when I booked Mamie into gay clubs, it was always a thrill to see her get up in front of a gay crowd screaming and cheering. In San Francisco, we did a heavy-leather club called Trocadero Transfer in the Folsom District and E.T. covered it. The next night, Connie Francis was taken off a plane very disoriented. She freaked out on a plane, so they had newsreel coverage of her being taken off a plane and when E.T.ran their coverage, they opened with, “Two stars of the ‘50s were back in the news last night …” and they show Connie Francis being carried off a plane, a mess, and then, “They lined up around the block for Mamie Van Doren.” [Laughs]
What are your memories of working with Divine?
Divine was wonderful. He was, as Harris Glenn Milstead, a very sweet man, very quiet, not raucous like Divine, and very professional. Ron Link directed Women Behind Bars. It was his idea to make Divine a stage actor. When Women Behind Bars came out, the original matron was Pat Ast. She really was a bully like the matron, so it was perfect casting. That was ‘75. It ran almost a year. Then, the following year, he got the idea to revive it with Divine as the matron. He was great onstage as the matron and it was very successful, and then Tom Eyen got into a problem with the producers of it because they wanted the movie rights and he didn’t wanna give them the rights so there was squabbling, so Tom wrote a new play for Divine, The Neon Woman. Ron wanted to stage it at Hurrah, a new disco uptown, and we convinced the owners to do the show at 8 and then as soon as it was over it became a dance club right away. They’d have rows of chairs set up for the performance, do the curtain call, and then immediately the music would start and it was a disco and the people could stay and dance. Opening night, the New York Times critic Clive Barnes brought Rudolf Nureyev with him as his date.
You had many successes — but also some flops! Was that dispiriting?
I had the greatest flops. The flops were all kinda the same season, ’71. Shelley Winters wrote her first and only play, which I titled. It was three one-act plays and she was calling it Un Passage. Each of the one-act plays was a one-night stand — a young actress in the beginning, the middle play is a starlet and the last one is an Oscar-winning veteran star. Of course, it’s her, but she gave them all different names and didn’t want them connected. Robert De Niro and Diane Ladd were in the third play, and Sally Kirkland and Richard Lynch were in the first play. De Niro wasn’t famous yet. He’d done Bloody Mama but wasn’t known really yet and he was wonderful.
In the first play she’s struggling, and it was based on Marlon Brando and she been a big political activist and she’s shattered because Stalin, her hero, has signed a nonaggression pact with Hitler and she’s devastated. All the scenes are in bed and the one she’s in bed with teaches her that when it gets down to the limit, people take care of number one.
In the second play, she’s a starlet who’s learned to take care of number one shacked up with a director — probably Elia Kazan — summoned to D.C. by the House Un-American Activities. He asks her to go with him for moral support and she refuses.
The third act is contemporary, and she’s shacked up with a young hippie — probably Christopher Jones who she did Wild in the Streetswith — and she learns her generation is responsible for the way the young generation has turned out because they took care of themselves.
They had a bad title, so I came up with One Night Stands of the Noisy Passenger. It opened and there was a big off-Broadway strike by Equity while we were in previews. The second act wasn’t working and the cast in the middle play wasn’t good and the director wasn’t good. The strike was called and we were the first show struck. So we got all the news coverage and it was struck on the day that we were supposed to open, so our opening night was postponed — which was a lifesaver of us because the show needed more work.
I called a press conference and everybody in the world came — every news show, all the papers — and Shelley sat there holding court and giving interviews and saying things like she felt like her baby wasn’t being born. We really milked it. Then we all went up to her apartment and she had three televisions sets set up in the living room and we sat there watching all the news shows and Shelley said she felt like Jackie Kennedy!
The other two flops were a show called The Nest by Tina Howe Quincy Howe’s daughter, a newscaster, and it was a terrible play but Tina Howe later won a Pulitzer Prize. It starred Jill Clayburgh, who wasn’t a star yet, and she was going with Al Pacino at the time and she had a nude scene where she’s topless and at the end of the play the climax is they bring out this huge wedding cake almost up to the ceiling and she’s sitting on top of the wedding cake topless with icing on her breasts, and the leading man comes and licks the icing off her breasts.
She refused to do production photos when we were doing that until the director talked her into it. It opened on a Friday night, the reviews came out and were awful, but the producers were gonna let it run through the weekend. But with the reviews on Saturday, the cast were so embarrassed they all refused to go on again. It’s the only show I know where the cast closed it.
The third show was Score, when there was a lot of nudity off-Broadway and it was about two couples that get together to swing. They’re fully naked — it was a sexploitation show — on a big bed in a small theater, and in the middle of it all a telephone repairman, played by Sylvester Stallone, arrives and he takes off his clothes until he’s completely naked and gets in the bed with them, and I have pictures from that, too — of him going down on one of the women. Jerry Douglas wrote and directed it. One woman in it was Claire Wilbur and she became a producer a few years later and I was watching the Oscars and they gave out Best Documentary Short and Claire Wilbur comes up onstage and accepts the Oscar! She was the producer. So this woman in an exploitation play, I got to see win an Oscar. Anyway, it opened at the Martinique Hotel theater in Herald Square. Usually, Broadway got the first-string critics and off-Broadway got the second-string, but the night Score opened, nothing was opening on Broadway, so the first-string critics came to cover Score and I stood there handing out the press folders knowing what they’d see, and it was embarrassing because these were veteran, old theater critics! One of them was Richard Watts for The New York Post, who was a doddering old man who could hardly walk but went back to the ‘20s and ‘30s and reviewed Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence and he’s coming to see Score.
You were also a producer on the Gloria Swanson musical version of Sunset Boulevard that was the subject of the recent doc Boulevard! A Hollywood Story. Weren’t you behind the adaptation Swanson on Sunset, which sort of told the story of the making of the never-produced musical?
Gloria Swanson had done a demo of the show as a backers’ audition and I had a copy of it from the underground collectors’ circuit, and when the Glenn Close production was about to open at the Shubert here, The L.A. Times ran a huge story about how brilliant Andrew Lloyd Webber was to come up with this idea, so I wrote a letter saying Gloria had tried to do it in the ‘50s. A few days later, I got a call Dickson Hughes, one of the writers, which was unexpected, to have lunch with him. My first instinct was to do his version first in a small theater to beat the other one. As we were talking over lunch, I realized Paramount still had the rights. But he told me the story of how it got written, about him and his gay partner at the time Richard Stapley, how they had approached her to do a revue that they had written but she turned that down and said the only thing she’d be willing to do on Broadway would be a musical of Sunset Boulevard, so they agreed to work on it with her and then they wrote it.
This was ‘93 or ‘94 when Dickson contacted me, so he told me how Swanson had gotten a crush on Stapley, and that he kind of led her on, doing everything except going to bed with her, and kind of romanced her a bit and that just got her more and more frustrated, and I think that’s why she called it off. I don’t think she ever really had the rights.
When I realized we couldn’t do it, I said, “Make the way it got written the show and we’ll use the songs.” He was working at the Ritz-Carlton playing piano. Even though he was too old, I thought having him at the piano telling his story like William Holden narrated the movie justified the age.
I tried to get a star to play Gloria — Anne Jeffreys, Patricia Morison, even Susan Watson turned me down. Laurie Franks was a friend of Dickson’s and she really wasn’t right for it, but she agreed to do it and we got it in at the Cinegrill for a month. We did good business and some of the reviews were really good. None of them were really bad. We just didn’t go on with it. Nobody picked it up.
Richard Stapley, I never thought of him. Dickson hadn’t been in touch with him in 20 years then, so I had no idea and I certainly didn’t think he was in Los Angeles. He had read about the show and showed up opening night furious that we were doing this without consulting him. It also didn’t occur to me that we were outing him. I knew the story we were telling, but I didn’t think of it this way, that we were outing this man without his permission. He was married twice, but he was primarily gay.
We actually ended up being good friends. He and Dickson still were kind of rocky, but once he calmed down, he kind of accepted the idea that the show could work and saw it as a means to have a success for himself as well.
He was writing a book that was going to be self-published and was busy writing. We hit it off and I ended up helping him. He was destitute, living day to day in motels or his car. It was sad. He just kept writing and writing and writing. He made me executor of his literary work, including a lengthy memoir.
One of your calling cards seems to be your tenacity to make interesting things work.
I was never mainstream. Once I went out on my own, I did things that were experimental or things that were considered outrageous or camp. I’ve never considered myself hip. I’ve never been trendy.
Like Charles Ludlam! I couldn’t get people to review him when I handled him. I handled him for many years. The New Yorker wouldn’t even list him in the off-Broadway listings. One of his plays had gotten such rave reviews she finally listed it and when I called she said, “I told you I would list it, but I won’t review him.” Charles used to come to Hollywood and have to sleep on my couch when he was doing things like Oh Madeline or a run at the Improv. Now, all these years later, he’s an icon.
One of the most esoteric things you handled, The Lieutentant, wound up getting Tony nominations, didn’t it?
That was the main Broadway show I did. This Polish producer who’d been an Auschwitz survivor — he’d jumped off one of the freight trains and survived — he hired me to handle the Queens Playhouse and he wanted to produce a series of three plays and the first play was Come Back, Little Sheba. He had trouble getting a star, and I had worked with Jan Sterling and he hired her and she was brilliant. The second play was Room Service and he got Shelley Berman for that, he was difficult, then they ran out of money.
But they had started a workshop series and there was a rock opera about Lieutenant Calley and the My Lai Massacre, so I said to the producer, “Why don’t we go see it? Maybe that would be the third show.” We liked it, so we made that the third show. It got great reviews and he was able to find a money producer to move it to Broadway. It opened and the reviews were very good, but they didn’t have any money to advertise it and the subject matter was a turn-off, so it closed. And then the Tony nominations came out and it was nominated for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical — even though it was all sung — Best Original Score and Eddie Mekka was nominated for Best Actor in a Musical. We didn’t do any campaigning — it was nominated completely on its own merits. Eddie went on to star on Laverne & Shirley.
I recently discovered video of myself at a 1980s Yma Sumac record signing in Chicago — courtesy of you, who saves and shares everything. What was she like to work with?
Yma Sumac had a built-in audience. I had a booking meeting with the owner and somebody was trying to book Yma at the Vine Street Bar and Grill. It only sat 50 people and another 50 at the bar, and the owner had never heard of her and he turned to me and he said, “Do we want Yma Sumac?” and I got all excited and I said, “Yes, yes, yes, we want her!” so he booked her.
Yma wanted $2,000 a night, a lot of money for us. Matt Groening was a fan and he came and did a big cover story for The L.A. Reader and opening night there were lines all the way down Vine to the corner and then all the way down Argyle. Every show the room was packed to capacity. She was doing a tacky show with a nondescript trio and she was trying to prove she was more intelligent by singing everything in English instead of Spanish. She wouldn’t do anything from her Capitol recordings because they were written by her ex-husband, so she’d written these tacky songs sung in English that were kind of salvaged by her growls, but then she did stuff like “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Try to Remember.” [Laughs]
I got her booked into New York and I told her to do the exotica. A good arranger took the Capitol arrangements and it was a modern take that worked. We recreated those Incan statues from her album covers and there was a screen that projected different colors, very theatrical. Time and People covered it, The Washington Post, Vogueand she was there long enough that these things came out while she was there — about seven weeks. She got Late Night with David Letterman during her hold-over, and after that we went to Europe for the first time in 30 years. We had the downtown crowd — Michael Musto wrote it up and called it “the night of 100 drag queens.” She sold out every performance.
When she did Letterman, I went to a really fancy jewelry shop by Bergdorf’s and told the guy Yma Sumac was doing the show and asked for an elaborate gold necklace so she’d look like an Incan princess. A fantasy of mine was going to Machu Picchu with her.
In 2006, out of the blue, one of her fans in Lima somehow arranged for the President to present her with a gold medal. They flew us to Lima and we were mobbed like she was a rock star. When we arrived in Peru, it was late at night and there were a dozen camera crews to film her arrival and we needed security.
We went to the palace and she got her award and I met her sisters — she’s not from Brooklyn, that’s a myth — the mayor did an event at city hall. The opera house did a night devoted to her music, so we sat in her box while people danced to and sang her music. A TV show was covering one of the events and I mentioned I’d love to see Machu Picchu as an afterthought and the producer said, “You wanna go? Can we film it?” I said yes and she called the Orient Express and we got a free trip to Machu Picchu and it was wonderful. When Yma got home, she complained about very bad pains in her stomach. She got a court-appointed conservator but they couldn’t get her to go to a doctor, so they got a court order and they came and took her away in an ambulance and she had colon cancer and it was too late by then.
Because of the Peru trip, she went out a star. In her mind she always was, but she got treated like one in her own country.
What connects all the performers you’ve handled?
I had three criteria for people I handled: They had to be originals, they had to still be able to do what they do, and they have to appeal to a younger audience. My goal was not nostalgia, my goal was to get them out of nostalgia.
It feels like you collected talented women like you collected things from TV.
I’d been collecting since I was a child. It wasn’t something I thought about, it just kind of … happened. I guess I was a born collector.