My brief TV career (6)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told here by Frank on September 30th, 2012.   2 Comments

Our TV pilot was back in business. This was our last chance, so I tried to make sure that it would be reviewed well and that the sponsor would get the kind of attention sponsors want. I had friends at the Archdiocese of Chicago who were folk fans. I suggested to them that if they liked the show, they should write Sara Lee.
The priests came through with interest, and between the real excitement and the rigged excitement, Sara Lee was overwhelmed. The numbers were medium — not great, but good enough to feel enthusiastic about. Kaplan told us the company was getting all sorts of praise for being on the cutting edge.
Soon Sara Lee told us they were picking up their option for the network. ABC even ran a little teaser that the show was going to be on in May, as a pilot for a future series. Once again contracts were being drawn up.
Then, in a completely unrelated part of the television world, Jack Paar took a vacation from the Tonight Show. Sam Levinson, another big Weaver fan, was tagged to fill in. Levinson decided he wanted to put his old friends the Weavers on the Tonight Show.
Maybe it was hubris, or maybe Levinson was really telling the world it was time to put the blacklist to rest. Either way, the shit hit the fan. The Weavers never went on the show, and the dominoes began to fall. Suddenly, nobody from Sara Lee or the network would talk to us. Our show was never picked up. And that was the end of my television career.
A year or so later, ABC began to air a remarkably similar show called “Hootenanny.” By then the time was ripe, and it was a modest success, with a three-year run on the network.
Pete Seeger was the only singer the show’s backers would not contemplate. Pete decided that at this point getting people on the show would do more damage to the blacklist than a boycott would, and many artists deferred to his judgment and took the gig.
There was a big fight in the folk community over what to do about this. I had my doubts about the wisdom of Pete’s position, but I said nothing. I felt it was not for me to make that judgment. In the end, of course, he was right.

My brief TV career (5)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told here by Frank on September 20th, 2012.   1 Comment

Some things have a life of their own. Jim McGuinn worked very hard showing our TV pilot around town and talking it up, but he was getting nowhere until about a year and a half later, when we went to see Manny Kaplan, the vice president of Sara Lee bakeries. He loved it. He said he’d put on an hour-long special in Chicago, option it for the networks and, if it played well on the networks, sponsor the series. We persuaded Red Quinlan at ABC, one of the more courageous people in television, to take a chance on it. We were back in business.
This version of the show had the Second City comedians, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Weavers. Kaplan insisted on the Weavers — he was a big Weaver fan. We set up an outdoor shoot at the University of Chicago campus, where we figured we would have a receptive crowd. We were wrong.
There’s nothing particularly exciting about a location shot. There are interminable delays while cameras are adjusted and wires are fixed, and for the students — who were there for a backdrop, nothing more — it isn’t much fun to sit there in the cold wind and wait. How many times can you do a take before boredom sets in? Before long there were boos and catcalls. But we had a usable tape.

Fundraising

This story takes place in Uncategorized. It was told here by Frank on September 8th, 2012.   Be the first to comment

I was unemployed after getting laid off from US Steel, and didn’t know what I’d do for a living. A friend named Dave Greenwald, whom l‘d met in a poker game when he was the chief fundraiser for the Progressive Party, told me I should try what he was doing. Like everyone else on the blacklist, Dave had been forced to find a way to survive, and like a lot of other radicals, he had entered the field of Jewish fundraising. They didn‘t take over the field; the field took them over. Israel Bonds, World Relief, you name it. The more marginal the group, the fewer questions were asked.
Dave called me and offered me a job for fifteen or sixteen thousand a year. “You can probably live on your expense account,“ he said, “find a Jewish maiden in Kansas City whose father owns the local dry goods store, and marry her.” Dave (who years later became vice-chancellor of the very proper Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, proving that he knew what he was talking about) added one more element to what I understood about fundraising. “lt’s all blackmail and vanity,” he said. “You go to Mr. Hyman So-and-So or Mrs. So-and-So, and say, ‘We’ll make you the Torah Man of the Year.’ Then when it’s four weeks before the dinner and no tickets have been sold, you go to Hyman and say, `Hyman, you‘re gonna be disgraced before the whole community.’ So Hyman then gets the pitch and he pays for the dinner — he pays for his honor. You blackmail Hyman and then he blackmails all his friends.”
I had raised a fair amount of money in my career as a radical organizer, and I would do so again many times — for the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and some of the more obscure leftist movements. But to extort Jews for a living was another matter. I knew it wasn’t for me.

Classical wars

This story takes place in Uncategorized. It was told here by Frank on September 3rd, 2012.   Be the first to comment

The Orchestra Hall people had none of the problems I’d expected with the incongruity of playing folk music on their stage. Richard Dyer-Bennet had played there, Robeson had played there, the Weavers had played there.
The truth was, I found out, that these classical fans overlapped heavily with the folk audience. WFMT, the radio station that pioneered the folk boom in Chicago with a program called the Midnight Special, identified its own listenership as the Lakeshore area, the poshest white Jewish and Protestant neighborhood in Chicago, plus a little section in Hyde Park for the liberals and the middle-class Jews. Studs Terkel weighed in weekly with an interview program that defied McCarthyism on the cultural and literary levels and, not incidentally, drew a broad spectrum of affluent, educated listeners.
That’s always been who comes to hear classical music, and it was pretty much a section of that audience, along with a section of the surviving old left, that came to support folk music, once they found out about it. Those were the first people I had to sell myself to: the Symphony fans, the intellectuals and the socially ambitious.
Walter Hendel, the assistant conductor at the Symphony, was a good example of that classical-to-folk music crossover audience himself. I met him early on while booking Orchestra Hall, and over time he began to come regularly to the folk concerts.
Hendel was chosen to become the music director at Ravinia, the Symphony‘s outdoor venue, which always had a modified pop schedule alongside its classical bookings. This was a big deal for a conductor. Conductors were paid quite well, but the way they made their real money was by hiring a colleague for ten grand or so to be guest conductor for a week, and then collecting an invitation back to the guest‘s home turf in return.
Somehow Hendel had had conceived the notion that I would have a better idea of how to produce non-classical concerts at Ravinia than the people who were doing it already. He also figured, l’m sure, that my presence would enhance his own prestige. That was fine with me — in fact, I was very excited about it. I was increasingly aware of the value of that sort of prestige.
What I didn’t know was whose toes Hendel had stepped on on his way to Ravinia. Earl Lutgen, the chairman of Ravinia, was also on the Symphony board. He ran a big advertising company and was every inch the refined WFMT sort. Being on the board of the Chicago Symphony is, for those who are concerned with those things, a terribly prestigious thing in the establishment pecking order. That meant there were a lot of second- or third-generation heirs and heiresses who had an interest in classical music and the money to back it up. It took longer then to buy your way into respectable society than it does today.
Lutgen called me late one night and in very unrefined language warned me I should have nothing to do with Hendel or I would never get to use Orchestra Hall again. In the end, the fight meant the deal with me was off. It was not that much different from the corruption and strong—arm tactics that characterized the pop world, the only difference being that this variety had several more centuries of refinement. The manners were better, because old money has had time to wash.

My brief TV career (4)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told here by Frank on August 28th, 2012.   Be the first to comment

The meeting with Leo Burnett: twelve guys in black suits. l’m not sure they always wore black suits, but I think when they wanted to bury a project they all dressed alike. I had the feeling that I was participating in my own funeral.
They showed the pilot, and when it was over one of them said almost as if it had been scripted, “Jesus, this is gonna play great down at Greenwich Village.”
A second guy said, “Couldn’t you get that black guy and that white girl a little more focused onscreen?”
And then a third one says, “When’s Pete Seeger coming on?”
They passed.
What Jack Sobol told us would happen had happened. The show was known to everybody as used goods. Greschler pulled out, and we got William Morris, which could do very little.
Here’s how Jim McGuinn remembered it when he talked to Ted a few years ago:

One of the worst meetings I can ever remember having was when i screened our pilot at Schlitz‘s new ad agency in Chicago. It was in a big conference room. They had about 12 people there, and they just started throwing darts at us: “Oh, well, I don’t know…”
One guy said, “Well, this music reminds me of the type of stuff we used to do when I was in college and we used to sit around in our bare feet and drink beer and sing songs like that, and I don’t think it belongs on television.“
I said, “Well sir, I think that’s the point of it. This is the type of music that people do drink beer to, and we‘re talking Schlitz here.”
“No, no, this isn’t right, we can get a much better deal on reruns of sitcoms,” Pete and Gladys or whatever the hell it was. So I knew we were dead.

Irv Kupcinet

This story takes place in 1966. It was told here by Frank on August 24th, 2012.   Be the first to comment

Brian Epstein had told me to set up three separate press conferences before the Comiskey Park concerts. The first would be for television crews, the second for the print reporters, and then all the adults would be shooed away and the band would answer questions from the editors of high school newspapers. When I pushed into the packed room for the first conference to introduce Sherman Wolfe, my public relations man, who was going to run things, I thought for a moment we had it backwards and we’d brought in the high school kids too early. Then I recognized the faces of some of the TV reporters. Not one of them was too old to be a son of mine. I was forty, and I had reached the pinnacle of my career by putting on a chiIdren’s show.
So here, peering over a bank of news microphones, were the villains of the hour: the boys who had dared to link up somehow with the worldwide phenomenon of kids talking back, wearing their hair a bit shaggy, and threatening the underpinnings of proper society. The chance for some fireworks was good, I thought hopefully. Maybe Lennon would back up his assertion, take up the challenge from the O’Connors and the Mableys.
Any such hopes were dashed immediately. The whole point of the press conference was to capitulate, to back off, and from their point of view, they handled it very well. The four boys showed remarkable poise, and even kept their sense of humor.
Irv Kupcinet and I stood together afterwards and watched the room clear, young reporters dashing off in all directions to file their breathless stories. Ignored, we slipped out with Kup’s wife, Essie, and walked over to Maxim’s for dinner.
Irv Kupcinet was a tall, broad-shouldered man who had been a college football star and had a brief career in the pros. He was the best kind of celebrity columnist: he would actually dig for news. Kup would subject himself to these press-conference circuses when he could easily have covered the story from the office. He prided himself on his scoops. He often knew which acts I was going to book before I did. And he was at the top of his field. He knew everybody.
Nevertheless, here we were at dinner, left to ourselves. Nobody had thought either of us interesting enough to tag along with. I couldn’t have pinned it down then, but years later I recognized that feeling. It felt a little like missing a train on which you were used to being the conductor. I was ten years older than the artists and the reporters who were covering them, twenty years older than most of the fans, and Kup was fifteen years older than me. In eight years in the business, I’d made the transition from irreverence to irrelevance.

My brief TV career (3)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told here by Frank on August 20th, 2012.   1 Comment

Being the innocents we were, Jim and I started setting up showings of our TV pilot on our own for the ad agencies. We rented the Gate of Horn and showed it to J. Walter Thompson, who loved it. They said, “This is too good to go on this summer. We’ve got the client for you and we’lI go on in January.” Wonderful. Fantastic. Sensational.
Now that we were getting somewhere, all sorts of people began to surround us. A lawyer by the name of Parsons came around, and all of a sudden it was “these wonderful kids need some help, and everybody knows that television shows run at a deficit.” Very quickly, I heard about a group that was going to buy a big piece of the show and help us kids out. I knew enough about capitalism to know that when anybody talks about helping kids, put one hand on your wallet and the other on your groin.
Meanwhile, J. Walter Thompson had shown our tape to Schlitz, and they loved it too. Papers were ready to be drawn up to put the show on the air in January, and heady things were happening. This was still very early in my career. All I could think about was that I was gonna be a television producer and have the casting couch and the office and the whole shtick.
Then I read a story in Advertising Age that the $18-million Schlitz account had gone from J. Walter Thompson to Leo Burnett. I guessed quicker than Friedkin and McGuinn could tell me what had happened. I may not have known much about show business, but I knew about politics, and I knew there was no way on earth that Leo Burnett was going to take J. Walter Thompson‘s last recommendation to Schlitz as their first television project. lf the project worked, what did Schlitz need Burnett for, and if it flopped, Burnett would take the fall.
The Schlitz people told us, “Don’t worry about a thing. You’re the first thing on the agenda with Leo Burnett.“ Six or eight weeks later we were called in again, and they said they would like to have a formal screening in their screening room. By this time we had spent $25,000 to sell a show that cost $5,000 to make, so we were grateful that at least we didn’t have to rent the Gate of Horn again.

Orchestra Hall (2)

This story takes place in 1961. It was told here by Frank on August 14th, 2012.   Be the first to comment

I had imagined that the risks involved in introducing lesser-known artists could be lowered by combining them with established acts. I thought the audience would be more inclined to take a chance on an unknown name when they saw it on a list with the Limeliters or Josh White, and besides, many of them had already bought tickets to the whole series, so they might as well come. That‘s not how it worked out.
In practice, that first series was better for my image than it was for business. Most of the shows that fall and winter broke even; only Carlos Montoya and the Clancy Brothers made any money. But the point (not to mention a modest profit) was made. For the first time in my life I had some cash in hand. Next year I would do it again, with a bit of a track record to stand on.
Harry Zelzer, the man who controlled the classical music market in Chicago, would always come out in front of the audience to present his shows. He knew many of his regular concert-goers by sight, even by name. I tried to do the same. I would be in the front of the house before each show, taking care of problems and misunderstandings. After the business really exploded, I couldn’t keep up with that personal element any more, but I kept at it for as long as I could.

Miss Chicago (2)

This story takes place in 1977. It was told here by Frank on August 9th, 2012.   Be the first to comment

Years later I brought the Rolling Stones for a concert at the Rosemont Horizon, an arena I had put together outside Chicago. The Stones, whose show was more outrageous by an order of magnitude than the Beatles ever were, drew every mover and shaker and aspiring somebody in Chicago’s establishment. Some of them probably enjoyed the concert, but all of them knew they had to be there whether they liked the tunes or not: it was the Place To Be. Everybody understood by then that not only was the music not much of a threat, it was in fact part of the conformist coloring of the period. The business world can accommodate anything, as long as the rules of property are not disturbed.

My brief TV career

This story takes place in 1959. It was told here by Frank on August 4th, 2012.   Be the first to comment

I think what made show business interesting to me, at this point, was that it was one of the last corners of this overdeveloped capitalist economy that you could go into with no knowledge and no money — and I had neither — and start generating income in a short time.
Any business that shows tremendous growth and the chance for fortunes to be made overnight has its own rules, and they aren’t very nice.
Jim McGuinn was an independent television producer who had made his mark in kids’ shows on WGN television. Jim called me up one day in 1959 and said, “Let’s have lunch.” So we did: in those days having lunch was just having lunch. He said he had an idea for a television show about contemporary folk music, and would I be interested in being a third owner and being the talent coordinator. It sounded like a wonderful idea and I said sure.
Jim suggested that our third collaborator should be a very talented local director by the name of Billy “Gloves” Friedkin, who at that time had a bit of a reputation. So we formed a partnership. We conceived a show with the Clancy Brothers, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Josh White. Chad would host it.
We went to shoot it at the Village Gate in New York, because everybody was already in New York and we wouldn’t have any expenses. We shot the show in one night, for $6,000. There were a few people from the industry there, and they were skeptical. We were from Chicago, and on top of that we were making a pilot for $6,000, and pilots had to cost $60 or $70,000 in those days. And we were making it in April, when the traditional selling season was over.
I sent Ted to talk with Jim a few years ago to help jog my memory. Here’s some of what Jim remembered:

A young woman folk singer drove all night from St. Louis to audition for us. I remember she was very nervous, and her hand was shaking. We said settle down; we gave her some coffee and just talked, and finally she did lt. Her name was Judy Collins. So we used her.
We felt that the blacklist, which very much existed at that time, was improper, and if you‘re doing a folk music show you should stand behind the people who are really the legends of that field. We had every intention of using Pete Seeger, and all the others. We did use Josh White on the show.
After we booked the Weavers, I remember an agent from William Morris calling to say, “Why did you use those people? lt’s hurting the project.” And I said, “Well, we did, and that‘s the reality of it, and let’s get on with it.” So I kind of watched a certain pullback in enthusiasm by the William Morris office in New York.