Stories about events in 1959

My brief TV career (6)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on September 30th, 2012 by Frank.  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 on September 20th, 2012 by Frank.  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.

My brief TV career (4)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on August 28th, 2012 by Frank.  1 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.

My brief TV career (3)

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

My brief TV career

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on August 4th, 2012 by Frank.  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.

My brief TV career (2)

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on July 24th, 2012 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Jim McGuinn stayed up all night and edited the tape of our TV variety show pilot. The next morning he showed it to ABC and got a pretty fair response. Then that afternoon he showed it to CBS. Mike Dann, the programming chief, loved it. He said, “If you guys can come up with half the sponsor, I’Il put it on.”
Jack Sobol at Screen Gems gave us some sage advice, which we ignored. He said, “lt’s not selling season, and there isn’t any money left. This money only remembers what you did for me today. If you show this thing now and don’t get any sales, lt’s gonna be yesterday’s news next selling season.“ But we had been told by Mike Dann that we had a great show, and we were not about to wait around.
Sobol also told us we had to get an agent. Get an agent? We couldn’t get an agent to return our phone calls. Those who heard about it thought it was a big joke. Then I remembered that I knew Abner Greschler, the hotshot agent on the West Coast who had been the Gateway Singers’ first manager. When I took over the Gateway Singers I had paid him the money they allegedly owed him, so he would at least take my calls. I called Abner and started telling him the story.
Abby often talked on two phones. He always called you collect, unless you put a stop to it by refusing the call. He was a very smart, fast man, the prototype of a Hollywood agent. So he was listening to me and doing two or three other things, until I said, “and Mike Dann likes this.”
He interrupted me: “Did Mike Dann see it?” I told him what McGuinn had told me. Abner immediately called Dann, with me still on the phone. Suddenly a change came over him. He had confirmed that CBS was interested.
Abner thought he was going to sell this show as country-western. All he knew was that CBS was interested and that this could be a hot property. So he said, “Send me a telegram giving me 90 days on it.” Jim sent him the wire, because nobody else was talking to us, and we both went home to Chicago to wait for Abner to produce a miracle. I‘m not sure Abner ever saw the show.

Law of the jungle

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on December 15th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Despite Albert Grossman’s ambitions, the kind of show business that we were involved in was still an insignificant corner of the market. The law of the jungle did not yet prevail, perhaps because there wasn’t enough jungle for it to work. There were perhaps half a dozen outfits doing concerts with our kind of artists. It felt more like a guild than a business. The Kingston Trio had not yet had their first hit, “Tom Dooley,” which changed everything.

Albert Grossman was a brilliant man and one of the most underrated and unexplained people in the history of pop music. He introduced folk music as commercial and popular entertainment, and he played a central role in bringing pop culture to life in America. Albert created Peter, Paul and Mary, the biggest of the pop folk acts — put them together, found an arranger for them, believed in them, got them a record contract. He had a clear understanding, probably better than anyone I ever knew, of where music was going. He wasn’t shy about saying it, either. He would tell his acts exactly what they should do and what they shouldn’t do in order to be commercial. “You wanna make money, here‘s how you do it.” Sometimes he was wrong, but usually it seemed to pay off.

The Old Town School of Folk Music was the first expression of popular folk music in Chicago, and Grossman’s Gate of Horn was its commercial version. It starting bringing in the traditional folk aficionados as early as 1954, after McCarthyism had peaked and things were opening up. Younger people, college kids, began following them in soon after that. By that time, the music of the radicals of the 40’s — Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Almanac Singers — was ready for a comeback. So were some of the older Southern folk blues artists, like Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly and Josh White. Whenever they came to Chicago, you knew you could hear them in the basement of the Rice Hotel.

And then there were the poets and the comics. I first heard Maya Angelou at the Gate of Horn, and Shelly Berman, and Dick Gregory, and a guy named Lord Buckley who recited classical texts in a jive vernacular. Albert created and dominated that scene.

Vivian

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on November 5th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Years ago my sister, Vivian Maddock, spoke with Ted about the Triangle days. Here’s some of what she said:

I worked for Frank when he first started his business. He had great ideas but wasn’t very well organized in terms of the paperwork. His first office was out of his apartment on Superior Street, and then he started managing the Chad Mitchell Trio and he moved over to a wonderful big apartment where the receptionist sat in the front in the living room and there were two small offices for the people who took care of the offices, and then one for me, and Frank took the dining room and the bathroom. From time to time, you’d hear one of his musical groups rehearsing in the kitchen.

It was a nice, informal place. People came in and feIt very comfortable there. And at that time, most of the folk singers were just starting out and they were nice people. After a while, you know, they begin to believe their own press releases, but it was not the kind of time when the contract stated how many cases of liquor they had to have after the show, and how many girls and all the rest of that; that came much much later. These were very talented young kids, and for the most part very nice people.

When Frank had the Gateway Singers playing in Chicago, we had them all for Thanksgiving in our house. That part my mother enjoyed. She didn’t approve of his politics and they fought bitterly. She was genuinely afraid, it wasn’t just paranoia on her part. But from the time we were small our friends were always welcome in the house, made to feel comfortable. So she was delighted, and actually very proud of him at that point.

Star ticket-seller

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on September 26th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Albert Grossman called me in February 1959. He was still managing my new friend Martha Schlamme, along with a black folksinger named Odetta, who played a fearsome guitar and sang with a great booming voice like nothing I have ever heard.

Now, Albert told me, he was branching out into the concert business. He had persuaded a young folk fan named Alan Ribback to put up five thousand for seed money, with which Albert had set up a show at Orchesta Hall with Theo Bikel, a European refugee who had become a well-liked interpreter of Jewish folk songs in the United States. He’d also arranged something with Tom Lehrer, a fellow who played piano and sang sharply irreverent songs, some of which had become underground hits among a loyal audience of hipsters. He wanted to bring in Josh White, a blues singer from the deep South who had managed to extend his audience beyond the standard folk crowd.

Albert wanted the Eugene Debs Forum to sell tickets for him in exchange for a ten-percent commission, which he said was the standard rate. I said no, the Forum wasn’t in business to hustle concert tickets unless it was for a political cause. But then I thought again. I was out of a job, and I wasn’t doing anything. “Wait — I think I know where I can sell them myself,” I told him.

I took the Bikel tickets to a meeting of one of the Jewish groups, which snapped them up to resell them as a fundraising project of their own. The Tom Lehrer and Josh White tickets I sold in batches to people I knew in the National Lawyers Guild, the Unitarian Church, and the various other haunts of a radical organizer. I must have sold about a thousand tickets.

Suddenly, to Grossman I was a big star. He immediately offered me a job for seventy-five dollars a week — in cash — which I was shmuck enough to turn down. I could have gone on collecting unemployment and taken my wages in cash on top of it. But the government was watching us professional revolutionaries, I was sure, and we couldn’t give them any excuse to come after us.

That was my start in show business. I didn‘t know a thing about business. I was young and I believed I could do anything. I learned a lot that year.

Agents

This story takes place in 1959. It was told on August 26th, 2011 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

Very early in my career in show business, the agents’ association in Chicago brought a guy up on charges for unethical conduct. Nothing came of it; it was finally decided that among agents there was no such thing as unethical conduct.

I remember when MCA signed Johnny Mathis, who had been with General Artists. MCA, being the Cadillac of the agency business, charged fifteen percent for concerts. General Artists charged ten percent for what they called one-nighters. After about six months Mathis‘s manager, Helen Noga, was hard put to figure out why she was paying fifty percent more to do the same show for the same people.

MCA, in essence, had conned her into believing they were offering her a different service than GAC when all they were offering was a much more structured organization. They had a slogan, “Think Yiddish, dress British,” while GAC was still the stripe-suited agents.

My favorite agent was Ernie Lieberman’s father-in-law, George Wilner. When I met him in 1958, George had been driven out of his profession, and he was making a living in New York by selling underground movie scripts over the phone. People who had been blacklisted would write scripts under an alias, and George would sell them through somebody else.

By late 1959 — it was that late in the decade because in Hollywood the witch hunts lingered longer — George had moved up a bit. He was working with a little independent agency and selling small scripts on his own. Finally he went back to Hollywood when he landed a job at the Rosenberg Correll Agency, working the secondary studios. He knew Louis B. Mayer and people of that ilk, but he wasn‘t allowed to call them.

George had taken a shine to me early. He called me “Kid” all the time. “Kid, you should quit whatever it is you’re doing and come out to Hollywood and become a producer,” he used to tell me. “You know more than all these people.” This was the furthest thing from my mind. I was already overwhelmed by whatl was doing. I didn’t really believe that this was all happening to me, and I also didn’t believe Hollywood was as easy as he said it was. But it was very intriguing. Everybody wants to be a producer.

By 1965, George was on the edge of being back. He had moved up to vice president at the Rosenberg agency. He was talking to all the heads of the studios. I called George up one day when I was in Los Angeles and said, “George, this is the kid.” “Yeah, kid.” I said, “George, I want to come and talk to you. I‘m ready to be a producer.” George said, “Well, come on over.” I came on over. He ordered sandwiches for lunch, and I sat in his office while he sold a script to Zanuck over the phone. I watched him work that script up from an asking price of eighty thousand dollars to a final two hundred and twenty. After he hung up, he smiled, looked around, leaned over his desk and whispered, “There’s no other buyer.”

“George, I want to be a producer,” I said.

He said, “WeIl, kid, the business has changed. You got to have a property. A producer brings in a property and develops it. That’s what makes you a producer.“ So I asked him what a property was, and he explained it. All right.

Two more years went by, and I found a property. By this time George‘s agency had been through a couple of mergers and had come out as one of the biggest outfits in Hollywood, and George was vice president of the literary department — the big job. I called him. “George, I got a property,” I said. “I’m ready to be a producer.” George said, “I can‘t talk to you now, kid. I‘m on my way to Italy with Burt, Harold, and Ray.” Burt Lancaster, Harold Hecht, and Ray Starr. Two days later I heard from him again. “Kid, I‘m at the airport.” He hadn’t asked me what my property was.

“I got these two young writers,” George shouted. “They‘re great, just great. For fifty thousand they can develop your property.” I told him I’d get back to him sometime. End of story. George was a wonderful man, but he was an agent.