Siliverman clan hosts 3 days of glorious nostalgia
For all ex-muggs and lovers of the old Variety who were unable to attend all or part of the 100th Anni celebration in New York (Sept. 23-25), here’s the next best thing: a full report on the goings-on as remembered by PETER BESAS, with occasional behind-the-scenes insights added.
Friday, September 23
THE WEEKEND ACTIVITIES SPARKED at the Bull & Bear, an upscale bar and restaurant located within the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, with an entrance on Lexington Avenue.
At the appointed hour, 6 p.m., the first muggs started filtering into the large bar area, which is separate from an adjoining restaurant. (The bar itself is a large, horseshoe-shaped affair in the center of the room; around the periphery, along the walls, are placed about a dozen tables for drinks or dining. On one side of the room, up on high, you can see a large illuminated electronic strip with stock quotations moving along it.)
Happily, the Bull & Bear was not crowded at 6 p.m. that Friday, and a few of the muggs were able to grab a table and order their drinks as they arrived. As new muggs entered the place, we grabbed other nearby tables and chairs as they were vacated – reminiscent of the way we used to do it at the Lucky Days Bar in the MIFED, which then became a kind of impromptu Variety office.
By 7 p.m. there must have been about 20 or so ex-staffers milling about, sitting at the tables and on the bar stools. First to show up after Mark and Peter Besas were Frank Meyer, soon followed by a bevy of others. Among these were David Stratton, Deborah Young, Harlan Jacobson, Doug Galloway, Nick Shteinfas, Bob Butler, Jacquelyne Pearce, Norma Nannini, Jim Robbins, Jack Kindred, John Willis, Bob and Marie Marich, Peggy Michitsch, Todd McCarthy, Lee Perchick, Jack Loftus, Mike and Mark Silverman and of course Syd and Joan. (Apologies if anyone has been forgotten.)
These people, in most cases, hadn’t seen each other for close to 20 years and the “Ooh’s” and “Ahh’s” were legion. Many a comment of “Jeez, you haven’t changed a bit!” was heard (but the opposite reactions were never expressed). As the hours wore away, our group sort of “took over” one whole side of the Bull & Bear.
At about 8:30 we noticed that the tables in the area we were in were being set for dinner. Word quickly got around that Joan and Syd were inviting all those still imbibing to stay for dinner after also picking up the tab for the drinks – which hadn’t been part of the arrangement but was a welcome gesture, appreciated by all.
Somehow we managed to assemble about five or six tables in a row and everyone (including wives of some of the muggs) squeezed into the space. Soon the food was brought on, two or three courses followed by coffee, each person ordering by him or herself à la carte.
The dinner broke up around 11 p.m. and a few of the guests wandered off to some local drinkeries for nightcaps, which we cannot report on since we weren’t there. But we believe that none wound up on any police blotter and all surfaced the following day at Sardi’s.
Saturday, September 24
THE BIG DAY FINALLY ARRIVED, after close to two years’ planning and preparations. At the appointed hour, 6:30 p.m., the guests started arriving on the fourth floor of Sardi’s restaurant on 44th Street.
In a kind of small vestibule outside the elevator, several tables had been set up with name-cards placed on them, indicating the table at which each guest was placed.
A company called Eventgineers handled the nitty-gritty of giving each arriving guest a name-badge and his or her name-card, after which the folks entered a rather small cocktail bar area. “Small” considering that over 150 people showed up for the celebration.
Drinks were dispensed, hot and cold canapés served. The volume of noise from conversations rose steadily, along with the alcohol content in the bloodstreams, as people recognized each other and whooped it up. Mixed in with the ex-muggs were about 20 of Joan’s and Syd’s personal friends and family.
After an hour of somewhat crowded palaver and effusions, the “gates”, in the form of several moveable screens, were opened, revealing the main dining area with 16 tables, which had been decorated by Eventgineers. As centerpieces, some of the tables had reproductions of front pages of the old Variety as well as copies of some of the photos taken from the Souvenir Album. An Album had been placed on each of the chairs in the room. (Once the dinner got underway, additional Albums were stacked near the entrance to the room, along with copies of Inside Variety.)
It took a little while before all the guests found their places and sat down and simmered down to listen to the opening remarks by Syd Silverman, delivered from a podium with microphone on one side of the room.
When silence had been achieved, Syd made the following speech:
“Welcome to all former staffers, husbands, wives, children, relatives and friends from near and far.
“Welcome to the 100th Anniversary of Variety, the first 80 years of which were under the aegis of the Silverman family. On behalf of the five generations both past and present, I’d like to thank you for coming and explain the evening to you.
“On each chair, you will find a ‘centennial souvenir album’ which is yours to take home. In the back is a blank page for notes, autographs and jottings.
“For former staffers, there is a souvenir mug with your name on it. For editorial staffers, your review signature is included, if appropriate. You can pick these up on the way home.
“The souvenir album is the work of Peter Besas, Variety’s Boswell, who laid out the book, edited it and persuaded various staffers to write special pieces. These include the background of Variety from Sime’s era to the corporate changeover. It’s a very special effort and many thanks to Peter for all his writings about Variety.
“Thanks also to Roger and Ian Watkins for their continuing efforts to keep Simesite current and active. Thanks to Michael and Mark who produced the video feature and the souvenir mugs. We deeply appreciate the contributed stories to the souvenir journal with Marie Marich’s bi-coastal recall personality highlight.
“There are so many stories about Variety, Daily Variety and the overseas bureaus that they could fill the entire evening. What I think makes Variety special are the personal relationships that developed over the years and have lasted for many of us here tonight.
“We won’t take up the evening with speeches, rather we want you to visit with folks you haven’t seen for a while.
“Peter has some words of welcome and then we want you to go on to the serious business of talking.”
Peter then wobbled up to the microphone and, after surveying his audience, delivered the following speech:
“Dear friends of the old Variety on 46th Street and Daily Variety on Cahuenga Boulevard and Balan Graphics in Valley Stream . . . and friends and family of Syd and Joan Silverman . . . (applause at the mention of the word “old”)
“Welcome to the 100th Anniversary dinner in honor of the founding of Variety in 1905 by Sime Silverman.
“For those who don’t know me, I’m Peter Besas.
“Usually at my age it’s not always easy to get anyone to listen to what one has to say. So it’s very pleasing to have such a captive audience. I guess I’m not on the ‘cutting edge’. In fact, I guess I never was. Which is one of the reasons I always felt comfortable at the old Variety, which was a bit of an anachronism even in its day. But that’s precisely what made it so refreshing a place to work in . . . at a time when a block away Corporate America had already become as impersonal as it is today.
“Though the actual date of the first issue of Variety was December 16th, we’ve moved up the celebration to September for the sake of convenience and to avoid the pre-Christmas crush.
“This is an historic occasion for many other reasons. One, certainly is that we’ve brought together people that otherwise might never have met again. Many of us haven’t seen each other for 18 years or more. So it’s something of an achievement to have managed to bring together this many people from the old Variety and Daily Variety and Balan Graphics from all over the world. It’s proof of how strong the emotional ties to the old Variety still are for all of us.
“The years we worked for the paper were memorable and unique in our lives. In a sense, we were one huge, bickering family. It was something the corporates never seemed to understand or care about. There are many ‘clubs’ that hold centenary celebrations, but ours was a non-club, a team that prided itself on the individuality of each of its members. As Abel Green once said – we were never ‘joiners’ only ‘diggers’.
“One of the things that made the paper so special was that sense of individualism and journalistic integrity that never pandered to advertisers, or to anyone else for that matter. And that made us proud to be writing for Variety and Daily Variety, even if the pay sometimes wasn’t the greatest. (laughter)
“We were part of a company that always prided itself on a kind of maverick approach, that never went by the rules. Even in those days I guess we were considered to be old-fashioned. But maybe that was precisely part of what made us so great. For we rejected the notion that everything modern and new is necessarily better than what is old and experienced.
“So here we all are gathered at 44th street off Broadway, the mythical Times Square,which has evolved and changed so often since the days of Sime Silverman. And this issignificant because it was only a few blocks from here that Sime brought out the first issue of Variety. The office was located in the Knickerbocker Building on Broadway and 38th Street. That was followed by the second office, on the corner of 45th Street and Broadway.
“But the building that most of us knew – I didn’t say necessarily “loved” (laughter) – was the one on 154 West 46th Street, just a few blocks away from here.
“I think we all remember it very vividly, and I’m sorry we don’t have more photos of it than the few included in the Souvenir Album. I guess when the final farewell party was held there, everyone knew it was the end of an era. And so it was.
“So this gathering is to remember that era and the parts we played in it. The same goes for those who worked at Balan Graphics in Long Island and those who worked at the old Cahuenga Boulevard office in Los Angeles.
“The first time I saw the Cahuenga office it seemed quite glamorous compared to 46th Street, even though later I found out most people didn’t think so. (laughter) “But you actually had a receptionist at the door! And a parking lot. And you didn’t have to walk up those steep flights of stairs.
“This is not a dinner with any kind of angle. We’re not currying favors or trying to sell ads or make money or promote any business or cause. We’re here purely in a spirit of friendship, of nostalgia, if you like, and to celebrate Syd’s grandfather having founded Variety 100 years ago, even though he and his family are no longer involved with the paper today.
“But more than anything, we’re here because of the generosity of Joan and Syd Silverman. And I really think they deserve a round of applause. (applause)
“And quite a gathering it is! Some of you have traveled great distances to be here this evening. We have people from Florida and California, from Canada and the Tristate area and many other states, as well as from as far away as England and Germany and Italy and even Australia . . .I hear there’s even someone here from Spain. (laughter)
“Let me also say how much we regret that certain members of the old crowd have been unable to attend this event. All of them were really anxious to come. Among them are Roger Watkins from London, Abie Torres in Florida, and Joe X. Price in L.A. Some others are based just too far away to make it here tonight. But I know that none of them would have missed this evening if they at all had been able to come. But to us it’s as though they were here, because they are part of the Variety family.
“For those not familiar with it, let me just give you a very brief background of Variety and Daily Variety.
“When Sime founded Variety in 1905, he was faced with some very fierce and nasty competition. To publish a trade paper in which you’re writing about the very people advertising is a tough proposition. That is, it’s tough if you want to be independent and not kow-tow to your advertisers but still stay in business.
“Amazingly, Sime succeeded in pulling that off, despite constant efforts from competitors and from the unions and legit and vaude overlords to sink him. There was even a nigh disastrous ad boycott of over a year. But at the end, the paper’s honesty and Sime’s skill enabled it to survive and become the Bible of Show Business.
“When Sime died in 1933, just a week after launching Daily Variety in Hollywood, the task of keeping the company going fell upon the heads of three people.
“First, was Sime’s son, Sidne, who was Syd’s father. The second was Variety’s legendary editor, Abel Green. The third was Harold Erichs, the business manager, who had started as an office boy in the company.
“Abel and Harold literally grew up in the streets of New York. Abel graduated Stuyvesant High School. That was it. The rest he and Harold learned on the job and by covering show biz. After all, none of the founding moguls of the film industry ever went to college either.
“In the old days before Syd, there was a big dictionary in the office. It was used as a door-stop. Correct spelling was not exactly a strongpoint of the old sheet.
“Anyway, these three men managed to keep the paper going during the worst years of the Depression and through the Second World War. Finally, in 1956, a young 23 year old kid, Sime’s grandson, Syd, was thrown upon the scene.
“After doing his military service, he went up to the “poop deck”, as we called it – the editorial dais – and learned the ropes from Abel and Harold. Eventually he took over the reins of the paper.
“Syd didn’t have to follow this career. His great interest was racing cars, more than journalism or show business. Yet he had these great newspapers thrust upon him and felt obliged to carry on their tradition. So he dutifully schlepped into the office every day and edited copy and helped lay out the paper in the Bronx and later at Valley Stream every week, working side by side with all the other muggs. Those of us abroad went directly to Syd for any important decision that had to be taken. There was no layer of middle management, no red tape, no corporate hagglings or politics. Syd gave you a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ and that was it. Refreshingly simple.
“And one of Syd’s great qualities was that he knew how to listen and was open to new ideas. Not new gimmicks or new speculations, but suggestions that seemed to make sense. He was always ‘Mr Cautious’ – for he knew how ultimately fragile the finances of the Weekly and the Daily were – but he was open to new suggestions and ideas and gave those he trusted total freedom in their operations, especially those far from New York – whether in Hollywood or in Europe.
“I’ll always remember sitting in the editorial and sales meetings we used to hold in Cannes and Milan every year arguing, not for hours, but for DAYS about how to improve the paper – I talk now of the Weekly. Some of the muggs would rant and rave to carry their points, and personal and even political animosities might surface. Syd would just sit there listening to it all, maybe sucking on a toothpick.
“And I remember Hank Werba from the Rome office shouting: “’Hey, Syd, you just can’t do that!’ “And Syd would just smile.
“The point is, no one was ever afraid of voicing his opinion about the paper, even though it might be very critical. There was no politics. Because at the end, we all felt it was ourpaper and wanted to improve it. No one was going to lose his job or be demoted or put on any blacklist because he thought that Syd was wrong and told him so.
“The upshot of all that was that new special sections were conceived and published, with the accompanying revenue. Hank Werba came up with some of the most astonishing of them. One was dedicated to Arab television and another to the ‘Maghreb’ – ‘Hey, Hank, no one knows what the “Maghreb” is!’, we all told him. ‘Change it to “North Africa”! It came out as ‘Maghreb’.
“And finally a section on – well, this was sheer madness – Vatican Radio. Needless to say, that was a bust.
“There was an extraordinary international expansion of Variety at that time. Syd’s criterion, as had also been Sime’s, wasn’t just how much revenue he could squeeze out of each office – in fact, some of them were only marginally profitable – but it was a question of prestige and presence and news coverage. And there was a tradition to be upheld, a tradition of internationalism, even though the bulk of ads came from L.A.
“Let me say a few words about the Daily, although my knowledge of it is very slight. After all, the 46th Street office I got to see a couple of times a year, and usually spent the month of March on the 5th floor putting together my Latin issue. But my contact with the Daily was only very fleeting, and other than Hy Hollinger and Hal Scott I didn’t know the people.
“But the fact that so many of you have flown all the way from L.A. to New York for this dinner shows that the time people worked there was as meaningful as it was to those who worked in New York.
“Certainly, the tradition of mavericks and journalistic standards was every bit as high in Hollywood as in New York, and was expressed as such by the Daily’s first editor, Arthur Ungar, just a week before Sime passed away.
“I think Tom Pryor very much carried on that tradition of total independence. I remember him telling me about when the corporates took over. He gave one of them a lift in his car. And this new corporate head of sales asked Tom about whether he was ‘advertiser friendly’. Tom told him: ‘No. We kick ass! We might have a full page ad for a film on one page, and opposite it a review panning it.’
“Well, that didn’t exactly endear Tom to the new management. But Tom was carrying on a tradition of 80 years that had been started by Sime in 1905.
“That old Variety – on both Coasts – our old Variety, with its idiosyncrasies and buccaneering spirit, is long since gone. But the memory of it is cherished by all of us here. I’ve tried to reflect this in the Souvenir Album, which I hope is a worthy tribute to the old Variety.
“Read it and you’ll see that every word, especially written for the occasion by its 25 contributors, is imbued not only with nostalgia but with the remembrance of a memorable part of our lives which we will never forget. That is what has brought us together here tonight.
“Again, thank you all for coming and please feel free to take more copies of the Souvenir Album.
“There are also some copies of Inside Variety which you are welcome to take.”
A 3-COURSE MEAL WAS SERVED, with most guests digging into a Caesar salad, a juicy steak and for dessert a New York cheese cake, as wine continued to be dispensed from the bar.
It would take up too much space to list all of the 150 people attending. But let us just mention that George Gilbert, now aged 90, came all the way from Florida to join the celebration.
Also on hand was a full table of ladies who had worked at Balan Graphics in Valley Stream, who we were able to round up largely thanks to the help of Marge Prezioso. Among the veterans attending were Ann Ausubel, who was Abel Green’s secretary in the 1940s, as well as Lyle Stuart, the author of God Wears a Bowtie, who worked on the sheet as a young reporter and who now is the owner of a publishing company called Barricade Books.
Also attending were several ex-muggs who are still working on the present Variety, such as Elizabeth Guider, John Dempsey, Todd McCarthy and Amy Dawes, plus several who still write reviews for the paper such as David Stratton, Deborah Young and Jack Zink.
Throughout the cocktail hour and dinner, an audiovisual tape prepared by Mark Silverman unspooled on a large monitor in a corner of the dining room. Mark had assembled a potpourri of 400 old photos he had culled from many sources which included shots of many of those present at the dinner when they were a few years younger.
Once the cheese cake had been devoured, guests started to circulate in the room, table-hopping and renewing old contacts. Many picked up extra copies of the Album andInside Variety (60 copies of the latter went like hotcakes).
On the table opposite the elevator were placed a splendid array of handsome drinking mugs which Michael Silverman had contributed to the evening’s attractions. Each large black mug had written on it the Variety logo as well as the ex-staffer’s name in gold lettering, as well as – when applicable – his four-letter “signature”. Since Mike had ordered these mugs long before the guest list was finalized, a good many of them were left over at the end of the evening – around 11 p.m. Unfortunately, a few had broken during shipping from Florida, where they were made. The left-over mugs will be mailed to those whose addresses we have and hopefully will arrive in one piece.
After the inevitable nightcap in the downstairs bar of Sardi’s, the last of the festivaleers dispersed into the lively Times Square area which at midnight was bustling with merrymakers.
Sunday, September 25
IT WAS BEAUTIFUL AUTUMNAL DAY when a contingent of the ex-muggs gathered at the Boat House in Central Park. This delightful rendez-vous venue was a revelation to many of those assembling there at noon. The Boat House has a large indoor restaurant and bar and well as a most pleasant outdoor bar with table service.
The first of those arriving managed to grab a table (not always easy on popular Sundays at that hour) and soon a stream of ex-staffers and their sidekicks started to wander into the al fresco bar area, grabbing chairs when they could, until, an hour later, we had occupied three of the tables and the surrounding chairs.
Among those surfacing for the gathering were: Mike Silverman, Bob and Marie Marich, Sid Adilman, Vito Seminara, Mort Bryer, Jack Loftus, Jack Zink, Peggy Michitsch, Frank Meyer, Bob Butler, Jacquelyne Pearce, Jack Kindred, Norman Scherer, Jim Robbins, Norma Nannini and Gerda Bologna.
The reunion broke up around 2 p.m. with the ex-staffers bidding their final adieux.
Thursday, September 29
VARIETY’s PUBLISHER, Charles Koones, called Syd Silverman to invite him to the Variety 100th Anniversary party in Los Angeles on December 2. Syd accepted.
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The lay press also showed interest in the paper they all used to follow. To enjoy their comments click the following link
REACTION TO THE 3-DAY SHINDIG and the Souvenir Album has been effusive. Here are some of the comments:
DEAR PETER . . .
. . . Just wanted to say thanks so much for sending me a copy of the Variety book. Looks fascinating! Hope you’re well and the party was fun.– All best – Blake (Murdoch)
. . . Many thanks for the Centennial Souvenir Album, which arrived today. I was knocked out to see how elaborate it is, and I have been devouring it ever since. I’m going to disobey Abel’s Style Sheet and call your book “wonderful, beautiful, lovely, heavenly, marvellous.”
Finally being able to put faces to all the muggs whose work I have read for so long is great. And seeing again the faces I knew is terrific. And who knew Syd had acted with Gabby Hayes and John Wayne?
There are so many riches to read and see in the book. I am particularly enjoying all the heartfelt and hilarious tributes to muggs who have departed, such as the great Daku. Morrie Gelman’s tribute is deeply moving.
It reminds me of what a model newsman Dave Kaufman was, in every way. I remember when I was new on Daily Variety and criticized a TV producer for billing himself as the “creator” of a series when it was in fact based on two famous novels. The producer called me and screamed at me.
I asked Dave about this, and he said, “Thieves don’t like it when their hands are caught in the cookie jar.” Brian Lowry’s Daku. obit is a gem. All the Tom Pryor stories are great, as was he.
Syd’s comment about the present state of Variety sums it up with perfect eloquence: “Variety has changed.”
I also love seeing the Neil Simon quote from The Sunshine Boys, which I often thought about while writing obits. I was grateful for the honor of writing them, and I knew the paper had changed when I was told by Daily Variety not to take such trouble writing obits. I said I would write them the way they deserved to be written. Now those green volumes for libraries have very thin volumes indeed for Variety obits.
Kudos, Besa, you’ve done us proud by telling our story the way it was. Maybe we should all start another trade paper. – Joseph McBride (Mac)
. . . What a nice surprise! I received a copy of the Centennial Souvenir Album today. It’s terrific–a thoroughly professional work. You’re to be commended. Many, many thanks for sending me a copy. I enjoyed looking, reading and remembering. – Best – Morrie (Gelman)
. . . Got my copy of the Souvenir Album. All I can say at the moment is — WOW. A marvelous book beautifully produced. I can now understand how Harlan got so emotional reading the book. I am doing the same.
Fulsome praise anon when I have consumed all the book. A stupendously good job. Bravissimo. – Frank Segers
. . . Great job! – Sincerely – Mort (Bryer)
. . . You are beyond wonderful! Thank you for everything you have done to make the 100th Anni so memorable. I look forward to seeing you in Madrid. – Best – Jack (Loftus) (Written on 154 W. 46th St. green stationery!)
. . . You did a fantastic job with the Variety week-end. I am sorry I could not be there all three days. But just Saturday night was wonderful. – Sincerely – Muriel Pagan.
– . . . Thank you, thank you, thank you for being rthe mastermind behind the reunion in New York. It was so emotional, so much fun. What memories! Thank you, too, for organizing the commemorative books. It reads just like an Anni issue. – Best as always –Adil (Sid Adilman)
. . . Wonderful reunion, and one of a kind. – Harlan Jacobson.
. . . Don’t know if you received my previous e-mail in which I extolled to the sky your stewardship of the Variety 100th Anni shindig and your editorial skills in putting out the souvenir book. What a fantastic accomplishment! Don’t know anyone associated with Variety who can match your ability and energy in carrying it out.
Congrats a millions times. My thanks too for sending me a copy of the book. Sorry I was unable to make the dinner. Sounded like a ball. Next project: a testimonial dinner for you by the Silverman clan. Looking forward to your wrap-up on Simesite. – All the best –Hyho. (Hy Hollinger).
KUDOS WERE ALSO SENT by Ron Holloway in Berlin, and perhaps the most effusive of all (transmitted by phone) by Roger Watkins in England.