by PETER BESAS
Born on May 19, 1873 in Cortland, New York, the third child of Louis and Rachel (née Ganz) Silverman, Simon J. Silverman, had his first brush with journalism in 1903 when he got a job reviewing vaude acts for a Gotham sheet called Daily America; thereupon followed a job on The Telegraph. After panning an act as “N.G.” (no good), but which had taken a half page ad, Sime got the sack and a short while later launched his own “horizontal” sheet in 1905, VARIETY, which covered vaude, live acts, circus and other forms of entertainment.
Sime’s first office was in the Knickerbocker Theatre Building on Broadway, between 38th and 39th Streets. Four years after launching VARIETY, in 1909, when the paper had grown, he moved to a building overlooking Times Square, corner of 45th Street and Broadway. Those were the buccaneering years, when Sime and his sheet were fighting for survival, hiding from creditors and using every ploy imaginable to keep ahead of the competition.
Stacked against them were various other show biz papers such as The Telegraph, The Billboard, The Dramatic Mirror and The Clipper. Other antagonists included the vaudeville “trust”, headed by B.F. Keith and his main henchman, E.F. Albee, the ever quarrelsome Shubert Brothers, the White Rats thesps’ association, as well as other power players of the era who weren’t happy to see a hard-hitting independent paper making headway.
In 1889 Sime had married Harriet “Hattie” Freeman, who hailed from Syracuse, N.Y. Near the end of that year their first and only son, Sid, was born. They called him “Skigie”, and even while still a child, Sime had him reviewing moppet vaude acts, just to get another child’s reaction.
By 1920, VARIETY had grown so much that Sime again moved into new quarters. He bought a building at 154 West 46th Street, which had formerly belonged to a modiste. It was in that rickety, five-flight walk-up building that the paper reached the acme of its fame and influence. It is the building that most of those o-o’ing this web page remember, and where so many of our lives crossed.
Sime came in every day to edit and write copy, sitting on the dais in his swivel chair that overlooked the street below. He was a man that lived hard, smoking, drinking, womanizing, playing poker through the nights and indulging in noctural sorties with his buddies to the vaude houses, theatres and night clubs, hobnobbing with his pals, who ranged from Mayor Jimmy Walker to Jimmy Durante, Walter Winchell, Jack Lait and Tom Mix. Many cheered their spirits with him in his 5th floor den during Prohibition, where Sime always kept a good stock of booze.
But Sime’s first love was his paper. He cultivated an inner circle of muggs, as the journalists were called, and strictly kept to the creed of journalistic honesty and integrity he had proclaimed in the first issue, not always an easy task when your advertisers were the very people whom you were writing about.
Physically, Sime measured 5′ 10″ in height and weighed 210 pounds. He dressed expensively but not ostentatiously in brown suits with no vests, specially made shoes, a brown gabardine trench coat and brown slouch hat to match. His prime personal extravagance was very fine linen, and over-sized handkerchiefs. He was known for the bow-tie he always sported.
He took little exercise, but looked physically fit, despite smoking Turkish-blend Murad cigarettes all his life. He tended to mumble when he talked, and hated having his picture taken. He also hated all kinds of job titles, so his favorite expression for a “bureau chief” in Los Angeles, or London, or Chicago was simply that he was “in charge” of the office. No one in the office had titles, other than the editor, and in the pages of VARIETY top execs were simply known as “toppers”.
Sime’s favorite haunt for luncheon was the old Astor Hotel on Times Square, where he mixed with industry leaders, jotting down key words on a small notepad he kept under the table. He then worked the jottings into full-length stories upon returning to the office.
By 1930, competition was getting hot on the Coast, with Billy Wilkerson launching The Hollywood Reporter on September 3. Although in ill health (he had been battling TB for years), Sime followed suit, and launched his own daily paper, DAILY VARIETY. The first issue came out on Sept. 6, 1933. He put in charge of it an experienced, tough ex New York trade journalist, Arthur Ungar. The launch came just in time for Sime to see it in L.A., because two weeks later, on September 23, while in his suite at the Ambassador Hotel, he succumbed to a major hemorrhage.
An estimated 3,600 friends showed up for the memorial service in New York’s Temple Emanu-El and 900 extra chairs had to be set up. Among those attending was a who’s who of show biz of the time. That evening, a large gathering assembled in Sime’s apartment on Central Park West to hear a 15-minute nationwide NBC special salute, which opened by playing Give My Regards To Broadway. By the end of the broadcast, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.