A stream of memories

by Morrie Gelman

I was distressed to learn of Roger’s passing. The news was a complete shock. I didn’t even know he was sick.

I can’t reminisce about my time with Roger. Prior to the establishing of Simesite, I rarely interacted with him. The only time we met face-to-face was in New York just prior to the transition to Cahners. Syd called a meeting of senior staffers to discuss how to allow the paper to survive into the next century. Roger was the most outspoken at the meeting. I disagreed with most of what he suggested. To me Variety was like the Algonquin Hotel in mid-town Manhattan where most of us out-of-towners were staying. Variety was old, maybe even hidebound, yet we were one of a kind, different, colorful, full of history, even legendary. Refurbish, possibly invest in restoration. Modernize, I agreed, but retain the old-fashioned style. Don’t turn us into another Hyatt or Ramada Inn. I lost all my arguments.

After becoming Variety’s editor, Roger and I were often at odds with one another in our phone conversations. I was then on Weekly’s payroll after five years at the Daily followed by another five years at Advertising Age and Electronic Media (currently TVWeek). I felt it better for all concerned to resign but Tom Pryor, who then was still in control in Hollywood, hired me back at the Daily. Under Tom’s umbrella, I no longer interacted with New York.

With the formation of Simesite.net, Roger (along with Peter) graciously contacted me with an invitation to participate. Subsequently, every contact with Roger by phone or Email was as other memories on this site suggest: He was unfailingly cordial, encouraging, and helpful. The universal truth is you really have to get out of the forest to admire the trees. I appreciated Roger as a decent, straightforward, special person only after I was no longer contending with him.

Allow me to digress. Roger’s death got me to look over notes from the past. I was reminded that 1993 was my year of living sorrowfully. I was in business since mid-1991 with two partners. It was already obvious that the business, Ventures In Media, could possibly support me but not my two much younger partners. More importantly it was a time when six of my fellow workers, four of them Variety muggs, died within a six-month period.

Woody Wilson, the Daily’s librarian for 30 years, died in July. He was a victim of the Cahner’s takeover. Woody’s reason for living was over when the old Variety organization died. The Hollywood paper was his life. To virtually the end of his days, Woody believed the paper with its rusty file cabinets and musty old clippings was and always would be his home. When he was told his time had passed there was no flaming shootout like in “The Wild Bunch”. He simply had a heart attack and died very quickly afterwards on the surgery table.

Bob Knight died only about months later. Working on opposite ends of the country, Bob and I would only meet at conventions. I found him always friendly and accepting, quirky, and wonderfully knowledgeable. If I came a little late to an industry meeting or panel discussion, Bob would make room for me and be sure to get me up to speed on happenings.

Every deck of cards has four of each suit. Variety’s deck had mostly one of a kind. Woody Wilson was a Jack. Bob Knight was an Ace.

Jim Harwood passed away several days after Bob. I had a complicated relationship with Jim. I respected him as a reporter. He had a tremendous list of accomplishments. The younger staffers at the Daily looked up to him. Many tried to emulate his cool, laid-back approach to life. I was way too conservative to be on the same wavelength as Jim. We spoke; we were cordial with one another. But I wasn’t his kind of a guy.

Jim, very indirectly, and certainly through no fault of his own, was the reason I left Daily Variety in the mid-1980s for Crain Communications. Todd Fandell, the editorial director of Crain, had recruited me to be bureau chief for Advertising Age and a start-up, Electronic Media. I asked for time to think it over. I had a feeling I would be changing pumpernickel for white bread. I ran my possible switch by Art Murphy, whose opinion I greatly valued. His immediate response was – Welcome to anonymity. Nobody in Hollywood knows Ad Age.

Next I asked the advice of HBO’s Michael Fuchs, then one of Hollywood’s most important movers and shakers. I was in regular contact with Michael and regarded him among the brightest of the bright. “I’ll never talk to you again,” was his reaction to my proposed move. “What?” I questioned in amazement. “You’re going to take this so personal.”

Michael explained: “HBO has nothing to do with advertising so if you’re going to Ad Age I’ll have no reason to talk to you.”

I had these solid reasons to stay put. My wife thought I was crazy not to jump at the chance to move. It meant $15,000 more a year.

I was still undecided when I came in one morning to find Tom Pryor had moved my desk to face that of Jim Harwood, a non-stop smoker. I was furious, not at Jim, but Tom. “I’m a non-smoker,” I reminded Tom. “You want me to sit all day breathing in smoke from Jim.”

There never was a time when arguing with Tom would change his mind. “If you don’t like it,” he said, “take a hike.”

I immediately took a hike to the nearest outside phone booth, called Todd Fandell in Chicago and accepted his offer. On my last day in the office Syd Silverman was visiting. He called me into Tom’s office with Mr. Pryor sitting there and asked me truthfully to tell him why I was leaving. I told Syd a half-truth. I cited my recruitment, the salary increase and the need to further my career. It was a bridge I didn’t want to burn and used subsequently.

Marc Berman, who sat next to me at the Daily in my second go-around at the paper, died in November of 1993. Marc was only 39 when his life ended. There was 24 years between us so you can say we had a father-son relationship. He had come to the paper at the recommendation of Tom Bierbaum. I knew from the start if Tom gave his approval, Marc had to be first-rate.

The full-page tribute to Marc in the Daily after his death hailed him as “A kind, gentle human being. A valued friend and colleague. Our time with Marc was much too short.”

I can’t improve on that statement. His passing, to this day, impacts more than any of the others. I was at my Ventures In Media desk when Marc called me on a late summer day in 1993. There was so much anguish in his voice, he was inarticulate. “Marc, what’s wrong? Tell me, please,” I pleaded with him. He finally was able to gather himself to speak coherently.

“I’m in a lot of trouble,” he blurted out. “Marc, Marc, how can I help? Talk to me,” I urged. But Marc wasn’t able to continue. I instinctively understood. I was from another generation. I was a straight guy. He wanted me to share his anguish. He was looking for me to console him, offer possible solutions. But would I understand. He didn’t want me to be disappointed in him.

The phone disconnected. I tried him again several times. I didn’t reach him. Those few sobbed words, “I’m in a lot of trouble,” were the last ones I heard from him. I guessed at his predicament. I’ve never ceased to berate myself for not trying to do more.

Later that same year, Rocco Famighetti, who broke me in as a fledgling trade reporter at Broadcasting Magazine (now Broadcasting & Cable), died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He was followed quickly by the death of Sandy Klausner, my assistant when I was at Broadcasting. The term “valued right hand” was invented for Sandy. She was convinced from an early age that cancer was waiting in the wings to take her and tragically she was right.

Forgive me. I know this hasn’t been a barrel of laughs. Roger’s passing reminds me how short is the longest life. When I go these memories go with me. I intend this essay as an honest remembrance of some things past and a tribute, in my own way, to some of the unique people I’ve met along the way.