Drink up, mate

By Frank Meyer

Every morning for the past few months as I checked my overnight e-mail I dreaded seeing the message from Peter Besas with the subject “Roger.” A month or so ago Rog and I had a long phone conversation and he was surprisingly lucid, having been taken off morphine for a less debilitating painkiller. After our chat, as he would have put it, I said, “I guess saying goodbye today is really saying goodbye.”

He chortled and said, “Yes, I guess it is.”

When I read Peter’s e-mail this morning a lot of memories popped into my head – the good and the not so.

I particularly was reminded of the weekend before he took over as editor. Roger flew in on a Thursday or Friday and we all but isolated ourselves in the basement family room of my home in Chappaqua as we went through the myriad things he wanted to accomplish and how we could join forces to get them all done.

It was strange. We had gone through our Variety lives under Syd Silverman not knowing anything about payroll in the New York and Hollywood offices. As European bureau chief, Roger knew what was up financially on the foreign frontier, but neither of us had a clue about domestic pay. Yet Cahners had asked for a budget tout de suite and we set to work on that – now armed with a list of who made what.

A lot of that was surprising, but that’s maybe for another day. We compiled numbers and made lists and exchanged ideas from Friday afternoon through our train ride to Grand Central Monday morning. Most of it we agreed upon. Much of our thought process was centered on how to make the paper more productive and exciting editorially, theoretically aiding the sales department as well.

All the time, of course, we were thinking how we wanted to make changes where needed, maintain the status quo where possible and not dilute either the historical success of the paper and the long-term standards of excellence which marked the reign of the Silverman family from Sime through Syd.

Our biggest problem by far, one as much emotional as a part of the business plan, was the question of personnel. What were the needs on staff? Who should be replaced and when? Most especially, how do you start making staff changes on a family-run newspaper where lifetime tenure was all but guaranteed? It was a long weekend, but it produced a working relationship that made things easier when some of these tasks had to be taken care of.

There was one scary event that jumped into my head this morning.

It was Christmas season 1988 and we were in our shiny new Variety Cahners-style offices on Park Avenue South when someone said a jumbo jet had exploded over Scotland. There was a strange silence. Most of us knew editor Roger Watkins and his wife Pat were en route to London to spend the holiday season with family.

A short while later we learned the plane was bound from Europe to the U.S. and while we were concerned about the passengers and how the explosion happened, we all breathed a sigh of relief that the Watkins duo were safe.

(Later we learned our Variety friend Phil Dimauro had lost his sister in the Lockerbie terrorist blast.)

Festivals and markets, while a lot of damned hard work, were also a lot of fun, especially as Roger and Ted Clark would find new or return to old restaurants us neophytes never would have found on their own. At Cannes it was up the hill and down this street or that into a “gourmet” dinery where the only English emanated from our table.

My favorite memory of Roger happened sometime in the mid-’80s when I made the trek to MIFED in Milan. As I learned was the custom, all the muggs congregated around the bar of the Fieramilano Hotel, many drinking Garibaldis (Campari and orange juice).

One evening toward the end of the market, Roger and I wandered off for a drink and dinner about 10 blocks from the hotel. At that bar we met many buyers, sellers and press types from around Europe. A couple of attractive young women came by to say hi to Roger and after a few more drinks we repaired to a table for dinner.

As waiters uncorked wine and started bringing the victuals, others started to join us one after another. Pretty soon we were at the head of a very large table with some 20 people chowing down and drinking up.

When the time was winding down towards the wee hours, the waiter brought the check and many reached for their money. “I’ve got it,” Roger intoned, grabbing the by now very long register tape. He looked at it for a while, then passed it to me, asking, “Have you got room on your credit card for this, mate?” It took a lot of explaining back at 46th Street, but as the Bard said, all’s well that ends well.

Roger, you don’t need a credit card any longer. Drink up, mate!