Comments and observations on this historic occasion by:
The Final Hurrah
By Peter Besas
In a strange rite enacted in New York each September for close to two decades, many of the leading show biz personalities of the time congregated at an old ex -modiste shop on West 46th Street, off Times Square. Limousines and elegant coupés pulled up in front of the five-story building. The presidents of leading film companies mingled with famous stars, publicists, journalists, financiers, agents and writers. They came to pay their yearly respects to Sime Silverman, the maverick founder and guiding light of Variety, the trade paper that had evolved into the “Bible” of the entertainment world.
On the Wednesday nearest to September 22 – the date of Sime Silverman’s death in 1933, a few weeks after the founding of Daily Variety – Wednesday, because it was the weekly publication day and most of the staff was off – the cortège would then set out for Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn to the Silverman mausoleum to pay homage to the man who had befriended and helped them, with whom they had not only done business, but caroused and drunk and laughed and even quarreled. At the vault, verses were read, flowers laid on his tomb, remembrances bantered. The mourners ranged from comedian Jimmy Durante to MGM president Nick Schenck.
It was a pilgrimage in honor not only of the founder of Variety and Daily Variety but of a tradition and a quirky set of mavericks. But no rite like the one that used to be held each year in New York will accompany the publication of the final issue of Daily Variety on March 18, 2013. Nor, presumably, will there be any fuss made about what many of us consider to be the final issue of the formerly New York-based Weekly Variety, though its current owner, Jay Penske, has announced the appearance of a new transmogrified version that will be published Tuesdays in Los Angeles with the Variety logo starting March 26, but which will bear virtually no resemblance to what used to be called “Sime’s Sheet”.
The ups and downs of Variety since its sale by Syd Silverman in 1987 to the Cahners Publishing Company have been so great as to make the paper virtually unrecognizable. Admittedly, even in Sime’s day its founder made some drastic changes. Starting as a 16-page newspaper (it was always called a newspaper and not a magazine) on December 16, 1905, printed on glazed stock in a 13 5/8 x 10 ½ inch format, with two and a half pages of ads, its contents concentrating mostly on vaudeville, the paper evolved in its first re-design in 1920 to an 11 ½ x 16 ¾ inch publication printed on a rotary press on newspaper stock. By then it was also covering film and legitimate theatre. As the entertainment world evolved, the paper expanded to include first radio and then television, though there were also occasional excursions into “literati” and the music sector.
After Syd Silverman took over the reins of the paper as publisher of both the New York Weekly and the Hollywood Daily in 1956, further changes were made in accordance with the evolution of show business and technological advances, among which was the expansion of Variety’s international operations to fulltime offices in London, Paris, Rome, Munich, Sydney, Madrid, Copenhagen, Chicago, Washington and Toronto. Indeed, as early as 1908 Sime, realizing the importance of show biz’ international dimension, had opened an office in London on The Strand. These offshore offices were closely linked to the original Weekly edition based on 46th Street, whereas the Daily, under a separate editorship and staff in Hollywood, operated as a semi-autonomous paper concentrating mostly on local West Coast news.
However, whatever the changes in format and coverage may have been, there always remained a bedrock of nigh sacrosanct core traditions and idiosyncratic “do’s” and “don’t” which dated back to the early days of the paper. These were not just concepts of editorial integrity, unwillingness to bend content to the influence of advertisers or kowtowing to the all-powerful vaude circuits and later to the film studios. They were homespun, quirky rules, such as spawned a special “slanguage” used in the paper, which were spelled out in a style pamphlet that decried any sort of “gushing” reviews or excessive adulation and eliminated all titles (“toppers” was used instead).
Even within Variety, other than the title of “proprietor” or “publisher” and “editor-in-chief”, titles were frowned upon, and Sime himself merely designated those running regional offices as “being in charge”. He himself preferred to simply be called a “reporter”.
The quirky rules insisted upon nixing the fan monicker “movies”, and using “film” or “pictures”; “theatre” was always written with an “re” not an “er”. On one occasion the paper published a long list of these terms, which had evolved as “Varietyese” over the decades and become legendary: helmer, oater, yahoo, hix, emcee, pix, ozoner, kidvid, boffo, cuffo, hoofer and dozens of others, mixed in with an occasional French term, a hodgepodge of slang, sports jargon and inventive neologisms which were one of the identifying oddities of the old Variety.
There were many other quirky rules. By-lines in articles were always given very sparingly. All reviews were signed by four-letter “sigs” in italics, with each reporter choosing his own “sig” when being hired. Starting in 1920, the type font used throughout the sheet was always the eminently identifiable Cheltenham. Almost as identifiable was the poor quality ink that rubbed off on the readers’ hands, a source of constant complaint. And photos were strickly tabu, except those paid for by advertisers. Besides, photos would only take up space that could be used for stories, Silverman argued.
The quirkiness even extended to the personnel policies. On the old Variety virtually no one was ever fired, so you could linger on knocking out copy at your manual typewriter until you were a septuagenarian or keeled over. There was no dress code, no specific hours you had to be in the office, as long as you met your work quota. And, of course, your copy was never tampered with or edited down because of its content, provided it was accurate. As such, 46th Street and the Daily office on Cahuenga Boulevard were workplaces which tended to attract mavericks of all stripes, perhaps a little in the vein of The Front Page or the journalists working in the era of H. L Mencken. This resulted in a breed of “muggs” (always written with two “g”’s) unlike those found in any other publication with the clout and prestige of Variety.
This was true in spades for the international offices in the years before the advent of the Internet or even the facsimile machine, when each bureau chief in essence was an entrepreneur and empowered to run and expand his operations as he saw fit, provided he got the desired results.
On the advertising side, the papers’ policies were like none other I have ever seen. The rate card was held as inviolable as sacred script. The underlying pitch to the advertiser was always “take it or leave it”, with a suggestion that the advertiser could not afford not to appear in the “Bible of Show Business” (though that was an expression never used by the paper itself). As a former ad salesman in L.A., Hal Scott, once said, Variety was “holier than thou”, both in its advertising policies and its editorial integrity. In regular issues, under Syd Silverman, the Weekly, for example, refused to accept anything other than full-page ads for film advertising, and there were no frequency discounts. “Reader-friendly” and “advertiser-friendly” were dirty words, a concept utterly incomprehensible to those who took over the company in 1987.
Well, all that changed radically when Syd Silverman sold the company to the Cahners Company that year. The new corporate owners immediately set about transforming the 82-year-old icon of show biz, oblivious and dismissive of its long traditions, modus operandi, and the reasons for its past phenomenal success, both in respect to ad revenue and to what had made it a “must read” for the trade. That 552-page 1986 Cannes Film Festival bumper issue, 90% of it chock full of advertising, made the corporates salivate. If a little “mom and pop” operation could generate that kind of business, imagine what management under a modern, cutting edge corporation could do!
Details of the grim story of the upheavals in personnel, office venues, and eventually Weekly Variety’s move to the West Coast need not be repeated here. Nor that of the systematic destruction of every Variety tradition and norm under the aegis of the new corporate wunderkinder appointed to run the company: Anderman, Feldman, Pond, Perlman, Vitale, Byrne and Bart, whose contempt for the past history of the paper even included removing the founder’s name from the masthead.
It is now 26 years since the muggs held their farewell party in the old brownstone on 46th Street and also in the offices in Hollywood. Many of them have passed away, and are unable to now see the final issue of the Daily and what promises to be a transmogrified new Hollywood weekly which, along with the current webpage will for a while longer perpetuate the Variety logo. Most others, still alive and kicking, have long since ceased to care or follow the vicissitudes of Variety and Daily Variety as it passed from the hands of Cahners to Reed Business Publications and now, sadly depreciated, to the Jay Penske Group. They have lost interest in tracking the executive musical chairs, the redesigns, the efforts at “exploiting the brand”, the changes in personnel, the efforts of self-aggrandising editors and executives, each with some hifalutin title. They have averted their eyes from watching their beloved sheet descend from an icon into an eviscerated, soulless “property”.
Indeed, many feel that the real Variety died long ago, on that day in 1987 when the new, shortlived Cahners “suits” called together the staff at 46th Street and assembled them in Sardi’s restaurant (ditto a short time later in Los Angeles for those working for the Daily) to assure them that there would be “no changes”.
And that is why there will be no mourning when the current Daily Variety folds on March 18 and the “new” Weekly replaces the old one, since no sense of historical loss can be felt for the surviving hulk, and because the soul of the Daily as well as the Weekly departed decades ago when the wrecker’s ball knocked down the old brownstone near Times Square.
(The following article will be published in the final issue of Daily Variety on March 18, 2013)
Everything Old Is New Again
By Mark Silverman
So, they’re saying the old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be? My late friend and Variety editor Roger Watkins would have responded simply, “Poppycock.” Variety is doing what it has always done since Sime Silverman started it in 1905 on a shoestring and a loan from his father-in-law, after panning an act in the New York Herald got him fired. (He thought the act stank, and the fact they were also an advertiser shouldn’t enter the equation for a real journalist. Amen to that.)
The paper has perennially been a few steps ahead of the “new media” for over a century, always covering “the act”, and the business enterprises behind them, never mind what the technology of the moment was that managed to bring “the show” in show business to the masses. When nickelodeons came on the scene, Variety was there. It didn’t spell the end of vaudeville, not for a while, anyway. Broadway filled that void. When talkies, radio, television, cable, syndication, videocassettes, CD, DVD, and the internet became content’s distributor du jour, it didn’t spell the end to a single one of those “newfangled” transmission systems — it inevitably expanded the market for talent, in all its various iterations. And that’s what Variety will continue to do, because that’s in the paper’s DNA. An anxious producer may no longer have to wait by the kitchen door to hear the comforting “thud” of Variety landing on the driveway, but the anticipation of last night’s review – good or bad – will continue. Only now he’ll simply get a tweeted alert on his iPad that his morning read is in his queue.
Variety was always peering under showbiz’s hood before the other trades knew where to look. Under the stewardship of the Silverman family, reporters were given long leashes, which allowed them to build sources and confidantes unimpeded. The staffers, known as “muggs,” covered the world’s most glamorous business with a cool detachment that was careful not to get caught up in the ballyhoo (now known as the hype).
In the 1970s, two developments boosted Weekly Variety’s fortunes quite a lot: the Financial Interest and Syndication Rule provided a plethora of new tv production in the pre-primetime slot, and advertising soon followed. And the international film market took off with Variety’s ever-expanding global coverage of international film festivals, many of which grew into conjoined film bazaars for both the studios and non-studio players. The advent of the American Film Market, which Variety championed, and the perfecting of foreign market “presales” financing that fueled it, begat an avalanche of mostly B-product and some A-titles that advertised in the Weekly’s massive film market special issues. Every company had to advertise not only its presence at any given market, but each hoped-for production with just a script and a racy poster. An ad in Variety provided legitimacy. As one wag noted, the secret to Variety’s success was simple: “We got an ad for every picture never made.”
What’s happened to the with the consolidation of Variety’s print publishing is also happening at a rapid clip in the publishing world at large. It may have just taken a bit longer for Hollywood to let go of its “Old Dog” and learn some new tricks, but with the right reporters and the right support behind them, the history and reputation of one of the world’s great brands will have as much meaning as ever to both writers and readers. That flying “V” logo on the cover (created by founder Sime’s wife Hattie) still means “showbiz” to people all over the world, even those who don’t read in English.
Let’s Hope that the new Variety Doesn’t Lay an Egg
By Paul Rosovsky
We ex-muggs can only hope that Penske Media’s re-boot of the Variety brand and flying “V” logo will at the very least not damage it any further. (The Flying Penskes would have made a nice name for a vaudeville act, but I suspect Sime would have panned them).
Having watched all of the ill-fated developments by Variety’s post-Silverman-family musical-chairs-sets-of-corporate-owners over the years from afar, it has been frustrating to watch them repeatedly fail and then try to play catch-up. Perhaps Penske will be different and I can only hope so. Removing the pay wall, changing the focus of the remaining print organ, and beginning to use social media regularly are not bad ideas, but the Hollywood Reporter and the multiple low-budget (yet high ambition) industry blogs have been doing this for years, so Variety is unfortunately very late to the game.
It won’t be easy. Banner ads on web sites and paid links on Facebook are usually not worth the pixels they are painted on for the advertiser (and the reason they are categorized under “vanity metrics”). Perhaps they can sell them using the sorts of (usually unspoken) pitches that were used to sell ads in Variety’s January Anniversary issue: “It won’t do you any good other than having people see your name but it will help us stay in business.” And the pitch worked then, because people in the industry relied on Variety for honest news and reviews. Now, they are just another player.
So the bottom line will end up being the bottom line and costs will continue to be cut, and no one’s job will be “secure” (assuming there are a few humans involved and not content-producing robots. Yes, there’s an app for that.) I do remember Walter Winchell’s secretary, Rose, having been given a job to work with Norma on the old 4th floor after her boss’s death and I doubt Irma Lerna actually sold an ad after Al Jolson died, but they both came in to work most days when I was there.
One thing I do regret is my not having been able to switch BASELINE’s online alliance with the Hollywood Reporter to Variety when I was Managing Editor there. Not that it would have necessarily made a difference, as there would have been countless opportunities for strategic mis-steps and business screw-ups along the way. But it might have provided different options (and remember, this was 25 years ago, when Amazon was only a river, Michael Ovitz was a power broker, and few outside of DARPA knew what the internet was).
Let’s hope for the best.
No Brooding Over Spilled Milk
By Larry Michie
We can all mourn the evaporation of Variety as we knew and loved the old critter. When Syd was in the saddle we all knew where we stood, and we had a collection of eccentric but productive reporters who really made the paper hum. All that excellence died a slow death after the new owners installed managers who at best had no gift for the kind of reporting and production that Variety had provided over the years to dazzle showbiz. To my way of thinking, it’s not even worth mourning the current collapse. It hasn’t been the real Variety for a long time so we can wave goodbye without regrets.
For some time now I have tended to rely on Nikki Finke, a tough and sometimes caustic (to say the least) showbiz reporter. I imagine (although I don’t follow Hollywood a whole hell of a lot these days) there will be other attempts by Variety copycats to publish showbiz news but mostly I think they’re just looking for Hollywood social opportunities.
No use brooding over spilled milk. It was dammed good milk while it lasted.
The Demise of an American Classic
By Mike Malak
Daily Variety published 480,000 pages in nearly eighty years, assuming an average issue size of 24 pages. Of that 480,000, a minimum of 240,000 pages were generated by the advertising department. Longtime editor Tom Pryor presided over approximately 160,000 pages of total production. I began working at the Daily in 1973, three days before my 25th birthday. During my tenure as Marketing Director, (1980-1989), the ad department contributed not less than 50,000 pages to the Daily.
In its news coverage of the discontinuation of the print edition of Daily Variety the New York Times said: “Variety has suffered from mismanagement, vanishing advertisers and faster and more aggressive blog competitors.” Many of the defects the Times identified commenced almost immediately after the sale of the papers to Cahners Publishing. It admitted, almost as fast as the deal reached the newswires, that they did not know what they’d bought and showed it by placing a food publishing hotshot, Arthur Anderman, who saw a couple of films a year, in the catbird seat with disastrous consequences. Twenty minutes after meeting him Lew Wasserman was on the phone with Tom demanding to know what in the world was going on at Variety. It went mostly downhill from there.
Plans to sell the papers were several years in the making. Two or three years before the deal closed Herb Golden, former Variety staffer and then entertainment financing executive at Banker’s Trust, told me that the paper had been listed for sale. When queried, Syd replied: “There are rumors all the time.” In this case they were true. No one should have been surprised. It was fairly common knowledge that Syd was tiring of Sime and Abel’s chair and longed to pursue his long-forestalled avocation for cars. No one was terribly worried because Variety, without its people, was just a name above a headline.
Cahners cared less about headline news, however, and, instead, started writing obits from day one. Despite Syd’s best efforts to protect his employees and preserve the culture of the paper Cahners had its own agenda and it didn’t include the papers’ employees, owners, or the longstanding culture of the institution.
I believe Cahners, publisher of American Baby and a number of other non-paid magazines, bought the paper in no small part for its subscription and advertiser lists since “name” sales was one of Cahners’ product lines and they had no toehold in entertainment before Variety. The paper has had its moments since they’ve owned it but, overall, Cahners earns a lower than average score for their caretaking of Variety.
I walked thousands of miles on the floors of the Daily’s brick building on Cahuenga Boulevard and I worked alongside some of the most colorful characters this side of a Damon Runyon novel. Those days are as gone as black and white pictures but the marque of the Daily will never disappear for the same reason H. L. Mencken included many examples of its dialect in his American Language; it is an American classic. An Edith Head gown is no less beautiful because she is gone, in fact, it may be more beautiful today.
Earlier, I expressed my faith that Penske and crowd would try to make something new out of our progeny. It is unclear if folding the Daily is the method to take the brand to a place where it can thrive but he has bought the right to try. Having survived Cahners, the papers could do worse than Penske ownership and the damage caused by his predecessor in interest.
Long after we’re all gone, our contributions to an industry we covered and helped keep honest remain on paper, film, in digits, and in whatever forms creative minds will think of next. While we wish succeeding owners success they should know that a dedicated corps of saints and sinners, and those who defied description, helped make the industry, electronic and traditional, what it is today.
Cheers to our green Alma Mater! We’ll see you again! Erin Go the Daily.
Peter Besas is the author of Inside Variety, published in 2000, and co-founder with Roger Watkins of the Simesite in 2003.
Mark Silverman is the great grandson of Variety’s founder, Sime Silverman.
Paul Rosovsky is a former mugg who worked in the 46th St. office and who was later Managing Editor of Baseline.
Larry Michie worked on the Weekly in the Silverman era as TV reporter and helped put together various offshore special sections.
Mike Malak was Marketing Director at the Daily from 1980-1989.
NOTA BENE: Anyone wishing to make any comments on the above articles may do so by e-mailing: email@example.com.
Pete Pryor’s Kudo
With those words, Peter, you have succinctly, accurately and eloquently summarized the steady post-sale to Cahners and its successor corporate owners decline and ultimate demise of one of journalism’s truly unique and valuable assets. The absolute cluelessness of many of those post-Silverman-Family owners is astonishing. I heard a good number of them over the years say things that made me bite my tongue to keep from saying “Excuse me, were you born this stupid or did you have to work your entire life to get this way?”
It was an honor, a privilege and a joy to have been associated with Daily Variety for 21 years, and sad to witness its decline. I’m quite sure my father would say the same of his notable tenure. One bit of advice in particular he gave me early on during my Daily Variety career still rings clear: “Always remember, you’re in the newspaper business, not the entertainment business.” He then probably took a bite out of my ass for doing something that didn’t come up to his, or the paper’s, standards.