The new, interesting and valuable biography of one of the legendary Broadway flacks is the subject of a press release from its publisher’s own flack headed “Broadway’s last great untold story!” Obviously, Broadway press agents have nothing on publisher’s press agents when it comes to hyperbole.
The book is “The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey” by Robert Simonson. It would be tragic to think there are no more untold Broadway stories to be revealed in the future.
Taking the book on the basis of its text rather than its hype, however, I can only praise Robert Simonson for his choice of subject matter. He writes about the life and career of Merle Debuskey – a man well known to the practitioners of America’s theater in the 1940s through the 1990s. He was a working press agent throughout that lengthy period and was particularly closely associated with the development of Joe Papp’s Shakespeare in the Park and the Public Theatre.
Some – but not enough – of the fascinating stories of Debuskey’s press agentry make their way into Simonson’s book. He tells of the furor surrounding the (briefly) unclothed arrival of rock on Broadway in Hair. There are stories of the establishment of the Tony Award, the initiation of the practice of letting critics attend previews rather than having to wait for the official opening night and then file their reviews in minutes or a few hours, and of the night the author/lyricist/composer of a Broadway show that needed better box office baby-sat with a customer’s infant in the bar across the street from the theater rather than exclude the mother and refund her admission.
There are also some very interesting but hardly historical tales of ghost writing reviews, de-conflicting the seating arrangements for performances attended by many critics or columnists and a favorite story for me concerning the night Debuskey arranged tickets to a show starring Robert Preston for former president Harry Truman. He later learned that the man Truman beat for the presidency fourteen years earlier, Thomas E. Dewey also had tickets for the show that night. The two men hadn’t been in the same room since the night Truman held up the famous “Dewey Beats Truman” headline. Debuskey arranged for the two to go on stage after the performance so that Preston could “assume the role of referee.”
Debuskey brought a new level of professionalism and, as indicated in the title of the book, gentlemanly standards to a field not previously known for gentility or upstanding behavior. Not only did Debuskey set a high personal standard, he helped institutionalize a professional approach as the president of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM).
Unfortunately, the book isn’t particularly well written and is even less well edited, but there are enough great stories within its covers to keep you plowing along. The text is chatty, fittingly informal and the author avoids overdoing the sycophancy that sometimes creeps into biographies of people whose strongest claim to fame come from the things they saw others do. What is more, Simonson peppers the book with some fresh, quotable lines. Of producer Alex Cohen’s love of talking on the telephone, he says “His left ear would suffer withdrawal symptoms when deprived of a receiver.” Of apparently egocentric actor Joseph Schildkraut who played Anne Frank’s father in the original production of The Diary of Anne Frank, he says “If the actor could have had his way, the play would have been called The Diary of Otto Frank’s Daughter.”
Yet there are about half as many fascinating stories as you might expect from this 265-page biography. Simonson certainly had the credentials to get access to sources with even more “great untold” stories of Broadway for the book. He edited Playbill.com for the early years of this century and has written for the New York Times, the trade publication Variety and other Broadway-related outlets, not to mention turning out other books profiling famous people of the Great White Way (“Role of a Lifetime” and “On Broadway, Men Still Wear Hats”). But he squanders too many pages on a confusing chronology, jumping back and forth from Debuskey’s childhood, college, military service and then concentrating at excessive length on the publicist’s devotion to liberal causes. As laudable as some of them may well have been, the topic is covered without the catalogue of interesting stories that could have been provided.
I know there are more great stories to be had from Debuskey’s experiences. That is because I once interviewed him for a feature in the late, lamented “Show Music Magazine,” and he told me some of them. It seemed that he fairly bubbled with stories and I wish I had had more time to do a more thorough interview. Clearly, he enjoyed regaling his questioner with the details of a long and varied career. (I certainly understand the writer who once worked on his staff who is quoted in the book saying “He would seldom say in ten words what could be said in a hundred.”)
When I interviewed Debuskey in 2002, he told me of his efforts to find what he called “tie ins” – an early version of product placement for Broadway shows. He would look over the set designs to see if they might be a basis for display windows in New York department stores or work with the properties departments to identify things they might get for free such as Cokes or a certain brand of cigarettes. For A Chorus Line, he got Bloomingdales to carry towels with the show’s logo … “I still have the A Chorus Line towels!” he told me.
He also told of a unique way of handling the growing number of “producers” on shows – people who get the credit because they invested in the show, but who have no real function in managing it. At one musical there were so many “producers” at the day-after-opening meeting where he would normally select quotes from the reviews to use in the show’s advertising that the only way they could get their work done was for him to give a stack of reviews to each of the “producers” to take to another room to search through for quotes. Of course, he and the managing producer had already identified the quotes they would use.
He talked of opening nights at Sardis, of Brooks Atkinson’s paragraph-by-paragraph composing style to meet incredibly tight deadlines for the reviews that are still read and studied today and of Walter Winchell’s reaction to his treatment in “Sweet Smell of Success” (the movie, not the musical).
While I wish Simonson had mined the vein of Debuskey’s memory more thoroughly, the fact remains that there are enough great stories in these pages to justify its space on a theatre lover’s shelf.