No one knows the press better than superagent Danny Newman, who turns 88 next month; he's been wrangling reporters for 74 years, promoting everyone from Sally Rand to Renee Fleming and everything from Minsky's burlesque to the New York Philharmonic. So when he confides his frustrations with University of Illinois Press, the publisher of his new book, Tales of a Theatrical Guru, I'm pretty sure he understands that there's no way I won't be sharing the story. Newman says he had to battle every inch of the way to get this academic press to make his book look like a star-studded memoir should, with big readable type and plenty of well-reproduced photos from his personal collection. And now, he says, it's not in all the bookstores for the holidays.
The book consists of 33 chapters, each hung on Newman's experience with a different arts-world luminary (think Sinatra, Balanchine, Callas). Along with an introduction that limns his own high-voltage life, it constitutes a cheerfully self-congratulatory and irresistible history of the performing arts--especially opera--in 20th-century Chicago. You should go right out and BUY IT NOW!--if you can find it.
Nothing Newman has dreamed up in the name of promotion--not even the fictional bio he once created for Yul Brynner--is more unlikely than the facts of his own story. Born in Chicago to Lithuanian immigrants, he was raised in the Douglas Park and Garfield Park neighborhoods and lost his mother to cancer when he was six. By the time he graduated from Sullivan High School he was working as a publicist anywhere he could, from Bishop Bernard J. Sheil's Catholic Youth Organization to movie houses that featured the "double whammy" of vaudeville and flicks. In the early 1940s he shepherded celebrities like Jimmy Durante and Milton Berle--newspaper photographers in tow--to five-show-a-day gigs at the Oriental Theatre.
Newman spent two years in western Europe as an infantry rifleman during World War II (including the Battle of the Bulge) and was wounded three times before he came home and picked up where he left off. From 1945 to 1950, while hyping (among other things) drive-in movies, chamber concerts, and the mayor's annual Soldier Field charity football game, he coproduced Famous Names, a celebrity radio talk show broadcast at noon, five days a week, from the Blackstone Hotel. His client list provided most of the guests; the on-air interviewer and coproducer was Myron Wallace, a "good actor" who later changed his name and took on a full-time, high-profile role as an investigative reporter. In 1948 Newman married Dina Halpern, an international star of the Yiddish theater whose entire family had been murdered in the Holocaust. They had 40 wonderful years, he says; she died in 1989. Six years later he married Alyce Berger Katz, the widow of a longtime friend. Alyce, he says, was born in the dead of winter at the end of the war, on the steps of a Polish hospital that refused to admit her mother.
For years Newman represented both commercial and nonprofit clients, bringing his street-smart hustle to groups like the Metropolitan Opera. In 1954 Lyric Opera of Chicago founders Carol Fox and Larry Kelly enlisted his help with their nascent company. Newman headed publicity at Lyric for the next 48 years, building an unequaled subscription audience. He was also a big part of the Art Institute's turnaround of the money-losing Goodman Theatre. Newman's radical contribution was the understanding that broad subscription sales, not
single-ticket purchases, were the key to financial success for performing arts organizations, many of which, he says, were crippled by their own snobbery. By 1961 his philosophy had proved so clearly right the Ford Foundation hired him as its envoy. For the next two decades he traveled half of every year for them (in addition to consultation work for governments around the world), advising performing arts groups that the single-ticket buyer is "the enemy" who will "pick the raisins out of your cake" while subscribers, recruited with offers of free performances, are "family" to be treasured and cultivated. In cases where he "couldn't inspire them, educate them, and put them into motion," he says, "I would just move in and do it for them." In 1977 he codified the process in his only other book, Subscribe Now!, which has sold 50,000 copies and influenced arts management around the world. He did all this, he says, by learning to live without sleep.
In the course of writing this book, Newman says, he learned that he's got enough material for ten more. If there were going to be a next one, he'd use it to argue for more government support of the arts: "The NEA is so underfunded it's merely symbolic." And it's not just his publisher that has a penchant for tiny type: Newman's been railing against the millions arts organizations are wasting on bad brochures, mailing pieces with print so small that "nobody can read them." He's been grounded by his doctors, having recently wrestled with an embolism, but a couple weeks ago he did make it out for a book signing at the Lyric. They ran out of copies (and how could that not rankle the guru of opportunity seized?), but Newman says the outpouring of affection there was "tremendous."
As for why Tales of a Theatrical Guru is in such short supply during the holiday season, University of Illinois Press publicity manager Michael Roux says, "it came from our printers to our warehouse in Chicago later than we thought it would." Roux also chalks up Newman's frustration with the production process to the usual compromises made between an author and publisher. "We're very happy with how the book turned out," he says.
At the end of our conversation, Newman wants to gauge the interview. "How'm I doin'?" he asks. "I'm a theatrical person, who always must say to myself, 'How'm I going over? Am I affecting this person? Am I getting 'em to do what I think they should do?'" And I'm realizing this isn't the first time we've spoken. I'm pretty sure I wound up next to Newman at Lyric a couple years ago, after plunking down the price of a series subscription in the upper balcony to land a last-minute second- or third-row seat. As I sat there, a raisin-picking glutton with a single ticket, he turned to me and inquired, pleasantly enough, "Do you come to the opera often?"
Howard B. Newman (no relation to Danny) is joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra next month as vice president of development; he's been a fund-raiser for the University of Illinois. Synneve Carlino, CSO's vice president for public relations, left this month to take on the same responsibilities at Carnegie Hall. CSO saw a "smaller than expected" $737,000 deficit last year and a 3.8 percent boost in paid attendance, goosed by Barenboim's long good-bye.
The Donalds: Lyric Opera announced this week that former Welsh National Opera chorus master Donald Nally will fill the job being vacated at the end of this season by 15-year Lyric chorus master Donald Palumbo, who's on his way to the Met.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea; courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.