“Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make certain that your daily mood and emotional state support good health.” ~ Paul E. McGhee, Ph.D.
Alan Eichler is a theatrical producer, talent manager and press agent who has represented numerous stage productions, produced Grammy-winning record albums and managed such singers as Anita O’Day, Hadda Brooks, Nellie Lutcher, Ruth Brown, Johnnie Ray and Yma Sumac.
Alan’s very first job was as apprentice to Lee Solters and Harvey Sabinson in the fall of 1963 (October), working his way up from the mailroom at $55 a week to full publicist with his own assistant and secretary. He originally was going to be an English teacher but decided he wanted to be a press agent when he realized what that entailed. He went from office to office until he was hired by Lee Solters and Harvey Sabinson. They had the biggest company in New York at that time.
It was actually called Solters, O’Rourke, and Sabinson. There was a third partner involved. (Jimmy O’Rourke). Harvey ran all the Broadway shows. He had several press agents under him. Lee Solters ran all of the non-theatre events which included personalities, movies, and television.
Alan was in the mailroom which serviced everything: stuffing envelopes, press releases, getting clips out to clients. There was a typing pool, secretaries who were constantly busy with all the projects. This office handled all the Merrick shows. Harvey had a hot line, a private phone in his office, Lee’s office as well that went directly to Jack Schlissel over at the Merrick office. Everything went through Jack Schlissel at the time. They were all “screamers” back then, even the press agents. Schlissel would call all day long and you heard all this screaming back and forth. Harvey handled the show. Carol was a personal client of the office as well, and Alan can still picture Charles Lowe sweeping through the office, briefcase under his arm, for his periodic meetings with Lee Solters.
Lowe seemed like the “big time” to Alan and Carol was such a big star. He knew that Lowe was the power behind Carol. They both impressed Alan. Lowe never spoke with Alan. He never dealt with anyone in the office except for Solters.
Harvey and Lee both dealt with Schlissel who was, according to Alan, a “maniac”. Harvey was a true gentleman. Lee was very “New York, very Brooklyn”. He was a brilliant press agent but very brash. Somewhat of a Larry King type. As genteel as Harvey was, when he lost his temper, he would throw desks across the room. He would have these tirades that were caused, most of the time, by Schlissel. When Harvey left this office, he headed the League of Broadway Producers, the organization that runs the Tonys.
Schlissel was known as Mister Merrick’s “hatchet man”. He did all the contract negotiations, he would fight with the stars. He would basically do all the “dirty” work. Although Merrick was behind it all, he was also above it all. He never “got his hands dirty”.
When Alan started, the office was abuzz with news of “Dolly, A Damned Exasperating Woman,” which was in danger of closing in Detroit prior to its Broadway opening. Alan says it was a thrill to see its transformation into the smash hit “Hello, Dolly!” and to get a chance to experience every new Dolly right through Ethel Merman. Despite rising costs and ticket prices, a higher average of quality productions made 1964 a happier year on Broadway.
Alan eventually moved up from the mail room to handling all of the “clips” for the show. This office handled a lot of clients. They would mark all the different “breaks” in the papers. There were many more newspapers at that time. It was Alan’s job to get those papers out to their clients.
It was a full time job just doing clips. Then, Lee taught Alan how to do “column items.”
He eventually worked his way up to being a press agent, they weren’t called publicists back then.
He went to several events that Carol was involved in but did not have any direct dealings with her. As far as all the Dollys were concerned, Alan felt they brought their own take to the role. “Carol was Carol.” The show, of course was not written for Carol. That’s history. But she made it hers and it became her show. When Alan moved to L.A.years later, he ended up handling the 1982 revival of “Dolly” and Charles and Carol became intimate friends. The following comments are not to put Carol down. Alan realizes the circumstances for Carol must have been very difficult. However, he feels that many of the charges being brought against Charles over the years since the last days of his life and beyond are not true. Alan says that Charles never stole from Carol. He said that Charles did not do anything wrong. They slept in one bed.
He is not saying they had an “intimate” relationship but that they certainlywere together all the time. He says anyone who toured with them or knew them on a closer level will back up his statements. Moving ahead to when he worked with them in the eighties, he used to visit them every Sunday morning. They would watch the news programs together. Charles and Carol referred to each other as “baby” and “daddy”. Then they would go out to lunch or have lunch in their room and Alan would teach her how to use the timer on the VCR. Their business was a partnership. It was Charles Lowe Productions. Carol was fifty percent of the company. All the money went into that production company.
Her career was a product. The two of them were a business together. Whenever she had an appearance scheduled, she would write out whatever she was going to say. She would rehearse it. Sometimes, she would rehearse it to Alan as if he were the audience. Charles Lowe was Carol Channing. When he had a stroke, Carol “freaked out”, and Chan, her son, went to get her and took her to Florida.
That’s when her “head was turned around.” Alan says he thinks she freaked out that Charles was no longer going to be able to take care of her.
She said she couldn’t take care of a sick old man. She stayed at the hospital with him the first couple of nights. She was devastated. Wallace Sitwell came in to take care of Charles. Charles was in very bad shape. After the stroke, he was unable to talk although “he came back a little” before he passed away. Alan says that Charles died of depression and that Wallace took care of him until he died.
It was a very bad time. Whatever happened there, happened. Alan says the way that Charles has been “bad mouthed” all these years is unfair. Alan is not saying that Charles was the perfect husband but he feels that Charles “never did anything wrong to Carol”. Alan said that these charges are unreal, especially some of the statements made in Dori Berenstein’s documentary. They keep talking about her terrible marriage and her terrible husband.
Charles was not that at all. He was very headstrong but so was she. He never made her do anything she ever wanted to do. Nobody but Charles Lowe could start a standing ovation like he did. He would run down the aisles starting the applause. All during Legends!, Alan and Charles would sit in the front row and Charles taught him how to stand up and lead the standing ovation.
And now, back to Dolly…Carol was Carol and wonderful. She put the stamp on that role and how it was supposed to be played. Dolly itself is the ideal star vehicle. He has never seen a show that was more of a star vehicle for someone. Hand-tailored that is so adaptable to so many people.
Carol’s entire performance was spectacular. Ginger’s special moment, for Alan, was coming down the stairs in the Harmonia Gardens. “Nobody ever came down the stairs like Ginger Rogers.”
She had such star quality and glamor. When she came down the stairs, she did a kick on every step. Just the right way so that the dress moved the right way. You can get a sense of that in the picture to the right. When Ginger was doing the show, 44th Street was packed with people every night waiting for her to come out.
Cops were on horseback. He had not seen anything like this except when Richard Burton did Equus. You couldn’t move on 44th Street, it was so crowded every night.By the time Ginger Rogers took over, Alan was experienced enough to be sent to the St. James Theatre to cover late-night photo shoots. Back then, whenever they knew a celebrity was coming to the show, they would send a photographer to shoot backstage photos. Ginger would make the photographer go up to the top of the staircase in the hallway and shoot down!
Carol’s preferred technique for posing was to point to something imaginary over to the side as if she was showing something to the person she was with, but it was in fact just to get the right angle to her face.
When Martha came into the show in February 27th, 1967, there was a lot of anti-war sentiment at that time. Martha would wear her American Legion uniform and she would march in patriotic parades. There was a lot of hostility towards her because of that. Also, she opened cold. She had never done the show before. She didn’t want the critics at her first performance which Alan went to. It was filled with her people. “All the right-wingers came out.” It was an exciting night for her.
When she came out on the cart and put the newspaper down and said “Dolly Levi”, the entire audience stood up and cheered. It was an exciting opening night. That was a Monday or Tuesday. The critics didn’t come until Thursday. They saw a regular audience. A “tired” audience like when a show is running a long time. It wasn’t that she wasn’t good, she was. It was just that that excitement wasn’t there. She never did great business. It was ok, but it wasn’t great.Therefore her option wasn’t picked up, which she was very disappointed about. Alan said she was an excellent Dolly. Probably among the best. Martha was on a three month contract and was let go after her contract was up.
Martha Raye was hysterically funny. She stayed in character but she would do her slapstick like walking into the horse in the opening number. To Alan, her defining moment was her “Ephraim, let me go..” soliloquy.
He says she was heartbreaking and wonderful. Having heard this, I agree whole heartedly. She would have stayed if they asked her but business wasn’t great.
Then they brought Betty Grable in June of 1967. She brought the box officeback up and had a very exciting opening night. She also got the crowds back to the stage door. Not as big as Ginger’s, but respectable, nonetheless. Alan’s favorite moments with Betty Grable involve her talking to Horace about Ernestina Money. “You’ll know her Horace. She’ll be singing an old fashioned song, ‘Sweet Rosie O’Grady’” When she said Sweet Rosie O’Grady, she sang it a little bit.There were a lot of gay men in Betty’s audiences.
Alan said, “I think every gay man in New York came to see Betty Grable.” The audience, that knew she had done the film Sweet Rosie O’Grady, would go crazy over that line every time.
His second favorite moment involved her walking around the run way her last time around in the Dolly number. Every other time, she did it as those that had gone before her had done.But on her last time around, she would reach down and hike up her dress revealing those million dollar legs. Seeing Betty Grable in the show, you were seeing Betty Grable. It wasn’t that she wasn’t good, but you never forgot you were watching Betty Grable. Her voice had gotten husky by then. It became more like a “personal appearance.”
Unfortunately, Alan never saw Bibi Osterwald do the show. Bibi would go to the theatre each night and would go out and schmooze with the audience as if she were making a personal appearance.
Pearl Bailey came into the show in November of 1967. Pearl Bailey was Pearl Bailey. Alan knew Thelma Carpenter, Pearl’s understudy, privately since he had been working in the mail room.
She was working with Kaye Ballard at the Bon Soire. He went to see Kaye Ballard when he was in his teens because he was a fan of hers and Thelma happened to be on the bill. He went back stage to get Kaye’s autograph and to meet her and Thelma was sitting in the lounge back where the dressing rooms were. They started talking. Alan was a fan of Ethel Waters and Thelma had been close to Ethel Waters. They started talking about that. They immediately had a rapport and became good friends. Although he was just working in the mail room, he tried to help Thelma. During his lunch hour, he would be calling talk shows and getting column items for her. He helped get her a few club dates in the city. Lee did not like Alan doing this and got angry at him. Whatever Lee’s reasons were, he didn’t like Alan doing this so Alan was sneaking around doing this. Eventually, Alan became a publicist and Dorothy Lamour became Alan’s own personal client in the office. One of Alan’s shows was the Hollywood Palace which taped in Los Angeles. Alan’s job, since his office was in New York, was to primarily get press releases out about the show. He never even went to a taping because of the logistics. Periodically the stars that were appearing on the show would come to New York and Alan would deal with them directly.That’s how he met Dorothy Lamour.
He first met her when she did the “Hollywood Palace” TV show, which he represented, and he introduced her to agent Tom Korman, who got her signed for “Dolly”. She had been living in Baltimore and was semi-retired. Her subsequent tour was a “bus-and-truck” company, with mostly one-nighters played in smaller cities and towns that the bigger tours had missed, often in high school auditoriums and sometimes gymnasiums. (Eve Arden had already done the First National Company, followed by Carol and Ginger and Yvonne De Carlo had done a previous bus-and-truck. Mary Martin also toured with her company.) It was very rough on Dorothy, but she was a trouper. The closest she got to New York was an engagement at the Lambertville Music Circus, an in-the-round tent near Camden, NJ. The first time she played it was actually Louisville, KY, filling in for Carol for two weeks while she vacationed. Dorothy played that run with a blonde wig, which Alan has photos of somewhere.
Around this time, Ginger was asked to take the show to Vegas. Betty Grable had been the first Dolly to play Las Vegas, doing 14 shows a week (though she missed many of them), two a night.
Ginger Rogers, who had finished her Broadway run and was now on tour, was asked to bring the show back to Las Vegas, but didn’t want to play there. She said it was against her religion! Alan had heard all about this through talk in the office. She finally agreed but only wanted to do eight shows a week. Dorothy, who had already done Louisville, was asked to play the other six performances and she agreed, but switched to a brunette wig, becoming the “first” brunette Dolly. They actually rotated! Ginger got to pick the shows she wanted to do. Dorothy did have a few nights where she did the early show. Ginger had originally worn a red wig, but switched to bright yellow blonde with mounds of curls for Las Vegas.
At this time, Pearl was doing it in New York and Thelma Carpenter was signed as her standby.
Everything was criss-crossing. Before Dorothy went to Vegas, she played Lambertville, New Jersey. She wanted it publicized in New York but Merrick did not want it publicized that she was playing so close to New York. He thought it would hurt the box office in New York. Pearl Bailey was then at the height of her Broadway success, but Dorothy wanted New Yorkers to know she was nearby. The Merrick office was trying to keep Dorothy’s engagement a secret, so it wouldn’t compete for business. As Dorothy’s press agent, it was Alan’s job to promote her, which he did. Dorothy, had, by this time, become a personal client of Alan’s.
Alan went ahead and did his job promoting her and wasn’t sorry, though he was scared as hell.
At this time, Alan was upset about salary issues. He was only making $150.00 a week. He had eleven clients, a secretary, and an assistant. He was in the book keeper’s room one day and snuck a look at the books. His assistant, who he was training, was making $175.00 a week! Abby Hirsch, who worked in the office, got fired.
She went to work for Frank Goodman. He was was an American Broadway theatre publicist who handled Funny Girl and a few other things. So Frank Goodman offered Alan a hundred dollars more a week. He knew that if he went to work for Goodman, other than getting the salary increase, he could also bring Dorothy with him. He would be able to publicize her. He was totally enamored with Dorothy Lamour. His whole life was Dorothy Lamour. Dorothy was never offered the Broadway company. Dorothy did the tour, Pearl did Broadway and when Pearl’s company ended, they brought in Phyllis Diller in December of 1969. Phyllis was a good Dolly and stayed in character. One interesting side note is that when they were negotiating her contract, they asked her to come in and see Thelma play the role instead of Pearl Bailey, to get a truer sense of the show. Pearl was doing Pearl by that time. She was going in and out of character and did her “third act” during curtain calls. Alan had crossed Jack by promoting Pearl Bailey’s standby Thelma Carpenter.
Phyllis, unfortunately, did not do good business. It was Phyllis’ Opening night[Dec 26, 1969] that Merrick stood behind 3 empty rows of orchestra seats, right hand cupping his chin.
Then Merman followed Phyllis Diller in March of 1970. Alan loves Ethel Merman but never thought she was right as Dolly. He saw the last performance of Gypsy when he was a kid. He went to the last matinee. He had seen Annie Get Your Gun a couple of times. She was also a client of Lee’s during Annie Get Your Gun revival at Lincoln Center.
Alan says she was spectacular. When he saw her do Gypsy, he said she just walked through it and Dolly was the same way. There were some performances where she was exciting. She could walk through some shows and that “extra thing” just wasn’t there. She would go on “automatic pilot”. Carol would do that sometimes as well. There were times when Carol would “freeze” but she was still Carol. Merman, he did not work with, although he saw the show two or three times. He had left the Solters office by then. He did leave during the Pearl Bailey run to work with Frank Goodman so that he could promote the Lamour production in Lambertville and Carpenter was doing the Bailey Dolly matinees. He was trying to promote Carpenter when he got a threatening phone call from Merrick’s hatchet man, Jack Schlissel, who threatened him: “Her career is behind her–yours is in front of you. Be careful what you’re doing!”
Fast forward to 1988. Schlissel had left Merrick to go on his own, Alan did press for Schlissel’s production of “Bent” with Richard Gere–and he had totally changed. It turned out he was gay, he came out of the closet, and was a totally changed man. He couldn’t have been nicer to Alan!
Alan always loved Jerry Herman as a person. Charles and Carol worshiped Jerry. He was God to them. Charles was always very careful that he and Carol did as much as they could for Jerry. Alan was in the car with them when they did the Gay Pride Parade when Carol and Jerry were the grand marshals. For Jerry’s 75th birthday, Alan went on a “cabaret” cruise that celebrated him. It is obvious that he was grateful to Carol for the success she brought to Dolly.
Alan says that David Burns was so funny. He had like a Bert Lahr quality. We don’t have those kinds of stars anymore like Cyril Ritchard or Bea Lillie or David Burns. There’s no way to describe them to anyone who never saw them. Walter Matthau also had that quality. They could do so much with a look or a take. Although, Carol and Ginger were different in their approaches to the role, David stayed the same opposite both. Ginger was the only one other than Carol of the Broadway Dollys that Gower actually directed. The others were directed by Lucia Victor. During the Hay and Feed Shop scene, Gower wanted Ginger to face up stage to comment on the “forest green shutters”. Gower could not get her to face upstage. She said to Gower, “Ginger Rogers does not turn her back on her audiences.”
The openings for Alan were always exciting. He loved Martha’s opening night although there was no press there. Betty Grable’s opening night was so outrageous because it was “so gay”! The critics were there for that one and got to see a great opening night. On Betty’s opening night, every time she did something, the audience stood up. Alan does not do theater that much anymore but he still is a publicist.
Alan is now mostly doing jazz and club work. Hello, Dolly! was Alan’s training time. He learned everything he learned working on press for Dolly. The whole “star” thing: How to work with a star and deal with a star. How to cover events, going to photo shoots, how to cover opening nights and how to cover celebrities coming backstage. When Ginger was doing the show and celebrities came to the show, afterward, he would go to the Associated Press and they would be in the paper the next day. You can’t do that today. If you had an opening night or a part or an event, the photographer would give you the roll of film and you would rush to the AP to get it in the next day’s papers. They would process it while you waited and if they saw something they liked, they would tell you and you would type out a caption and it would be wired out. You can’t do that today. The columnists were different back then. The Earl Wilsons and Dorothy Kilgallens and Walter Winchells worked at night.
You could call Earl Wilson at one in the morning and give him a news item and it would be in the paper the next day. Leonard Lyons made the rounds. You knew you could find him at Sardi’s or Sardi’s Wast or Twenty One at a particular time. You could walk in at twelve thirty in the morning and hand him a column item.
The opening in Las Vegas was both good and bad. It was Alan’s vacation time and he talked Lee into letting him spend his vacation there. He spent two weeks there with Dorothy. The hotel put him up. Dorothy and Ginger opened the same night. Dorothy opened the early show and Ginger did the second show. One of Alan’s other clients was Caesar’s Palace which had just opened. The Odd Couple starring Mickey Rooney and Gary Crosby was playing there. He was trying to get as many press people as possible to cover Dorothy instead of Ginger. Florabel Muir, the columnist who had taken over for Hedda Hopper in The Daily News, had come to Vegas for the opening. Alan took Florabel to The Odd Couple for the dinner show and then to Dorothy’s performance for the late show.
Other stars on the strip attended included Rosemary Clooney, Jerry Vale and Virginia Mayo (who was a doing a dinner-theater comedy next door at the Thunderbird). Ginger went over to Florbel at the party to say hello and hopefully receive a compliment. Like Hedda and Louella, Florabel had been writing for newspapers and magazines for years. Ginger came up to her and asked her if she liked the show, Florabel knew about the rivalry between her and Dorothy and said to Ginger, “I didn’t see you.” Ginger was a little taken aback and then she said, “But I just did it in Los Angeles for three months.” Without missing a beat and without changing her expression, Florabel said, “I didn’t know that.”
Ginger was very aloof during the entire Vegas run and was only seen at showtime, when she would cover her head with a scarf and run through the casino to the showroom (which was the only way to get there). Dorothy on the other hand, was everywhere all the time–in the coffee shop, at the tables, etc., chatting with everybody in sight, including the waiters and hotel staff. She said the “bosses” like it when they see you mingling with the customers and gambling!
The biggest change Alan has seen in the industry since his involvement with Dolly is that you don’t have stars anymore. Musicals also didn’t cost multi-millions back then. Hit shows back then had a big star. Most of them were star vehicles.