Harvey Sabinson, Press Rep for Hello, Dolly! 1964-1970
Harvey Sabinson, one of Broadway’s legendary press agents, and former long-time executive director of The Broadway League, died on April 18, 2019 of natural causes at his residence in Sarasota, Florida. He was 94 years old.
This interview took place several years ago to Alan Eichler.
Harvey Sabinson went to college, he had no intention of going into the theater. His family was determined that he should become a doctor. His not becoming a doctor probably saved thousands of lives, according to him. His father had a brief career in Vaudeville.
When he met Harvey’s mother, she made him quit. He didn’t have a top act. She made him quit because if he was going to be on the road for long periods of time, that was not for her and she would not marry him.
He quit, ended up with a terrible career, but he loved the theater. He took, Harvey and his brother, who was thirteen years older, to the theater every Saturday to see a<matinee.
He saw the George White Scandals, Katherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, all of this when he was seven and eight years old. Harvey had no intention of going into the theater until he got into the army. During the war, Harvey got a Battlefield Commission and a Purple Heart.
At the end of the war, he ended up in a town in Germany.
There was nothing to do there. They were preparing to send them to invade Japan. There was nothing to do in the meantime but just hang out.
Harvey went to the Colonel and said he would like to put on a show. The Colonel wanted to know what his qualifications were.
He said that he and his brother, Lee Sabinson, who was now a Broadway producer with three flop shows under his belt on Broadway, used to go to the theater all the time. The Colonel said go ahead. Harvey put on a revue with the talent he found in the 14th Armored Division. Harvey had more fun doing that than anything else he had ever done his entire life except getting married when he was nineteen. He is still married to the same woman. When he got out of the army, he went to see his brother. He told his brother he wanted to be in his business. His brother said, “That’s great! You’ll be my partner.”
His brother told him he had to learn the business from the bottom up in a way he never had the chance to. He said he had to hire people who told him what to do. Lee said he would get Harvey a job with his press agent.
Then he would get him a job with his scenic designer, etc. and he would learn as he went along. Lee got Harvey a job as an apprentice to Samuel J. Friedman. Within a few weeks, Harvey knew this was for him. He loved this work. He knew he was going to be good at it and he never did anything else at that point.
He is the only press agent to receive a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.
Harvey Sabinson was the press representative for David Merrick dating back to The Matchmaker.
He handled press for the entire run of Hello, Dolly from November 1964 through December 1970.
Harvey says working with David Merrick was a long run and in retrospect, “It was wonderful.” Harvey handled seventy-five shows for Mr. Merrick. Most of them were hits. Mr. Merrick did more for Harvey’s career than anybody else. Harvey goes back even further with Carol Channing. When he was an apprentice press agent to Samuel J. Friedman, a theater (formerly the Biltmore) on 47th Street is now named after him, Friedman was handling Lend An Ear, that was when Harvey first met Carol Channing and Gower Champion in 1948.
Gower did the choreography.
As a matter of fact, he won the Tony Award for that. He did not direct it. Lend an Ear premiered at the Las Palmas Theatre, Los Angeles, on June 14, 1948. The show went to Boston for its tryout, opening at the Majestic Theatre in August 1948. Harvey and Carol met at that time, became friends, and have remained so ever since. Lend An Ear was produced by William R. Katzell who was Harvey’s brother, Lee’s, partner on a production of Finian’s Rainbow.
Katzell was the “money guy”. He saw Lend An Ear in California, fell in love with Carol, and wanted to bring her to Broadway. Katzell called Lee Sabinson and told him he was interested in bringing this show in to New York. Lee said he was not interested in producing a revue. That ended up being a bad mistake because the show was a hit. It was the only show that toured New York City! It played four theaters in two years. Lend an Ear opened on Broadway on December 16, 1948 at the National Theatre and moved three times before closing on January 21, 1950 after 460 performances. It moved into the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (Broadway) from another theatre in 1949 and played for three months.
Jump ahead to 1955…Harvey is now working for a man named Karl Bernstein.
Karl ended up handling a show called 3 For Tonight, This revue starring Harry Belafonte, Marge and Gower Champion, and Hiram Sherman plays at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway.
Marge and Gower hated Bernstein and didn’t want him in their dressing room. They loved Harvey. In fact, Harvey became their press agent and lifelong friend. He still sees Marge from time to time when he is back in the Berkshires. He used to live there. Marge and Gower had a press agent named Lee Solters. Solters and Harvey became friends. Eventually, Harvey left Bernstein’s office and went into partnership with Lee Solters. Lee Solters did not have an ATPAM (Association of Theatrical Press Agents) union card and could not handle shows.
Merrick had two shows running on Broadway at that time, The Matchmaker and Fanny. Merrick had a press agent, Dick Weaver, he hated but he couldn’t fire him. Merrick was a novice of sorts when he produced Fanny. Weaverhad a run of the play contract and could not be fired Merrick wanted to hire Harvey but could not him as long as he had Weaver.
Meanwhile, Harvey was hired for L’il Abner. L’il Abner was a field day for a press agent. “You had so much going for you. You also had Julie Newmar and Tina Louise. It was fun.” It was a great show. Merrick became very jealous. He really wanted to hire Harvey and he couldn’t.
One day, Dick Weaver, Merrick’s general press representative came to Merrick and told him he wanted to quit, he wanted to become a general manager. Merrick was delighted. Harvey became Merrick’s general press agent and was now handling Fanny and The Matchmaker.
One day Harvey and Merrick are walking down the street. They had just come out of the Booth theater on a matinee day after seeing The Matchmaker. Merrick turns to him and says this would make a great musical. That was the first time Harvey heard of The Matchmaker becoming Hello, Dolly! Harvey was the press agent from the beginning.
As everyone now knows, Ethel Merman was the first choice for Dolly. Merman didn’t want to do the show. After the huge success of Gypsy, she thought anything else might be anti-climatic. Carol was doing a summer stock tour of Shaw’s The Millionaires in 1963 with John McMartin, Gene Wilder, Eugene Roche, Estelle Parsons, Will Lee, Eda Reiss Merin, Joe Runner, and David Hurst, directed by Gene Saks. It was a Theatre Guild Production.
Gower and Merrick went to see the production.
Afterwards they went back to her hotel room and discussed Dolly till five in the morning.
She auditioned several times before getting the part.
At that time, it was called Dolly: A Damned Exasperating Woman!
Harvey said to Merrick, “Don’t make me type that every time I type a goddamned release.” It’s a terrible title. Harvey and everyone got the same idea at the same time, there was a song in the show called Hello, Dolly! The rest is history.
Harvey went out to Detroit to do all the advance work. He was there for the opening preview. Harvey’s youngest son who is now sixty-one and a dean at Drexel University in Philadelphia was going on his thirteenth birthday. He, like Harvey, was an atheist and did not want to be bar mitzvah’d. When asked what he wanted for his thirteenth birthday, he wanted to go with his father to Detroit for the tryout of Hello, Dolly.
Four days later, Kennedy would be assassinated.
It was a Monday. After the show, Harvey had to fly back to New York.
He would be coming back later in the week. As Harvey was leaving the theater, he asked Merrick if there was anything he could bring back from New York. Merrick said, “Yes. Bob Merrill.” Merrick was not completely happy with Jerry Herman’s score. The score was wonderful. Harvey said, “I hope you’re kidding. I’m not going to call Bob Merrill.
Merrick screamed, “We’ve got one number-Hello, Dolly! –and that’s it. “He wanted changes. They did not get great notices in Detroit. They didn’t start getting good notices till they got to Washington. It was at that time that Harvey realized they had an enormous hit on their hands.
Harvey loved Jerry Herman.
Larry had been a gofer for Feuer and Martin in the days when Harvey was working for Karl Bernstein on five consecutive Feuer and Martin hits. Harvey handled Jerry’s first show and he knew that was going to go places.
The last time Harvey saw Jerry was at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires.
A production of Mack and Mabel was being presented. Harvey went into a little inn for dinner before the show. Jerry was having dinner with Michael Stewart’s sister, Francine Pascal, who had rewritten the book.
They had a nice reunion.
Harvey was hit and run for the Dolly rehearsals.
It was hit after hit. Those songs and those lyrics go through Harvey’s head all the time.
He is eighty-eight years young. All he hears in his head is show music.
The trajectory was The Fisher Theater from November 18-December 14, The National Theater in Washington DC December 17th to January 11th, St. James Theater January 15th, a Wednesday, there were two previews (matinee and evening).
The show officially opened on Thursday, January 16th, 1964. Harvey said it was one of the greatest Broadway openings he ever had. Harvey told Carol that night that this show was a tremendous hit. A friend of Harvey’s, Seymour Peck, drama editor of the NY Times, came up to Harvey at the end of the show and said, “This is the most show business show I have ever seen in my life.
When Harvey brought the notices to everyone at the party afterward, they ALL knew this was a major hit. Harvey had a lot of hits throughout his career but this was a pinnacle.
That same time, Solters and Harvey were the press reps for Barbra Streisand who would go on to open in Funny Girl on March 26th, two months after Dolly’s opening. They had been handling her since she opened in I Can Get it for You Wholesale. They were friends with Barbra’s manager, Marty Erlichman. He is still Barbra’s manager.
Merrick was going to produce Funny Girl with Ray Stark.
They decided that Anne Bancroft should play Fanny Brice because they loved her performance as Gittel Mosca in Two for The Seesaw.
Bancroft was not Jewish, she was Italian. She was also a client of Solters and Sabinson. She played a Jewish woman in Two for The Seesaw with Henry Fonda. Bancroft couldn’t sing. Their next choice was Carol Burnett who was totally wrong for the role.
“Barbra Streisand is your girl!” The reason Ray Stark wanted to produce Funny Girl was because he was Fanny Brice’s son-in-law.
Fanny objected to the marriage.
She said to her daughter, “Why would you want to marry that kike agent?” One of the reasons that Stark wanted to produce Funny Girl was because Fanny up in heaven would look down if the show was a hit and say, “Ray, I forgive you. You’re not a kike agent, you’re a great producer.” That was one of his motives, actually. Ray had never produced a show so he became Merrick’s partner.
One morning as Harvey is getting ready to go to work, the phone rings. It is Merrick and he says to Harvey, “Ray Stark just bought me out of Funny Girl. I have his check here for sixty thousand dollars. This is peanuts, but I’m going to the bank before it bounces.”
At this point, it was already agreed that Barbra would be Fanny. They signed her for very little money. Harvey believes Erlichman went to Stark, who was now sole producer on Funny Girl, and told him that Merrick had signed that contract and it is now null and void. They wanted more money and Barbra got it. So Harvey never did handle Funny Girl.
The night of the Tony Awards, Barbra was nominated. Harvey was handling her. Channing was nominated. Harvey was handling her and the show. Bea Lillie was nominated for High Spirits.
Harvey was also the press agent for High Spirits. He had a wonderful season! The Tonys were not televised in those days. The 18th Annual Tony Awards took place on May 24, 1964 in the New York Hilton in New York City. Merrick had a table which included Harvey, Charles Lowe, and Carol Channing, among others. The announcement comes for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a musical.
Charles leans over and whispers to Harvey that if Carol wins, to take her by the hand to the stage because she can’t see. Carol’s name is announced. Harvey grabs Carol and walks past the table next to them where Barbra and Marty Erlichman are sitting. Marty looks at Harvey and says, “It’s all your fault.” Harvey never went to another Tony Awards until he joined the League and he became the chief administrator of the Tonys.
Speaking of Charles Lowe, Harvey says he was the epitome of the stage husband. He managed every facet of Carol’s life. He was the man who master minded the standing ovations at her shows. He wrote a lot of her material. In the long run, Harvey also feels that Charles somewhat held back Carol’s career. She could have done so much more than revivals of Hello, Dolly and ultimately, a revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
It was then called Lorelei. Harvey was the press agent for that as well. He promoted her and held her back at the same time. It was very strange.
It was kind of a disappointment to Harvey when Channing left the show on August 7th, 1965, closing her original run in Hello, Dolly! This was a Saturday night. Enter GINGER ROGERS: Opens Aug 9, 1965. This was a MONDAY night. Harvey had had a problem with Rogers’ husband/manager, William Marshall. He was not as good as Charles Lowe. He stiffed Harvey on his fee. Rogers was also at the end of her career primarily. Charles Lowe always called her Miss Goody Two Shoes.
Harvey had no idea which direction the show would go in with Rogers at the helm. He didn’t know if the show would continue. It did and the audiences loved her.
Her legions of fans remembered all those great films with Fred Astaire.
She would stay with the show until February 25th, 1967, a Saturday night. Martha Raye Opens Feb 27, 1967, a Monday night. She was a very nice lady but a huge let down, a sad lady.
Betty Grable took it out on the road after her Broadway run.
The show opened in Baltimore at The Mechanic Theater, their premier show. It replaced the Ford’s Theater. It is no longer there.
Merrick and Harvey went to Baltimore on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
They had dinner and walked over to the theater. Merrick looked at the theater; it had continental seating, a theater seating plan in which there is no center aisle, but with wide spacing between each row of seats to allow for ease of passage. Merrick indicated to Harvey that he wanted to leave. He said he would never book another show in that theater.
They never saw the opening performance! They spent the entire evening in a bar at the Lord Baltimore Hotel drinking.
Harvey thought it was a wonderful idea when it was announced that there would be an all African-American Company starring Pearl Bailey and Can Callaway.
Harvey thought it was fabulous. He had been raised on a lot of Cab Callaway records that his parents played over and over again when he was a kid. Merrick made Harvey’s life easy. It was star after star. All the stars mentioned here and Betty Grable, one after the other.
When Phyllis Diller came into the show in December 26, 1969, she had a three month run. Merrick used to stand in the back of the theater and count the empty seats. Harvey took Diller to a luncheon for the Broadway Association when they were honoring David Merrick. She was one of the speakers. She got up and said, “If I ever wanted a heart transplant, I would want David Merrick’s because it’s never been used.”
Ethel Merman was the last one in the New York run. Merman played it from March 28, 1970 – December 27, 1970. On September 8th, 1970, Dolly made history when it became the longest running musical on Broadway and broke the 2,717 record that My Fair Lady had set a decade before. Carol Channing was rehearsing across the street in what would become a flop show with Sid Caesar called Four on a Garden.
Harvey mentioned to Merman that Channing was across the street and he wanted to get a shot of the two of them together. Merman said, “No way! I don’t want to pose with her!” That picture did not happen.
When it was announced that Streisand would be doing the movie, it was a no-lose situation for Harvey; he was still handling her. He was disappointed personally. He thought Carol should have done the movie. She was Dolly. There was no question about that. The end result kind of proves all that.
One Dolly that never made it to Broadway that Harvey feels got short shrift from Merrick’s office was Dorothy Lamour. He felt that the office seemed to be ignoring her.
On a rainy night in July of 1968, Harvey and his wife schlepped out to Lambertville to see Dorothy in Dolly. Harvey thought she was really quite good. She had a sense of vulnerability of Dolly Levi that some of the other women didn’t. There was no vulnerability with Merman. She was a killer. Harvey was impressed with Lamour’s performance. The circumstances were quite sad. It was a very rainy night and they went backstage to say hello. Lamour felt sorry for Harvey’s wife who was ill prepared for the weather. She gave Harvey’s wife a rain coat that she had had for many years. She was a very kind and generous woman.
As there have been more revivals on Broadway over the years, the audiences have gotten less and less. Harvey believes that today’s Broadway audiences are not as tuned in to Jerry Herman or any of the music of that era any more. Harvey listens to today’s musicals and cannot remember a note, a tune, or anything. It’s a totally different world now. He isn’t too familiar with today’s current crop of Broadway entertainers and therefore has no idea as to who could play Dolly now and sell tickets.
Dolly is definitely among the top five shows Harvey was a part of. He worked on Guys and Dolls, Finian’s Rainbow, Gypsy are all among Harvey’s incredible career. It was certainly the longest running show he ever handled. It ran longer than Guys and Dolls and Finian’s Rainbow. The demise of Finian’s Rainbow came because of lousy replacement casting. His brother was responsible for that.
Working with Merrick on all those shows, musicals like Carnival! and straight plays like Marat/Sade really helped Harvey’s reputation in the business. He developed a tremendous coterie of producers beyond Merrick. Harvey handled all of Saint Subber’s when he was the producer of Neil Simon’s comedies. Harvey handled ten of those shows and the musical Promises, Promises produced by Merrick. Emanuel “Manny” Azenberg took over from Saint Subber, that’s another story, Harvey went along with it. Harvey got a call from Saint Subber’s office that he was no longer going to be handling The Sunshine Boys but that Harvey was going along with the package. Neil Simon and Harvey got along very well. They spoke the same language. Harvey really enjoyed Simon and loved his plays.
Harvey can’t really remember any bad experiences working on Dolly. He had a “funny” relationship with Merrick. Merrick was very jealous that Harvey would be handling other shows. Merrick would have liked for Harvey to work with him exclusively. Harvey didn’t want anyone telling him what or who to handle. From time to time, Harvey would get fired. He would get a notice from Merrick’s general manager, Jack Schlissel. Schlissel would tip Harvey off and tell him to “put it in the drawer and I’ll call you later.” These notices would kind of shake Harvey up. He has one that’s framed, in fact. Five PM in the afternoon, Schlissel would call Harvey up and say, “Throw it away. He forgives you.” Harvey would want to know what he was forgiving him for. It was that kind of a relationship. At one point, Harvey gave him notice. It was enough already. They were working on Promises, Promises and they were opening in Boston and Harvey timed his two week notice to end on the opening night. Merrick and Harvey had a routine on the out of town openings. They would go to a hotel bar and have something to eat, a couple of drinks and Harvey would get into a cab and go and get the notices and bring them back. On this particular opening night,he had a watch timed to go off at midnight. He could be in the middle of a sentence when the watch alarmed at midnight and he would say, “Goodnight David. I’m out of here.” Eleven PM was fast approaching. At a quarter to twelve, Merrick said, “I’m sorry we had that argument.” Harvey stayed on.
Many years later after Merrick had his stroke, he was being honored at a church/theater on the East Side. They were giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award. Harvey was no longer working for Merrick. Merrick was sitting in a wheelchair up on the balcony. Harvey regaled everyone in attendance with his stories about Merrick. After Harvey finished speaking, he went up to the balcony to see Merrick. Merrick reached out and grabbed Harvey and hugged him. A day or two later Harvey received a letter from Merrick, which he still has. It said, “I have to tell you, you were always my hero.”
Harvey admits that he has never seen any other actress play Dolly since the show closed. He also has never seen the movie completely through. He has seen excerpts of it on television.
In their office, Lee Solters was the best kind of press agent at that time. Every morning, they would have a meeting called the Winchell Hour. Everyone on the staff had to contribute items that they had picked up from their clients. Harvey would bring items in from his visits backstage to his shows. Harvey never had to deal with Winchell until his pathetic end. He was no longer the big shot. He ended up writing for the World Journal Tribune. Harvey would invite him to his openings. Papers were folding and combining and it was chaos in the newspaper business. Winchell was downgraded tremendously. He was pathetic. He would come up to Harvey after a show and say, “I’ll give you a quote. Please use it.” Harvey would. He felt sorry for this guy. Harvey doesn’t know why he did. Winchell was a monster really. He never had to deal with him directly. Solters never met him directly in his life but he was one of his biggest feeders. One day, Solters was having a haircut in the lobby of the Taft Hotel. Winchell came into the chair next to him. Solters said to the barber, “Excuse me. I gotta leave.” In the middle of the haircut he left. He didn’t want Winchell to know who he was. They never met face to face! There was a movie called Sweet Smell of Success. It is a vaguely disguised story about Winchell. Harvey’s office was doing column work for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions, who produced the film. All the press agents in New York were invited to a screening of the film at the Palace Theater. When the film ended and everyone was exiting the theater, Winchell was in the lobby writing down the names of the press agents who had attended that screening. He told them all they were dead with him one after the number. “He was psycho.”
Solters and Sabinson opened a West Coast office. Barbra had become mostly West Coast. Harvey could not move to California to run that office. Solters didn’t move at that time. Harvey says they were wonderful press agents, but lousy business men. A lot of clients stiffed them over the years. The pressure was getting great and Harvey wanted to do something else with his life. He didn’t know what it was. His wife and he had a house in Forest Hills. He was on the subway into the city on his was to his office. In his pocket was the last mortgage payment to his house. His wife who was a college professor had just gotten tenure at City University. Harvey had an anxiety attack on the subway. He couldn’t get to his office. He got off the subway and sat on a bench and he asked himself why he was doing this anymore. It was killing him. The pressure was too much. It wasn’t the pressure of the shows or the tension of opening nights. It was just the overwhelming part of the business. Shows are only part of their business. Those are the things that interested him, but at the same time, he was smart enough to know that shows open and close and clients you work with over periods of time. There are six terms of contractual commitment with a client. Finally, when Harvey got himself together, he got back on the train and went to his office. This was February of 1973. They were working on Lorelei and onSugar. Solters and Sabinson had offices back to back. Harvey went into Solters’ office and told him that at the end of the fiscal year which was in June, he was leaving. They sat there for twenty minutes staring at each other without saying a word. Finally Solters said, “I understand.” Harvey told him he would have the accountant figure out everything. Solters asked him what he was going to do and he answered that he didn’t know. He just knew he didn’t want to be a press agent anymore. He was offered a lot of jobs doing PR. George Steinbrenner wanted to see him. Steinbrenner knew of Harvey through the Nederlanders. Steinbrenner wanted to come and do PR for the New York Yankees. Harvey is a rabid Yankee fan. A sports writer friend of Harvey’s talked him out of working for Steinbrenner. “He makes Merrick look like Mother Teresa.” He was also contacted by the Department of Parks and Recreation in New York City. Harvey turned him down as well. Gene Shalit, working for The Today Show at the time, mentioned to Harvey that there was an opening for a drama critic at NBC. He thought Harvey would be great in that job. Harvey went to NBC to do a test tape. He was asked to review two shows, one favorable, one a pan. He was still working on Lorelei which, at this time, was playing the National Theater in Washington. At the Arena Theater, there was a new musical Raisin was trying out, based on Raisin in the Sun, the Lorraine Hansberry play. He saw Raisin and was very impressed with it. He ended up panning his own show! He raved about Carol but panned Lorelei. He thought it was rather pathetic to rehash Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was a different title, but nothing really changed. It had a good score by Jule Styne, who he revered. He thought Jule was wonderful. Nothing really happened with that test tape. Harvey told Gene that this was something he could not do. He could not sit in judgment of his friends. He had been in the business too many years and had many friends in this business. What was he going to do if he didn’t like their work? He couldn’t do this.
Harvey left that business in 1973, went home wrote a book, and then began to work for the Broadway League. He spent twenty years there as director of the League. It was a wonderful job and the first nine to five job he ever had in his entire life. The only time he worked outside of those hours was when he was working on the Tony Awards. He was also put in a terrible position during that time. He was asked to get rid of producer, Alexander Cohen. Cohen conceived and originated the first Tony Awards telecast in 1967 and helmed many more over the following years. He had done a marvelous job. There were questions about the finances. That’s another story!
One afternoon, during one of their meetings, Harvey was asked to leave the room. He knew something was up. He was about to leave the League and they told him he was being given a Lifetime Achievement Award. They and he thought he was dying. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He didn’t know how long he had to live. He had to leave the League because he wanted to spend the rest of his days with his wife. As much as he was honored by this Award, he told them that Carol Channing deserved the Lifetime Achievement Award. She had kept the road alive. He went through a whole spiel. The League agreed and Carol and Harvey received their Lifetime Achievement Awards the same evening in 1995. How fitting! He and Carol have spoken a few times over the years. Carol’s late husband, Harry Kullijian, called Harvey once.
Hello, Dolly marks the acme of Harvey Sabinson’s career. Not only was it the longest running show that Harvey worked on but it was also a joy to work on. Shows open and they run, but Merrick put in star after star. It was like working on a new show all the time. Harvey met so many wonderful people working on Dolly.
Sabinson capped a fifty-year career in the theater when he was honored with a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1995. That year he stepped down as executive director of the League of American Theatres and Producers, (now known as the Broadway League) a national trade association of theatrical producers, presenters and theatre operators.