In early March of 1977, I found myself in need of a job. A friend of mine from grad school told me that her roommate, Andrea, had just given notice at Samuel French, so I decided to call and apply for her job. Andrea said to call a woman named Alleen Hussung, so I did and made an appointment with her.
Samuel French, a family-owned company, then had the entire second floor in 25 W. 45th St., premises the company had occupied since 1922. The elevator opened onto a large room with a light brown linoleum floor and a pale green Naugahyde sofa. To the left was a smaller room with bookshelves, which turned out to be the company’s “bookstore.” To the right, there was a counter, behind which 2 or 3 clerks were bustling about, all in light gray dust coats, answering phones and filling orders, one of which was an old guy wearing a green eye shade. I walked up to the counter and told one of the clerks my name and that I was there to see Ms. Hussung. He left to go get her, and I went over and sat on the sofa. After a minute or two, Ms. Hussung, a middle-aged husky-voiced blonde woman, came out through a door and sat on the sofa to interview me. She introduced herself as the second in command of the Stock Department*, in which Andrea had worked. Unfortunately, she had just filled Andrea’s position -- but the day before a guy in the Amateur Leasing Dept. had given his notice so she asked, after looking over my resume, if I would be interested in that position. Of course, I said yes. I was to start the next Monday.
I showed up on Monday morning and was taken by Ms. Hussung to the Amateur Licensing Dept., which was way in the back, and introduced to a feisty black woman named Pat Jones, who filled me in on what to do. As she did so, she warned me about someone she called “Le Petit Fromage.” “Stay away from him,” she cautioned. “He’s an asshole.” Well, I wasn’t concerned about that. I just wanted to get up to speed as soon as possible. The floors of the department were dirty, cracked linoleum. The walls looked like they hadn’t been painted since 1922. It was an open room with three desks and an
* In the olden days, almost all professional productions outside of New York were in Summer Stock; hence the “Stock Department.” Everyone else in the business had stopped referring to professional productions outside of New York as “Stock.” Not Samuel French.
antiquated photocopier. In one corner, there was an old-fashioned wooden switchboard with cords, at which sat the company’s receptionist. When a call came in, she took a cord and plugged it in, answered the call, directed it by taking another cord and plugging it in elsewhere, then pushed a button. Everybody had a black rotary desk phone on his/her desk. If the call was for you, it would go, “Ring!” If nobody picked up, one of us had to go find the person the call was for and tell him he had a call, as there was no intercom. There was no air conditioning, either. On my first day, I was given a small towel and a gray dust coat. There were no paper towels in the rest rooms, and the dust jacket came in very handy as there was, well, a lot of dust. Once a week, a middle-aged woman came around and cleaned all the phones. Nobody seemed to know who she was, or who had hired her.
My starting salary was $150/week. That Friday, I received a small manila pay envelope with deductions written on it. My pay, less deductions, was inside, to the penny. I am sure Samuel French was the last company in New York, and probably in the country, which still paid its employees in cash. Until the mid-1960s, they worked a 5½-day work week. You got paid at noon on Saturday. Samuel French was probably the last company in America that had a 5½-day work week.
Adjacent to our department was the shipping area. A corridor led past a freight elevator to the on-site warehouse, where there were wooden bins filled with packs of books. It also went past the Bookkeeping Dept., in the center of which there was a huge contraption like something out of Rube Goldberg. This contained thousands of small metal plates containing the addresses on the firm’s mailing list. Before catalogues could be sent out, address labels had to be printed by this machine, which went “clackety-clackety-clack!” all day long while the people in the Bookkeeping Dept. tried to focus on their work.
During my first week on the job, there were people going around interviewing everybody. They were, I was told, from a corporate efficiency company hired because everything was impossibly screwed up. The company’s report basically said, “What’s wrong with you people? You need to be computerized.” Because, you see, all accounting was done by hand, exactly as it had been done since the days when Samuel French himself was still running the company (he died in 1898). The President of the company, M. Abbott van Nostrand, (more about him later), ordered his second in command, a guy named Charlie Vann (much more about him later), the head of the Stock Department, to get a computer. He bought a used Honeywell system, hopelessly out of date, which often needed repairs -- which basically consisted of the electronic equivalent of chewing gum and bailing wire, a classic case of penny-wise, pound-foolish.
I had worked in the Amateur Leasing Dept. for about three months when a job opened up in the Editorial Dept.; the Assistant, Peter Boza, having given his notice. I went to William Talbot, the Editor (much more about him later), and asked if he would consider me for the job. He consented, so I moved over to the Editorial Dept. This was sometime in June, 1977. On my first day in my new department, I arrived at 9 am and was given a desk in the Stock Department, as there was no room in Mr. Talbot’s tiny, cramped office, which was on the other side of Abbott’s office. You had to walk through Abbott’s office to get to it. I sat there, waiting for someone to tell me what to do. A short, stocky, balding guy dressed in an orange corduroy suit, wearing a green tie and cowboy boots, came out of the office next door and laid into me for sitting around doing nothing. This was Charlie Vann, the head of the Stock Dept, and this was my first run-in with the guy I was warned about, “Le Petit Fromage.” There was a stack of large mailing envelopes on my desk, and he commanded me to “log them in.” I decided to look busy by opening these envelopes, which contained manuscripts of plays, and proceeded to type up a list of them. Peter Boza arrived for his last day at about 9:30, looked down and said, “What are you doing?” “Logging these in,” I said. He rolled his eyes and proceeded to teach me the procedure he followed as regards playscript submissions. Basically, I was to type the title, the author’s name and the date received on a 3x5 plain white index card. When I had about 40-50 of these, I was to use these cards to type up a list, then send the scripts to our play reader, Pamela Newton, who lived on a sheep farm in Nova Scotia and who was Abbott’s daughter. When they came back with her reports, I was to give the scripts and reports to Mr. Talbot. He would then give me back the ones he wanted me to read and tell me to return the others using a form rejection letter. I was to stamp the date returned on the little index cards and file them, alphabetically by author, in index card-sized cardboard boxes. Peter also told me that one of my jobs would be copyright registration, both original and renewal, the latter of which involved a lot of work every year to make sure no copyright lapsed, which continued until a new Copyright Law in went into effect in 1996, making renewals unnecessary.
Finally, Bill Talbot arrived. I was to learn that he usually came in about 9:45 or so, carrying all three daily newspapers and a can of Coke. He would read the newspapers cover-to-cover while sipping his Coke, clip out reviews and sale coupons and then depart for lunch on the dot at noon. He would come back from lunch at about 1:30 with whatever he bought to eat, and then proceed to eat his lunch for an hour. If he got a phone call, he would get pissed off that he was being bothered during lunch. Bill took me into his office to talk about my duties. In this office were two or three high-backed, cracked, leather chairs with sagging seats. On each were stacked about three feet of unopened mailing envelopes, all addressed to him. Apparently, Bill felt obligated to read everything submitted to him personally, but he had no time to do so given his incredibly busy daily schedule, so they just piled up. I asked him if I could read these while I waited for the plays from Pam to come back. “Be my guest,” he said; “But give them back to me with your reports.” In about a month, I read all hundred-plus scripts, some of which had been sent to us two to three years before. One of them was a charming comedy called MARK’S PLACE by Joan Vatsek, which had a cast of 1 man and 5 women. This became the first play I read and recommended which got published. It did zero business and I learned a valuable lesson, which is that it doesn’t matter how good a play is – if it has a lousy, unenticing title nobody’s going to order it.
Handling copyright registrations and renewals was a huge job, which took up a lot of my time, particularly the renewals. In those days, copyrights had to be renewed in the 28th year of their original term. If they weren’t the copyright would expire. I am proud to say that I never missed one.
Often, playwrights included a song in their play which, of course, was not their property. When this occurred, I had to clear the rights, which involved tracking down the copyright owner (always a music publisher). Several times, I had to get the rights to “Happy Birthday.” Hard to believe, but “Happy Birthday” was a copyrighted song. I was having a drink once with Christopher Durang, and I told him about this, which amazed him. A few months later, I went to Playwrights Horizons to see his new play BABY WITH THE BATHWATER. It’s about a couple who has a baby, played by an adult actor. On Baby’s first birthday, Mommy brings in a cake and wants to sing “Happy Birthday.” The Daddy says they can’t because it’s a copyrighted song and they would have to pay a royalty. Chris was standing inside the door from the lobby and I turned to him. He smiled and saluted.
Every so often, Abbott would stick his head in my office and admonish: “If anybody ever asks you about the copyright to PETER PAN, you don’t know nothing.” “OK, Abbott,” I would reply. “Don’t forget!” he would say. “I won’t,” I would reply. When this happened, I knew there had been some issue regarding the copyright status of Barrie’s play. See, although the play was first produced in 1904 it wasn’t published until 1927, which meant that under the old (1909) Copyright Law that’s when the copyright began – which is why we could continue to charge a royalty. However, in 1911 Barrie published a novel version, called “Peter and Wendy,” which had been copyrighted and was, hence out of print. We often received requests to adapt PETER PAN, which we denied as the Hospital for Sick Children in London, which owned the copyright, refused to accept that, because of the publication of the novel, PETER PAN was out of copyright. That’s when Abbott would admonish me that I didn’t know nothing about the copyright to PETER PAN, should somebody ask me.
There were several indelible characters who worked at Samuel French while I was there.
Verne Hailey was a middle-aged black guy who managed our warehouse. When I started at the company, he worked part-time, as he had another job as chauffeur for a retired NY State Supreme Court judge. Verne was a soft-spoken gentleman (think, Morgan Freeman in “Driving Miss Daisy”) who had come up to New York from South Carolina in the 1950s. He was married, with three children. He lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a tough neighborhood, but all of his kids stayed out of trouble and established successful careers. I attribute a lot of this to “Verne Wife,” a real whip-cracker.
Verne’s raisons d’etre was the Lotto and the Numbers, which he referred to as “the legal” and “the un-legal.” He had a betting system based on his dreams. He had a book which assigned two sets of three numbers to everything you might dream about. He had a pad next to his bed, and whenever he awoke at night if he had had a dream, he would write it down. In the morning, he would look in the book to get the numbers to bet on, write these down, and every day he would call a guy at a neighborhood bodega. “Yeah,” he would say, without even identifying himself, and give the guy his numbers. This was all on the honor system, but whenever Verne’s numbers hit, the guy would pay up – because if word got out in the neighborhood that he reneged, he’d be out of business. The numbers were derived, in some complicated and inscrutable way, from horse races at Aqueduct. One day, Verne came into my office, crestfallen. “Last night, I dream about girls. I dream about young girls. I look inna book, book give girls Fo’-Five-Seb’n, an’ Two-Eight-Five. I play the Two-Eight-Five, that sucka come up Fo’-Five-Seb’n!” “Well, Verne,” I said. “I hope you learned your lesson.” “Yeah,” he replied. (Pause) “What?” “If you put your money on young girls,” I told him, “You’re going to lose that money.” “You telling me!” he replied.
I took him to the theatre once, a play called LOTTO at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Bed-Stuy. Perfect, right? Afterwards, we walked to his car which was parked in a nearby lot and I noticed a small hole in one side. “Is that what I think it is? I asked. “Yep,” he replied. It was a bullet hole.
Verne garbled a lot of titles. Some of my favorites were “Outta Town,” “Bright Spirit” and Verne’s version of RAMEAU’S NEPHEW, “Rambo Nephew.”
Jimmy Williams (aka, “The Great Jimbini”) was a scrawny guy of about 40 when I started at Samuel French. He was a stock clerk, bringing up books from the warehouse and loading the bins when they came in from the printers. Jimmy was, well, mentally-challenged. He and his brother Tommy lived with their parents in New Jersey. When the parents died, the brothers inherited the house. Tommy was worse than Jimmy. He was mentally-challenged, too; but he was violent. He’d beat Jimmy up, or call him up at the office and demand money, telling him that he was going to kill him if he didn’t fork up. One morning, Jimmy came in shaking, he was so upset. When Jimmy got riled up, he would stutter. “What’s wrong, Jim?” I asked. “L-l-l-last night my, l-l-last night my brother, last night my brother Tommy threw a, threw a TV set at me! (Pause) I don’t think that’s right, do you?” Eventually, the State removed Tommy, put him into an institution, and Jimmy moved to a boarding house in Rutherford.
Jimmy loved women – particularly, blonde women – and was very forward. If he saw a woman he fancied, he would go up to her and try to chat her up. If she chatted back, Jimmy would ask her for her address. “Why do you want my address?” she would ask, suspiciously. “So I can send you an Easter card.” Well, if she gave Jimmy her address, every year without fail she got an Easter card from him, signed in Jimmy’s chicken-scratch handwriting, “James Williams, Bass-Baritone.” Jimmy loved opera; and every year, he would audition for the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera. He was terrible. Think, Florence Foster Jenkins. Also, he sang in the chorus of the Italian Folklore Society. The high point of his year was when he got to sing an aria at our Christmas party, an annual tradition. We would all applaud wildly, and then he would launch into an encore, often an Italian folk song. Our receptionist, a very odd woman named Mindy who I think may have been a transsexual, was actually a pretty good singer. One year, she and Jimmy did an opera duet. It was something to behold.
Here are my favorite Jimbini stories: When Samuel French ditched the pay envelope thing and gave us checks, as Jimmy refused to have a bank account he would go over to the bank and cash his check. After work, at the Port Authority, he would stand around waiting for the PATH train looking very wary. Obviously, he had money, so he got robbed a couple of times. Abbott would give him another check on Monday, God bless him; but after the second time this happened, he told Peter LaBeck, whom I called “Lurch” (more about him later) to figure out what to do about Jimmy getting robbed. Lurch told Jimmy to put $20 in his wallet and roll up the rest and stuff it in his sock. That Friday, a guy came up to rob him. Jimmy handed him the twenty from his wallet then sat down, unrolled his sock, and gave him the rest of his dough. One Friday, Jimmy was on the PATH train heading home when he spotted a woman he fancied. He moved next to her and started chatting her up. Probably, he asked her for her address. She must have done something like tweaked his cheek and said, “You’re so cute!” because quicker than you could say “Jimbini,” he had his hand up her skirt. She screamed, and a plainclothes cop arrested Jimmy and threw him in the hoosegow. He called Brian, a playwright friend of mine who worked in the Stock Department who had befriended him, and Brian missioned out to NJ and got them to release Jimmy on his cognizance. That Monday, Jimmy came in and he was so upset, he was crying. Brian had told me what had happened, so I took Jimmy aside and told him that sometimes you make mistakes, but you have to try and find a way to make this a good thing by learning from your mistakes. Jimmy thought about this all day, and by that afternoon he had calmed down. He came up to me and said, “I’ve been thinking about what you said, and I have learned from my mistake.” Great, Jimmy,” I said. “What have you learned?” To which he responded, “I’m not gonna take the PATH train anymore. I’ll take the bus.”
Jimmy had a girlfriend who lived with her mother in Baltimore. He spent a lot of money from his parents’ estate buying her expensive presents, such as a fur coat. He used to take the train 2 or 3 times a month to see her. She made him stay in a hotel. Over Labor Day weekend, 1991, he dropped dead in his hotel room. He was 53. He had made her the beneficiary in his life insurance policy. First thing on Tuesday morning after Labor Day, she called Richard Spana, the head of our Bookkeeping Dept., wanting to know how much money she was going to get, and how soon she was going to get it. She did not bother to come to Jimmy’s funeral. The Great Jimbini, R.I.P.
Ronnie Rainier was a strange, short, very thin little man who worked in our Bookkeeping Dept. He wore his hair almost shoulder-length, died jet black but with white roots, and his sartorial choices were permanently stuck in the 1970’s. He usually wore bell-bottom pants and high-healed disco shoes. He always had some ailment to complain about, in his nasal Noo Yawk accent, and his complaints were pretty funny. “I’m losing-ga pounda week. By the end of the yee-ah, I’ll be a negative weight!” “I look like a wawking advatoisement fa spare ribs!” “If you sawr me walking down the shtreet, what yee-ah would you say I doyed? And my own personal favorite, “It’s been a good week. I only had two transfusions.”
Eddie O’Brien was an emaciated man in his 50s who did our shipping. He was emaciated because he had had to have most of his stomach removed because he was an incorrigible alcoholic. He had been given the Last Rites of the Catholic Church -- twice. A court ordered him to take Antabuse but he drank anyway, which made him violently ill. Eddie was essentially homeless. He lived with his sister until she kicked him out, so he started sleeping on the Naugahyde sofa in our reception area until Abbott found out about this and told Lurch to tell him he couldn’t sleep there anymore. What he did after that, I don’t know. He must have owed money to several people, because whenever he got a phone call, which he took at one of the desks in Amateur Leasing as there was no phone in the shipping department, we would hear variations on, “Yeah? …Uh-huh …uh-huh ... uh-huh … Well, you’ll have to take a number and get in line, scumbag!” and he’d slam down the phone. Eddie often cussed a blue streak to no one in particular while he was wrapping packages of books, such as the time Charlie Vann had two huge tractor tires delivered to him and ordered him to wrap these up and ship them up to his farm. Eddie went berserk.
In 1984, when we were moving to new premises in W. 25th St., everybody had to pitch in to pack everything up. Not Eddie – he just didn’t come in, so Verne and Jimmy had to clean out the shipping dept., where they found about 50 empty liquor bottles stashed behind boxes, covered with dust. Eddie just stopped coming to work after the move. I have no idea whatever happened to him.
In preparation for the move to the new place all worked our tails off packing up everything. Not Bill Talbot. He was oblivious. When he finally left at the end of the day Paul Gallagher, our Editorial Assistant, and I packed up everything in Bill’s office. I am sure Bill came in to 45th St. on our first day at 25th St. with his can of Coke and three newspapers and wondered why the elevator wouldn’t stop at the second floor.
There was a door in Abbott’s office which led to the warehouse and in the corridor, there were stacks and stacks of old manuscripts. He asked me to go through these while we were packing for the move and decide what needed to be kept and what to be thrown out. I found many manuscripts of plays represented by Toby Cole, who sold her agency to Samuel French when she retired. Among these were two by Sam Shepard, a screenplay called BLUE BITCH and a play called ANGEL CITY. Neither had ever been produced. I sent them to Sam’s then-agent, Lois Berman, one of the Great Old Broad playwrights’ agents (see my separate chapter about them), making a copy of ANGEL CITY, which I gave to Ted Story, co-Artistic Director of an Off-Off Broadway company called the Impossible Ragtime Theatre, where I was one of the resident directors. He mounted a production of it there, directing it, which as far as I have been able to determine was the world premiere. I also found a manuscript in a Studio Duplicating cover (in those days, when a play was optioned, producers would send the manuscript over to Studio Duplicating, who would type it up on stencils, run off as many copies as the producer needed, and put them in a “leatherette” (vinyl) cover embossed with the title and the author). This manuscript still had Bill Talbot’s report attached, and it was clear from it that the producer, Saint Subber, had sent it to Abbott in about 1963 to see if he would pick up the rights pre-Broadway. Saint must have needed more financing. (His name was actually Arnold Saint-Subber, but everybody in the business called him “Saint.” He’s the character in a monologue play by Don Nigro called BROADWAY MACABRE, which I highly recommend.) In his report, Bill did a brief summary of the plot and listed four or five lines he found funny, which was his typical report. He did not recommend the play, saying that he didn’t think it would run very long. It was indeed produced on Broadway and became a big hit. This was BAREFOOT IN THE PARK.
Everard Stovall was an elderly man who did our contracts, each of which he typed up from scratch on onion skin paper with carbons, absolutely perfectly, with no corrections. In his youth, he had been a child prodigy pianist, playing with major symphony orchestras. He spoke several languages fluently, and could even read Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was a gifted painter. His pictures, which looked a little like Cezanne’s, adorned the walls of his office. He was also a drunk. He would head over to the bar at the Cattleman restaurant in the Hotel Roosevelt, sit at the bar and drink his lunch. Sometimes, for variety, he would go across the street to the Long River Chinese Restaurant and drink his lunch at the bar there. He would stagger back from lunch, bombed.
When he turned 66, Ev used his Social Security income to buy Lotto tickets. This was his system: He had a stack of cards, choosing the same four numbers for every game. Can you imagine being behind him in line when he bought all his tickets? Finally, in his mid-70s, he hit the jackpot -- 10 million dollars – which drove Verne up the wall. He took his dough in cash (after tax deductions), bought himself a grand piano, and put the rest – get this – in his checking account and continued to work full-time.
Everard hated me, because I think he resented that Abbott (whom I called, affectionately, the “Old Goat”) relied so much on me (The O.G. used to tell people I was a genius). One day, at quittin’ time, as I walked past his office he stormed out (bombed, of course), started verbally attacking me and began jabbing his finger into my chest. I grabbed him by the oversized knot in his tie, shook him, put my face up to his and said, “If you weren’t 70 years old and a drunk, you’d be on the floor with a broken nose. Don’t you everpoke me in the chest again.” After that, he steered clear of me.
Ev shared an office with Clive Kimball, also an old guy, who edited our catalogue each year, cutting and pasting it by hand, and did all the book royalties, also by hand. He would work from thousands of dog-eared 8x10 inventory cards, writing each book royalty check, one by one. Clive smoked like a chimney, his cigarette always in a holder like a character right of a Noël Coward play. Towards the end of his tenure at Samuel French, I started helping him more and more; so, to thank me, he would take me to lunch once a year at the Harvard Club. How a Harvard graduate wound up at a place like Samuel French, nobody knows. He lived to a ripe old age, dying in a nursing home, whereas Everard died of lung cancer. Go figure. In 1991, Clive started to go belly-up. He just couldn’t cope anymore, flipped out and stormed away, raving. I took over the catalogue and was able to put it together in 3 days, when it was due to be given to whoever printed it.
Abbott had a stroke in 1981 and was in the hospital for several weeks. His doctor told him he had to cut back on his office hours. By this time, Charlie Vann had bought a farm in Upstate New York and “retired.” This was the opportunity he had been waiting for. See, Charlie’s dad was President before Abbott, but he died of leukemia in his 40s and the Board made Abbott President. This was in about 1952. Little Charlie thought of Abbott as a sort of regent, who should have turned his father’s company over to him years ago, when he came of age. When Abbott had his stroke, he tried to get Abbott to do just that. To forestall this, Abbott called up Coy Bronson (aka, “The Good Ol’ Boy”), who had run the Los Angeles office until he ran afoul of Charlie Vann, resigned and for a while ran the Pasadena Playhouse. When that closed, he went back to Asheville, North Carolina, his old hometown, to run a non-profit there. The G.O.B. took over a lot of the Abbott’s administrative responsibilities.
Regarding Abbott’s stroke, he was in the hospital for several weeks. Lurch used to go there every day with his mail and the adding machine tape with the day’s total receipts, as Abbott was obsessed about this. Anyway, I think he had a vision of the Pearly Gates and feared that he was in deep doo-doo with St. Peter, so he told Lurch that when he got back to the office he was going to “do something about the salaries.” Sure enough, when he did return everyone got a 10% raise, and did so for the next four years.
Coy, who was in his early 60s, had what I think was something of a homoerotic fixation on Abbott, and hated to have anyone get close to him. About this time, my relationship with Abbott started to deteriorate somewhat, and I think Coy was the reason why. He could be pretty weird sometimes. Every day, he used to order Abbott’s lunch from a local deli, pick it up and bring it back to him. One day, he came running past my office, huffing and puffing, to the elevator. What’s wrong, Coy?” I asked, alarmed. He yelled over his shoulder as he entered the elevator, “They forgot Abbott’s pickle!”
One of the weirdest things about Coy was that his name may not have actually been Coy Bronson, because occasionally he would get mail addressed to “Charles Revson” or “Charles Revis.” Who was he, really? Nobody knows,
In 1991, Charlie Vann got the Board of Directors to tell Abbott it was time to retire and turn the company over to him. A few days after Charlie returned to Samuel French, Coy got out while the gettin’ was good and went back to Asheville.
Peter (“Lurch”) LaBeck was our Production Manager. He wasn’t much good for anything, but he was a world-class sycophant who rose to become an Officer of the company, which meant a Christmas bonus that was twice the yearly salary of everyone who wasn’t an Officer. He and his partner, Bill Rauch, had a beautiful house in New Jersey, for which Lurch said he had paid cash. Although Lurch made a really good salary (and don’t forget that Christmas bonus), Bill was the really wealthy half of their relationship.
Lurch shared an office with Jim North, who basically was the Musicals Dept. until it needed its own office. Abbott hired a couple of assistants and moved it up to a room he rented on the third floor, so I was moved to Lurch’s office. When Abbott found that Jim was running a drug-sales business out of his Musicals Dept. and fired him, he promoted a kid about a year out of college who was our mail clerk named Christopher (“Kip”) Gould to head the Musicals Dept. When Kip turned 25, he got his trust fund, several million dollars, which he used to found Broadway Play Publishing.
In addition to being in charge of production, Lurch also handled foreign amateur leasing. I use the word “handled” loosely, because he would pretty much ignore these requests for rights. It got so bad that a delegation from Dominie Pty, our Australian representatives, flew to New York to meet with Abbott to see if there was any way their requests could be expedited. After they left, I asked Abbott what he had told them. “I told them that it’s hard to get approvals from the agents,” he said. “But Abbott,” I said, “that’s not true.” “I know,” he shrugged, “but what can I do?” What a company.
We had two printers: Wickersham, in Pennsylvania, and Tesar, in Michigan. Tom Mann, who owned Wickersham, would come in to New York once a week on the train, take Lurch out for an expensive lunch, and Lurch would give him new plays and reprints. Lloyd Kamphorst, who owned Tesar with his brother Glenn, would fly to New York once a month, take Lurch out for an expensive lunch, and Lurch would give him new plays and reprints. In other words, Wickersham did about 75% of our printing. Lurch, ever ready to fob his work off on me, basically put me in charge of the back list. I would calculate which titles were due to be reprinted, correct anything that needed to be corrected (such as an agent’s address) and give them to him to give to the printers. One day, Verne told me that we were down to twenty copies of an old revue called SHORT AND SWEET. I checked the inventory card, which said we had a hundred (our inventory cards were often incorrect – more about this later), then checked the bin. Verne was correct, so I gave the title to Lurch to be reprinted; but I forgot to record this. About two months later, Verne came to me. “Damn,” he said. “Now we down to Ten SHOTE AN’ SWEET.” I checked the print card, saw that we hadn’t ordered it, and gave it to Lurch to be reprinted. About two months later, Verne came to me. “Damn, last month I gets five hunnerd copies of SHOTE AN’ SWEET. This month, I gets another five hunnerd copies!” So, I went back to the warehouse. Sure, enough, now we had 1000 copies, one batch printed by Tesar and one batch printed by Wickersham. I immediately informed Lurch of my error, but he said not to worry about it, we would eventually sell them. Lurch used to have to type up a report for the annual Board meeting, which consisted of a list of reprinted and new titles, the amount paid for each title, and the price per copy. A few years before, he had turned this job over to me as it actually involved work. I was glad to do it, as it gave me a good idea about how many books we were selling. When I got to SHORT AND SWEET, there were two invoices, one from Tesar and one from Wickersham. The price per copy of the Tesar one worked out to 37 cents. The one from Wickersham: 58 cents. I showed this to Peter. It took me a while to make him understand that Wickersham’s costs were significantly higher than Tesar’s. When he finally got this he said, “Don’t tell Abbott!” And here I thought we were running a real business. Silly me. A year or two later, Lloyd Kamphorst of Tesar invited me to lunch and said, “I know our prices are lower than Tom Mann’s. What can I do to get more business from Peter?” to which I replied, “Come to New York once a week and take him out for an expensive lunch.” He looked at me like I was kidding. When he realized I was serious, he said, “Tom Mann can do this because he lives in Pennsylvania, but I have to fly to New York and pay for an expensive hotel room, etc.” To which I replied, “Nevertheless…” Then I had an idea. When I got back to the office, I pulled out last year’s Tesar invoices and saw that the reprints had a charge for “negatives.” I asked Lloyd what this was, and he said that if he gets a reprint order for a play Tesar has never printed before, they have to create negatives. “What if,” I said, “you eat the cost of the negatives on new reprints?” He thought that was a great idea so I proposed it to Lurch, who took it to Abbott (He didn’t want him to know that I was doing most of his work) and presented it as his idea, suggesting that we turn a lot more reprints over to Tesar. “Good boy, Pete,” said the Old Goat. “Do it.” So, Lurch started giving a lot more reprints to Tesar – which saved Samuel French thousands of dollars in printing costs. You’re welcome. No need to thank me.
SHORT AND SWEET was far from the only title whose inventory count was way off. I think there were two reasons for this: 1) The Great Jimbini. In addition to what we called the “back bins” (the warehouse), there were the “front bins” in the Order Dept. These contained all our biggest sellers. There were also drawers in the Order Dept. which contained a few copies of many other plays. If, when filling an order, a clerk looked in the front bin or the drawer and there weren’t enough copies, he would give the order to Jimmy so he would bring up more copies. He would bring up just enough for the order, and if there were any left over they would go in the front bin or the drawer. If, say, there were 23 copies of OUR TOWN in the bin but the order was for 30 Jimmy would go back and get maybe 40 – 30 for the order and 10 for the bin. Now we had 33 copies in the bin, which could hold maybe 200. Then, Jimmy would pull the inventory card, mark down the 40 copies he had brought up and deduct 40 from the inventory total. Jimmy was arithmetically-challenged – you get the picture. 2) One day we got a big shipment from Wickersham, at least 20 titles. I asked a young guy in the Musicals Dept., which was where the freight elevator was in what we called the “new place -- 45 W. 25th St. – to check the invoices with what we actually received. Imagine my surprise: Wickersham had short-shipped us several titles. An invoice billed us for 1020 but we only got 600 – that sort of thing. I informed Lurch that Tom Mann had short-shipped us. Predictably, he said, “Don’t tell Abbott!” Alleen believed that Lurch was somehow getting a cut from Tom Mann, to which I responded, “Alleen, that presupposes a level of canniness that is light years beyond Peter LaBeck.” It was just simple incompetence, nothing more.
I had made up an inventory form for the Great Jimbini, which I called a “Bini Sheet.” I used to go around looking at the front bins. If a title was low, I would write it down, with enough copies to fill the front bin, then give it to Jimmy, who would take a hand truck, head back to the warehouse and load it up. In short order, the front bins were full. I remember one time, Jimmy had finished all the Bini Sheets, then went out to lunch. While he was out, I filled up another 4 sheets and dropped them on his counter area. You can imagine the look on his face when he got back from lunch.
Abbott Van Nostrand, the inimitable Old Goat, started working at the family business after he graduated from Amherst in 1932. I think his grandfather was still President. His older brother Dick worked there, too, and when whoever was President died, the Board made Dick the President. When Dick died in 1952, as aforementioned, Abbott became President. At the time, Samuel French was a moribund company. In 1936, the Dramatists Guild was founded, along with its publishing wing, Dramatists Play Service and, naturally, all the playwrights wanted their plays handled by the publishing wing of their guild. Samuel French was reduced to publishing free-lance submissions and plays written for hire by Wilbur Braun, Tom Taggart, John Kirkpatrick and a few others, Wilbur’s under several pseudonyms. I think “Esther Peevey” was one of them. By the time Abbott became President, there was a new generation of playwrights not as committed to D.P.S., so Abbott was able to acquire Broadway plays, such as THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO and COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA. As D.P.S. only acquired amateur rights, as per their charter, he also picked up Stock rights to plays by playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and William Inge. In about 1980 or ‘81, D.P.S. got their charter changed to allow them to pick up stock, in addition to amateur, rights. Andy Leslie, their President, promoted a young guy to head up this new division named John Patrick Shanley. Shanley ran it for a couple of years, until his play DANNY AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA hit it big. It had premiered at the Humana Festival, then had a successful Off Broadway run, which made a star of the actor who played Danny, John Turturro.
Samuel French handled only one musical, which was PETER PAN, which we licensed because we also published the original play. In 1966, there was an antitrust judgment against Tams-Witmark. They were found to be a monopoly and limited to acquiring only two new musicals a year. Abbott decided to get into the musicals biz. He made offers on every musical – Broadway and Off Broadway – no matter how big a flop. He got mostly the flops. In 1972, a musical opened Off Broadway at the Eden Theatre in 2nd Ave. which had been a hit in Chicago. The reviews weren’t very good and everyone assumed it wouldn’t run very long; so, Abbott was able to get the rights. Then, the producers decided it had a shot if they moved it to Broadway, to the Golden Theatre. It caught on, and by the time it closed it was the longest-running show in Broadway history. This was GREASE. Abbott had become a player. He got the rights to more big hits, such as CHICAGO. I took Kip Gould to the WPA Theatre to see a show called LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and I persuaded Abbott to make an offer on it. The agent, Esther Sherman of William Morris, sold it to Samuel French because we had acquired the rights to the first musical by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER, which I got Abbott to acquire and which had had an Off Broadway commercial transfer, though this did not succeed. Then, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS moved to the Orpheum Theatre and wound up running for eight years. When Esther Sherman died Peter Franklin, Gilbert Parker’s assistant, was made a full agent and took over Esther’s clients. He found that the contract had expired. I have no idea why it had a term limit, though probably this was why Abbott was able to get the rights. Charlie was President by then. Peter put it on the block. He wanted a guarantee of $500,000 for 5 years. It was taking in about $250,000 a year, so Charlie let it go. I have always wondered if M.T.I., which picked it up, lost money on it.
The late John Bedding was Managing Director of Samuel French Ltd., our London office. He was a jovial fellow, kind and generous. He used to come to New York twice a year, in October and April to see Broadway shows. During the day, he would sit in an office and do deals with New York agents. Everybody loved John. His birthday was in April, so he would take Lurch, me, sometimes Alleen and one or two others out to dinner on his birthday at a restaurant near where he had a show that night, often Sardi’s or J.R.’s (sadly, gone now).
I made my first trip to London at Eastertime in 1984, flying overnight, and John missioned all the way out to Gatwick (Virgin Atlantic flew there then) to meet me. We took the train in to Victoria Station, rode a bus around London as he pointed out the sights, and then caught the #12 bus to Southwark, where he lived with his partner, Jimmy, who at the time was in Edinburgh visiting his mum. My first London digs were at John’s flat. We did a pub crawl one night. Our first stop was the George Inn, which he knew I would love because it’s the only extant Elizabethan coaching inn, the kind of place where plays were performed in the courtyard before James Burbage built the Theatre in 1576, in Shoreditch, the first permanent playhouse, whose architecture was in large part inspired by these inns. Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, which had been nearby, must have looked a lot like the George. After a couple of pints, we walked over to the Anchor, Bankside, right in the heart of what was once the Elizabethan theatre district (and, of course, the “stews,” which is what folks in Shakespeare’s day called brothels). The sites of the major Elizabethan playhouses – the Rose, the Curtain, the Swan and, of course, the Globe -- were nearby. What a night! The Anchor was to become one of my favorite London pubs. One day, we rode the bus out to Greenwich, disembarking at Blackheath, and walked down the hill past the famed observatory. I saw the Cutty Sark, the last remaining tea clipper, and the Gypsy Moth nearby, in which Sir Francis Chichester had circumnavigated the globe.
When Charlie Vann took over Samuel French (more about this later), John stopped coming to New York, (gee, I wonder why?), so I only saw him when I was in London (I’ve now been there seven times). He retired and then passed away a few years later, and Vivien Goodwin, his assistant, became the Managing Director. She was obliged to fly over once a year to meet with Charlie. Afterwards, she would come out of his office, sobbing. We put her in an empty office and shut the door while she pulled herself together. Vivien is now the head of the European division of Concord Music Group, which owns Samuel French. Ha!
During my first year or two in the Editorial Dept., the only shows I could afford to see were ones Bill Talbot took me to. An early one was Wendy Wasserstein’s UNCOMMON WOMEN AND OTHERS with its original Yale cast which included Swoozie Kurtz, Jill Eikenberry and Glenn Close. Bill detested it (well, he detested most of what he saw Off Broadway; and on Broadway, for that matter). The play is about a group of sorority sisters at a Seven Sisters college and goes back and forth in time between their college days and ten years later, at their tenth reunion. In one scene, Rita, played by Swoozie Kurtz, came down to the lounge and announced, “I’ve just tasted my menstrual blood!” In his report to Abbott, Bill informed him that it was a play about unpleasant young women sitting around tasting their menstrual blood. Abbott must have thought, “eeeew” and didn’t go after it. D.P.S. got it, and it went one to become one of the most-produced plays in America in the late 70’s-early 80s. I, on the other hand, wrote a very favorable report which Bill, to his credit, gave to Abbott along with this.
About this time, I got a call from Flora Roberts’ assistant Anna Marie McKay, who asked me if I had seen a play at the Public Theater which she represented. I hadn’t, so she sent it to me. I read it and flipped over it. I gave it to Abbott along with my report and about 3 weeks later he gave it back to me to return (with “return” scrawled on my report). I called Anna Marie, told her that Abbott had asked me to return the play and suggested that she call Abbott. That afternoon, Abbott asked me if I had heard of some play, Anna Marie McKay, Public Theater, etc. “I don’t know, Abbott. Let me see.” Later, I removed my report with “return” scrawled on it, typed up a fresh report and gave it to Abbott. About three weeks later, he gave the play back to me with “return” scrawled on my report. I called Anna Marie. “He’s done it again, Anna Marie,” I said, and suggested that she ask Joe Papp to call Abbott. That afternoon, Abbott came into my office and asked me, “Have you heard of some play, Joe Papp, etc. “I don’t know Abbott,” I said. “Let me check.” I removed my report with “return” scrawled on it, typed up a fresh report and gave the script to him again. He bought the rights. This play was MUSEUM, by Tina Howe. Years later, I told that story to Tina and she told me she was in Papp’s office, talking about her next play, THE ART OF DINING, when he called Abbott.
A few weeks later, Abbott called me into his office and told me he wanted me to go to plays on behalf of Samuel French, giving me two subscriptions to all the theatres and one ticket at full price or two tickets at half price to every commercial production, and instructed me to give my reports directly to him. Thus, I started going to the theatre at least three or four times a week, and Abbott started acquiring a lot of what I recommended. He must have realized that he shouldn’t pay any attention to Bill Talbot’s reports anymore.
Abbott attended every Broadway opening night, leaving Off Broadway to Bill, who was a conservative Catholic who believed that plays should teach people how to lead morally upright lives, which is why he hated everything Off Broadway, which is not exactly about promoting morality -- which is why everything that succeeded Off Broadway was published by D.P.S. He was also homophobic. He used to call Circle Rep “The Home of the Homos.” “Where’d you go, last night?” I would ask him. “Home of the Homos!” Once, a playwright named Roger Karshner, who wrote what we used to call “dinner theatre” comedies, sent Bill two new farces in which all the characters were trying to get into bed with someone else’s wife or husband, which Bill returned to him with the stern admonition that adultery was an unacceptable subject. Roger called me with a “What the fuck?” I told him to send them back to me, which he refused to do because he was pissed off. I asked Bill about this, and he informed me that we don’t publish plays about adultery. I asked him, “Well, what about SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR?” He said, “That play is no damn good.” “But Bill,” I said, “it ran four years on Broadway, won the Tony Award, and has made a ton of money for Samuel French.” “So what?” he said. “We shouldn’t be promoting immorality.” You see, there was no point in arguing with him. There used to be a monthly magazine called In Theatre, and one issue carried a roundtable discussion whose participants were Henry Hewes (the theatre critic for the Saturday Evening Post), Ira Bilowit (the magazine’s publisher), the Broadway director Alan Schneider and, of all people, Bill Talbot. The subject was, are plays written by actors better plays? Bill said not necessarily, citing THE SHADOW BOX, written by an actor named Michael Cristofer, as no damn good. He dissed, in print, a play published by the company which payed his salary. “The playwright was really swimming upstream with that one,” he declaimed. “Yes, he was, Bill,” said Mr. Schneider. “Straight to the Pulitzer Prize.” I couldn’t resist asking Bill why THE SHADOW BOX was no damn good. He told me because it had a kid who sassed his father (kids shouldn’t talk that way to their parents), a woman who often used profanity (which is no good, particularly coming from a woman) and a homosexual relationship which was portrayed sympathetically, rather than condemned. Again, there was no reasoning with him. At the new place, I was stuck in an office with Bill. Since he didn’t show up the first day we were there, as I said, I took a large wooden bookshelf and placed it on my desk, its back to Bill’s area, effectively walling him off.
I have many Bill Talbot stories. 1980 was the supposed 150thanniversary of when Samuel French founded the company, and Abbott decided to commemorate this with a gala in the lobby of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. I say “supposed” because William Hailes Lacy started Lacy’s Plays in 1830 and Mr. French bought Lacy’s Plays in the mid-1850s. Anyway, Abbott asked all the heads of staff to give him ideas as to what we could do in addition to this gala. Bill suggested that we publish a commemorative brochure, which he would prepare. Abbott must have given him the go-ahead, not realizing what this would entail. Bill spent six months in the NY Public Library researching this, and what he came up with was a chronology, year by year, of important events that happened, including plays published each year by Lacy’s Plays, subsequently by Samuel French, folded up like a road map, to be included with every order sent out. We printed up 10,000 copies. Eddie refused to include them with packages, so they sat around gathering dust in the Shipping Dept. until we found them during the move and gave the boxes the heave-ho. During the six months Bill was working on this, he didn’t come into the office, so all his mail piled up, including subscription renewals. When he finally returned to the office, he began mailing in these renewals, always requesting Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday nights as those were the only nights he went to the theatre. The Hudson Guild Theatre, which had become hot due to their productions of ON GOLDEN POND and DA, told him that those nights were sold out but they could accommodate him on other nights. Bill wrote an angry letter to the theatre in which he said that if he couldn’t have the nights he wanted, they could send him their damn plays and he would read them whenever he got around to them. I know this because I got a “What the fuck?” call from David Kerry Heefner, the theatre’s Artistic Director, whom I knew. I apologized and told him not to pay any attention to Bill – I would be seeing all the plays at the Hudson Guild.
One morning, when Bill came in, I asked him what he had seen last night. It was EDUCATING RITA off Broadway, an import from Steppenwolf being done for the first time in New York. I asked him what he thought of it. “Not much,” he said as he typed up his report. Bill had no idea that we had licensed the play for at least ten years and it had been made into a successful movie starring Michael Caine and Julie Waters (Caine won the Oscar, Waters was nominated). Then, I said, “Bill, didn’t you see EDUCATING RITA last week? “I did?” he said. Then I heard him shuffling through copies of his reports. Then: “I did see it last week. Well, how about that?” How about that, indeed.
One Monday morning, Bill came in and asked me if I had seen an article in the Arts and Leisure section of the Times about the resurgence of revues on Broadway, focusing on EUBIE and AIN’T MISBEHAVING, and asked me to come up with an idea for a revue. I suggested the work of several composer/lyricists, such as Noël Coward and Duke Ellington. “That’s not a revue,” said Bill. “A revue is comedy sketches like in the NEW FACES revues or John Murray Anderson’s ALMANAC, maybe with some songs.” “But Bill, the Times article was about …” I started to say, and then dropped it because there was no point in reasoning with him. He decided to put together an evening of comedy sketches, met with the Shuberts, and asked if they would produce it. Politely, they said they would certainly look at it, which Bill determined was a “Go.” He placed the following ad in scores of comedy magazines: “Samuel French, in partnership with leading Broadway producer, seeks comedy sketches for upcoming Broadway revue.” He must have received thousands of them. It took him months to read them all, then he assembled the ones he thought were the best (probably, the corniest) into what he called MANHATTAN SCENE, which was at least 150 pages long, with umpty-leven characters, and sent it to the Shuberts who suggested, diplomatically, that he find a Broadway playwright to help him shape it. Bill thought of Abe Burrows, whom he knew somewhat, got Burrows’ address, and sent it to him but never heard back from him, which perplexed Bill to no end. What he didn’t know was that Burroughs was non compos mentis by then and living in an old folks’ home. Finally, he had Studio Duplicating run off fifty copies, which sat around gathering dust until we threw them away.
One of my favorite Bill Talbot stories concerns a brilliant idea he had to commission playwrights to do adaptations of best-selling novels, which he felt was necessary as there weren’t any good plays being written anymore. Again, Abbott must have given him the go-ahead, not realizing what this would entail. Bill spent at least a year reading novels and writing reports as to their feasibility for the stage. One was, as I recall, “Jurassic Park,” I swear to God. When he found a novel that he thought would make a good play, he contacted the publisher about stage rights. The publisher, of course, wanted to know what kind of money he was offering. “You don’t understand,” said Bill. “We’ll publish the play and you’ll make money from that.” Basically, they told him to take a hike. So, nothing came of this latest brilliant idea of Bill’s.
One final Bill Talbot story, and then I’ll move on. Maybe a year after I went into the Editorial Dept., Bill invited me to a play at the Public Theater and asked me to meet him at the restaurant across the street for a drink before the play. This was where Indochine is now. Bill always had a couple of pops before the theatre. We were sitting at the bar and he said to me, “Don’t let what happened to me happen to you.” I was taken aback. “What do you mean, Bill?” I asked. He replied, “Get out while you still can.” It was more than a little sad. At the time, I thought that I had a Big Future at Samuel French, so I didn’t take Bill’s advice. I have often wished I had. A few years later Andy Leslie, the President of D.P.S., offered me a job as his assistant, saying he was going to retire in a year and would recommend to the Board that they make me his successor. It was a very tempting offer, but I decided to turn Andy down as I still thought I had that Big Future at Samuel French; and, what if the D.P.S. Board chooses someone else? I would probably be out of a job. I have often wondered what might have happened had I accepted Andy’s offer.
I loved my career at Samuel French while Abbott was President. He took most of my recommendations, and we became competitive with Dramatists Play Service as a result. Some examples: I had a friend named Ruth Ann Norris who had a small Off Broadway company called StageArts. I had seen a couple of their productions, though they did not offer a subscription. Ruth Ann called to invite me to their current offering, a play about Abelard and Heloise called DIVINE FIRE, by a Washington, D.C. lawyer. It was a beautiful play, and a fine production, though I decided not to recommend it to Abbott, because he already had a play about Abelard and Heloise called, fittingly, ABELARD AND HELOISE, which did no business. Ruth Ann, the playwright and I went out for a drink afterwards and the playwright and I hit it off. He sent me two other plays. One was a murder mystery called DRAMATIC LICENSE, set at the Gillette Castle in Connecticut. There’s a murder, and Gillette catches the murderer a la Sherlock Holmes, his most famous character. Another was a play based on “Casey at the Bat” called JOY IN MUDVILLE, also excellent. The next season, StageArts did a musical by the same playwright called SULLIVAN AND GILBERT which used the music of Gilbert and Sullivan to tell the story of their falling out. That summer, I got a call from an old friend named Larry Carpenter who was Artistic Director of the American Stage Festival, a summer theatre in Nashua, New Hampshire, asking me to come up to see a comedy he had running called OPERA BUFFA, which was a huge hit. I asked Abbott if I could go. He said no, but get the script. I did, read it, and loved it. I recommended it highly to Abbott, but by the time he got around to making an offer on it (the playwright was by this time represented by Gilbert Parker at William Morris) it had been optioned for the West End by the Really Useful Company, so Gil told Abbott he wanted to wait until after the play opened. Andrew Lloyd Webber persuaded the playwright to change the title to LEND ME A TENOR, and it was a smash. Abbott tried again, but Gil told him it was coming to Broadway and he wouldn’t be entertaining offers on the play until then. Well, of course it was a hit on Broadway as well, and Abbott found himself in a bidding war with D.P.S. I suggested he make a package offer to Gil, throwing in DRAMATIC LICENSE and SULLIVAN AND GILBERT. He did, and that’s how we got the rights to LEND ME A TENOR. Later, Ken decided to change the title of DRAMATIC LICENSE to POST MORTEM, but has since changed it back to its original title. By now, you know the name of the playwright: Ken Ludwig, who seems to have become the heir to Neil Simon.
Sometime in the early 80’s, I received a call from the administrator of a major play contest, National Repertory Theatre Foundation’s National Play Award, who asked me if I would like to read the five finalists that year. Well, of course I would. She sent me five plays, by playwrights I had never heard of. One was BEAUTIFUL BODIES by Laura Cunningham, about women at a baby shower for a friend who has just given birth; the guests, women in their thirties, having to confront the reality of their ticking biological clock. It was a fantastic play, and I got Abbott to make an offer on it; but Laura’s agent, Esther Sherman, wanted to wait because it had been optioned by Karen Allen and looked likely to be produced commercially (when, of course, it would be worth a lot more money if it succeeded). Unfortunately, Ms. Allen was never able to get a commercial partner, although she did do it several years later at Olympia Dukakis’ Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, New Jersey (sadly, defunct). Many years later, Kip Gould published it. My favorite of the five plays I read, though, was ANIMA MUNDI by a playwright named Don Nigro. I was amazed at the uniqueness of the writing but as it had a rather large cast, I didn’t think it was something we could publish. I did, however, write the playwright and ask him to send me other work. About two weeks later, I received a box of about twenty-five plays. I read them all and was astounded. Here was a playwright of incredible talent. I got Abbott to publish what I thought was the most marketable of the lot, SEASCAPE WITH SHARKS AND DANCER, and two short plays, GOD’S SPIES and CROSSING THE BAR, and to allow me to try and get productions of several others. I was successful with this and all the plays I placed have been published by Samuel French. We started to publish two Nigro plays a year. I am doing a whole chapter on Nigro (he requires one); but suffice it to say, he has become one of our most-produced contemporary playwrights, whose plays have been done all over the world.
Bill Talbot, who taught a playwriting class affiliated with the Double Image Theatre, which operated at John Jay College, started an annual short play festival he called the Annual Off-Off Broadway Original Short Play Festival and he got the Old Goat to agree to publish the winner. If you wanted to enter a play, it had to have been produced Off-Off Broadway during the past year. The company which produced the play had to enter it and they had to bring their production to this festival. Bill put together bills of these productions, four or five plays a night, which ran for five or six nights. He brought in cronies from the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk, a different one each night, to pick the best play of that bill, which were then brought back for the weekend. What if, I asked him, all the best plays were on one night? Only one would make the “finals.” What if all the turkeys were on one night? One turkey would make the finals. I thought this was idiotic but the festival was Bill’s baby so I held my tongue. I, and two other people at Samuel French of Bill’s choosing, were the judges of the finals. One of these was the Good Ol’ Boy, as I recall. The first two or three years I was a judge, I found myself voting for the least terrible plays (by this time, we were publishing an anthology of the best plays), so I decided to look for “ringers.” Gil Parker called me to ask if I would go to a workshop at Ensemble Studio Theatre of three plays by a novelist William Morris represented. I went, and was very impressed by the plays, so much so that I called Curt Dempster, EST’s Artistic Director, and asked him to enter two of them in Bill’s festival, which he did, and they won. Curt was so impressed that he decided to include one of them in EST’s annual one-act play marathon, where it became something of a sensation. It won the Dramatists Guild’s Hull-Warriner Award, the only one-act play ever to do so, and was optioned for Broadway and for film by Stevie Phillips of MCA/Universal, who commissioned the playwright to expand it into a full-length play. Unfortunately, it did not succeed on Broadway, but the novelist who wrote it started writing plays from then on. Her name was Shirley Lauro. The play was OPEN ADMISSIONS. Although the feature film never got made, it was made into a made-for TV movie in 1988.
The next year, there was one play in Bill’s festival which was vastly superior to most of the plays I had seen in previous festivals and was the top choice of the judges. It was a play about two young women, an aspiring writer and an aspiring actress, making money doing phone sex. A perv would call them up and describe his fantasy. The writer would then write a monologue and the actress would call the customer back and perform it for him. Well, the Monday after this festival Bill went to Abbott and told him there was a big problem: the judges had chosen a “dirty play.” Abbott certainly didn’t want any dirty plays, so he told Bill to cut the play from the list of winners. The problem was, word had gotten out that this play was the top choice of the judges. When the playwright (who I had never heard of) found out her play was not a winner, she called me up to complain. Well, what could I do? I suggested that she send it to me and I would try to get Abbott to publish it separately, instead of in the anthology. This pissed her off, and she said, “No. My play should be in the book.” I said, “If you had an agent …” “I do have an agent,” she said. “Esther Sherman at William Morris.” “Oh really,” I said. I called Esther and told her what had gone down, which pissed her off. She informed me that this playwright had a full-length play which was getting a lot of buzz and was going to be done Off Broadway that fall. I asked Esther to intercede with Abbott. That afternoon, Abbott came into my office and asked if I had heard of some play by a client of Esther’s that had been in Bill’s festival. I told him that it was the play Bill had told him was dirty play. “Well, is it a dirty play?” he asked. I replied, “No, Abbott, it isn’t. Furthermore, the playwright has a full-length play which is getting a lot of buzz, which is going to be done Off Broadway, and you can forget about getting the rights to it unless you tell Bill to put it in the book. He did this, much to Bill’s consternation, so DOES THIS WOMAN HAVE A NAME? made the anthology. The full-length play was indeed produced, at Second Stage, starring Kevin Bacon, Tony Goldwyn, Sandra Santiago (one of the stars of the TV series “Miami Vice”) and Cynthia Nixon, and it got great reviews except in the NY Times, where Frank Rich dismissed it as “pillow talk.” I took a young woman who worked for Imagine to see it, and she got Ron Howard and Brian Glazer to option the film rights for $50,000. Had Rich not panned it, it would have transferred, probably to Broadway. Abbott bought the rights to this play, SPIKE HEELS. The playwright’s name was Theresa Rebeck. And that’s how Samuel French came to publish the subsequent work of this wonderful playwright. You’re welcome, no need to thank me.
I used to attend the Humana Festival on behalf of Samuel French and was able to get Abbott to acquire many of the plays I saw there, including all the Jane Martin plays, starting with TALKING WITH, and I had a handshake agreement with Jon Jory, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Artistic Director, who had become a good friend, who was the head of the Jane Martin Cabal (more about this in a subsequent chapter), that he would give Samuel French the right of first refusal on all subsequent plays by the mysterious “Miz Martin,” although I doubt there will be any more, as Jon informed me two or three years ago that Miz Martin had retired and was now living in a yurt in Siberia.
Actors Theatre of Louisville had been commissioning 10-minute plays for several years for use by their Apprentice Company when it occurred to me that there might be a market for these very short plays. I made a deal with Jon and Michael Bigelow Dixon, ATL’s Literary Manager, also a good friend, to publish an anthology of the best of these and they assisted me in compiling 25 10-MINUTE PLAYS FROM ACTORS THEATRE OF LOUISVILLE. For the first time, ten-minute plays were published and widely available, and they started getting produced. There are now many ten-minute play festivals every year, not only in the U.S. but all over the world. Samuel French went on to publish several more anthologies of ATL’s ten-minute plays and other publishers including Smith & Kraus and Applause Theatre & Cinema Books followed suit with their own, which I edited.
I am blessed to have been responsible for the publication of hundreds of plays during my first fifteen years at Samuel French, many by previously “unknown” playwrights. I mentioned Jane Martin, Theresa Rebeck, Don Nigro and Ken Ludwig but there are many more: William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller, Jane Anderson – the list could go on and on. One more I would like to mention is Jerry Sterner.
Sometime in 1987, I got a call from an actor friend of mine named Loren “Woody” Woods, who had met an aspiring playwright who wanted to meet me. Woody asked me if I could meet them for lunch. “You buying?” I asked. He was, and asked me to meet them at the West Bank Café in W. 42nd St. on such and such a day at such and such a time. I arrived first, as is my wont, and a few minutes later Woody ambled in with the playwright, Jerry Sterner. Jerry was a real estate entrepreneur and Wall Street investor in his late 40s who had made enough money to sell his half of the business to his partner and focus on his dream, playwriting. He was an amiable fellow who could have been Walter Matthau’s younger brother. He handed me a play, which turned out to be a Neil Simon imitation about four middle-aged lifelong friends the subject of which was, are they going to get laid. He had recently sold the film rights to Herschel Bernardi. It was terrible, but it did have several very funny lines. It was called TIT FOR TAT. You can imagine … Anyway, we hit it off and I started taking Jerry to plays, sometimes ones which were more contemporary in style, even breaking the fourth wall for direct address to the audience, such as William Hoffman’s AS IS at Circle Rep, the first play done in New York about AIDS, and we talked about different ways one could structure a play. He showed me another play called BE HAPPY FOR ME, which was about two estranged middle-aged brothers who reconnect at their father’s funeral and decide to go to Aruba together to try and get laid. He got Lester Osterman, a Broadway producer who needed the money, to produce it as a showcase (with Jerry’s money, of course) and got Philip Bosco, David Groh and Priscilla Lopez to act in it. It opened at one of the old Theatre Row theatres (this was before the current multiplex). All the reviews were pretty bad, although Mel Gussow mentioned in the Times that there were some funny lines and situations, which Jerry decided was a “money review.” At the urging of Osterman, who needed the money, Jerry decided to finance a commercial production. I pleaded with him not to. “But Lester says it’s an “audience show,” he said. “Lester just wants your money, Jerry,” I said; but he did it anyway. The reviews were even more terrible, and it closed on opening night.
We got together a few days later for a “What have we learned?” discussion. Humbled by the fate of BE HAPPY FOR ME, Jerry was willing to listen to me. “Jerry,” I said, “isn’t there anything you care about other than sex?” He thought about this for a moment and then said, “No.” “Nevertheless,” I said. “you have to find a subject which really matters, a story that needs to be told and you’re the only one who can tell it.”
About six months later. Jerry called to tell me he’d written a new play which was unlike any he had ever written, and asked if I would read it. “Of course,” I said, so Jerry dropped by the office with the script. On the first page, there was a character in a business suit, holding a briefcase. He said to the audience, “This is a story that needs to be told.” The title of the play was OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY. It was about a floundering company called New England Wire and Cable, trying to stay afloat, and a Wall Street financier named Lawrence Garfinkle (known to the trade as “Larry the Liquidator”) trying to take it over who specializes in finding companies which are worth more dead than alive, bidding up the stock, taking over the company, liquidating it and moving on to his next victim, and the company’s efforts to stop him. It was, as the guy in the suit said, “What’s happening in this country; and if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it soon will.” Jerry used to base his characters on people he knew, but name them after other people he knew. Garfinkle was based on his former business partner, but he named him after me; so, yes, I am Larry the Liquidator.
Jerry got an ad executive named Jeff Ash of Ash/Le Donne (at the time, the top Broadway advertising agency) who had worked on BE HAPPY FOR ME and who wanted to move into producing to option it, and they got a small professional theatre in New Jersey to produce it. It was hugely successful, and Jeff had no problem getting a partner, Susan Gallin, who had access to the kind of money needed to do it in New York. First, though, they “enhanced” a production with a new director and cast at Hartford Stage, where it was even more successful, and moved that production to the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York.
The producers and Jerry had a meeting to discuss how they might get the Times to assign Mel Gussow to review the play, as they knew that Gussow couldn’t hurt them but Frank Rich could kill them. At the time, the Times had a policy of reviewing commercial productions the morning after the opening, and they would not run two reviews by the same critic, so they decided to open on the same night as SHIRLEY VALENTINE, knowing Rich would review this as it was on Broadway. The reviews were across-the-board raves except for Mel Gussow’s which was good but sort of namby-pamby, as was typical of Gussow. Although the weekly box office was building steadily, after 5 or 6 weeks they were still in the red largely, I think, because the two wonderful actors playing the leads, Kevin Conway and Mercedes Ruhl, weren’t exactly box office draws. Merce had done the play in Hartford. This was a few years before she became a movie star. David Schramm had played Garfinkle in New Jersey. He was great, the best Garfinkle ever, but he was unavailable, so they cast Conway, a great actor but not exactly a box office draw. Footnote: both Schramm and Conway passed away earlier this year (2020). Anyway, Jeff and Susan managed to secure a priority loan, meaning these investors would be repaid first, enabling them to keep the play running until it got into the black.
About three months into the run, Rich reviewed it on WQXR – and panned it. Had he reviewed it in print, it would have closed in a week. It wound up running 1000 performances and for three or four years in the 1980s was one of the most produced plays in the country, It was done in over thirty foreign countries and was made into a film directed by Norman Jewison which, alas, was not a success. The screenplay by Alvin Sargent was brilliant, but the absolutely wrong actor was cast as Garfinkle – Danny DeVito.
Several years later, long after OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY had closed, Jerry called me to ask if I was going to a play at Playwrights Horizons. He wanted to see it as he heard it had nudity in it. I had it booked, so I invited Jerry. Afterwards, I drove him home and dropped him off. He watched a Knicks playoff game his wife had recorded for him, went into his bedroom and dropped dead. He was 63.
In April of 1991, disaster struck. We all received a memo telling us that Abbott was retiring and Charlie would be replacing him, instructing us that he was now to be known as “Charles R. Van Nostrand.” That’s when I found out that “Charlie Vann” wasn’t his real name. Alleen had sworn to me he had no intention of ever doing. What a crock that was. Charlie actually returned in September as second in command, although the more fool you if you failed to grasp that, really, he was running the show. By the way, Alleen Hussung was his mole within the company. Every time Abbott made a mistake, she told Charlie about it. When he had enough on the Old Goat, he sent his file on him to the other members of the board and asked them if they wanted to wait until it was too late or take action now and tell Abbott he had to retire. By that time, the Old Goat was old, and sick, and too tired to resist. His big mistake was that, like a lot of us, he thought he would live forever.
I had my first run-in with Charlie (whom I called “Chuck the Knife” – not to his face, of course) as President in April of 1992. I had been invited by a group of Italian playwrights the previous Fall to meet with them in Italy. They wanted to find out how they could get their work produced in New York, as apparently that’s the only way a playwright will be taken seriously in his/her own country. They offered to pay my airfare, give me a small stipend, and throw in side trips to Venice, Florence and Rome. I told Abbott about this and he loved the idea, probably because it wasn’t going to cost him anything. When he became President, I went to Charlie and asked if I could count this as work rather than vacation time and he was furious, saying, “There are a lot of people cutting their own private deals around here, and that’s going to stop now that I’m President.” I asked if he wanted me to cancel; to which he replied, angrily, “No, the damage has been done.”
Slowly but surely, Charlie began cutting everything I loved about my job. He cut me down to one subscription, gave me a ridiculously paltry $90/week budget for everything else and made me give him a weekly list of everything I had scheduled to see the following week for him to approve. The Bookkeeping Dept. was instructed not to issue me a reimbursement check until they got his approval for the list, which he often gave them weeks after I had seen the plays. A couple of times, he never gave them his approval, so I didn’t get reimbursed. Several years into his presidency, he asked me on a Friday to go see a play over the weekend. I did, and not only did he refuse to reimburse me for the ticket because it was not on this list, he refused to reimburse me for anything I had seen the previous week. That was the last straw. I stopped going to plays on behalf of Samuel French.
His harassment of me got steadily worse. He stopped reading the plays that Pam and I had recommended and stopped sending me to the Humana Festival. Several years after Chuck stopped sending me to the festival, I found out why. I was desperate to escape from his clutches at Samuel French and applied for a job for which I felt I was eminently qualified. I asked Jon Jory to write a letter of recommendation, which he did. Unfortunately, I failed to ask him not to send me a copy. Well, he did. Chuck used to open people’s personal mail, and he opened this one. In his warped mind, this meant I was going to Louisville to look for jobs. “I have no objection to you looking for another job, Larry,” he told me during a meeting I had with him when I asked for a salary review (which we were supposed to have every year but which we stopped having when he became President). “In fact, I encourage it. But not on my dime.” The first year he did not send me to Louisville, he sent an intern instead. Jon Jory was so appalled that he paid for me to attend the Festival that year, comping my tickets and hotel room.
Finally, Chuck ordered me to fill in as a substitute billing clerk, receptionist and shipping clerk as needed and eventually turned over the Editorial Dept. to a young intern, to whom I was ordered to report.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I received a call from Sophy Burnham, whom I knew as a playwright and an author who wrote the definitive book about angels, “A Book of Angels;” but at the time, she was working for the Kennedy Center as Roger Stevens’ assistant. Mr. Stevens was a legendary Broadway producer who left the commercial theatre to run the Kennedy Center, where he had set up the Fund for New American Plays, which funded productions of plays in the not-for-profit theatre which had relatively large casts in an effort to do something about what I call the Incredible Shrinking Theatre, where one rarely sees new plays which require more than a handful of actors. Theatres would submit a play and a committee comprised of knowledgeable industry people would choose which productions to fund. Sophy had recommended me to be on this committee and Mr. Stevens wanted to meet me. The three of us met for lunch in New York. I told Mr. Stevens that before I worked for Samuel French, I worked for him and his partner Robert Whitehead. He didn’t remember me, but that was not surprising as by that time he spent most of his time at the Kennedy Center. The next day, Sophy called to tell me that Mr. Stevens wanted me to be on his committee, an offer I accepted readily. There was no pay involved, but it was a great honor. I told Charlie about this and he not only ordered me to decline but to show him my letter to Mr. Stevens for his approval. He may have been convinced that I had “cut my own private deal” with Mr. Stevens, but the real reason he didn’t want me to serve on this committee was that he hated that I had been asked to be on it, as there was only one person at the company held in high regard by the industry, and that was Charles R. Van Nostrand. Sophy called me to express Mr. Stevens’ disappointment. I told her the real reason why I had turned down Mr. Stevens. He wanted to write Charlie a letter. I said, “better not.”
Cut, cut, cut. Chuck was a staunch right-winger and a member of the N.R.A. who believed that the way you run a successful company was to cut costs to the bone and the way to manage your staff was through fear and intimidation. “Chuck the Knife” was a perfect name for him. Within two or three years of him becoming President our market share had plummeted. To use an automotive metaphor, we went from being General Motors to being Hyundai and most of the best of our support staff had either quit or been fired.
Chuck closed our Toronto office and Baker’s Plays in Boston, which Abbott had bought in the 50s or 60s, and eliminated our on-site warehouse, moving all the books up to a warehouse which he either bought or rented in Sullivan County. This was actually something which should have been done long ago. As commercial rents in NYC skyrocketed, it was idiotic to maintain an onsite book warehouse in Manhattan.
He also computerized our billing, although this still had to be done by our two billing clerks. Essentially, he computerized our 19th Century billing procedure. He didn’t bother to consult anyone about all the functions it needed to have, least of all our two experienced billing clerks because, of course, he had complete contempt for his employees – particularly, ones who had been hired before he rode out of the frozen north to save Samuel French -- so there were things he forgot to include, such as discounts to bookstores. Fixing the software cost him thousands of dollars. Well, not him – the company.
Charlie never missed an opportunity to be vile to me. He was very much a l’etat cest moi kinda guy and hated that I was held in such high esteem by people in the industry. Once, Tonda Marton told me that she and Kip Gould had run into Charlie at some industry function the day before and had sung my praises to him. I figured something like that had happened because that morning, he had been especially vile to me.
Actually, he was vile to almost everyone. Richard Spana, our accountant, used to keep a record of raises and would tell Abbott when someone’s was due. After some moaning and groaning, Abbott would ask what he was giving people that year. Richard would remind him. “4%,” he would say. “Well, give him 4%,” said Abbott. And that would be that. The first time Richard tried this with Chuck the Knife, he got his head ripped off; so, the raises stopped coming – for everyone. I was late several months, so I asked Richard what was the deal about raises. “You’re on your own,” he said, as he threw up his hands and walked away. We used to get a Christmas bonus every year, sometimes as much 4 or 5 percent of our salary, and everyone counted on that. The first Christmas Chuck the Knife was President, he eliminated the Christmas bonus. We found out about this when, on the day we expected our Christmas bonuses, we got pizza delivered instead
-- on a day, of course, when Chuck was up at his farm. Merry Christmas.
Chuck changed us over from typewriters to PCs, but I was the only one without a desktop computer, I think because he was convinced that if I had one, I would somehow be able to hack into his well-oiled operation and sabotage it.
I could do a whole book just on Charles R. Van Nostrand, but you get the picture. One time, though, I was in my office after hours waiting to go off to a play when he stuck his head in and commanded, “Meet me at Pete’s for dinner at 6.” Well, I would have rather eaten ground glass than sit down for a meal with Chuck the Knife, but what could I do? When we were seated at Pete’s Tavern, our waiter asked for our drink orders. Chuck ordered two triples of Johnnie Walker Black. Since he was paying, I too ordered a Johnny Walker Black. “Bring him the same,” said Chuck to the waiter. So, then I was sitting there with two triples of Johnny Walker Black in front of me, while Chuck ordered another round for himself. He finished off all four of his triples before our meal came, which seemed to have no effect on him. I drank half of one glass. If I had downed both triples, I would probably have wound up in the hospital. Our conversation was rather cordial; although, needless to say, I was extremely wary.
My first fifteen years at Samuel French were great years for me. During the thirteen years Chuck was President, they were a nightmare. People often asked me why he didn’t just fire me. The answer was that he was a vicious bully and he loved having me around to torment me. I was by no means the only one he harassed, but I think he hated me the most because he considered me to be the reason why Abbott spent so much money on acquisitions, even though I had no say in what he spent.
Chuck had an assistant named Henry Wallengren who had a cabin in the woods adjacent to his farm. Henry told me that one day he was walking in the woods when he came across a field. Way down at the other end, a guy on a tractor was plowing. Guess who? When he saw Henry, he came bombing over to him and demanded to know who he was and what he was doing on his property. When Henry explained that he was his neighbor, Chuck invited him to his house. They became friends. Later Henry, who lived in Soho, received a call from his pal Charlie, inviting him to lunch at some place in Manhattan. When Farmer Charlie arrived, he was wearing a business suit instead of farmer’s overalls. Henry asked him what brought him to New York and Chuck told him that he was now the President of Samuel French, which Henry knew of because he was an avid theatre-goer. Well, you could have knocked him over with a feather. The next week, Chuck invited him to lunch again and asked him if he’d thought about his offer. “What offer?” said Henry, and Chuck told him he wanted him to be his assistant and, eventually, his Vice President. Henry accepted as he needed a job since he had had to close his art gallery in Soho, where he sold pottery and ceramic objets d’art. Chuck took Henry with him to the theatre, which pissed off Alleen as she had been going with him, so she was often vile to Henry, who began referring to her as “that hag down the hall.”
As far as Chuck knew, Henry was a middle-aged divorced man with two adult children. What he didn’t know was that Henry was gay. Henry got HIV and asked me if he should tell Chuck. “Absolutely not,” I said. It’s none of his business.” Well, he did anyway and Chuck immediately began harassing him, opening his mail, going through his file cabinets, looking for something he could use to justify getting rid of him. He found a letter addressed to Henry wherein the correspondent mentioned that if he did decide to leave Samuel French, she hoped he would stay in touch with her – which Chuck decided meant Henry was undermining him, so he fired him. He called the Police and had Henry removed from the premises. I used to have to do the mail every morning with Chuck, and he would often ask me if I had heard from Henry. Why? Because he was hoping Henry had lost his apartment and wanted to know what corner Henry was living on so he could stop by and flip him a quarter. Henry eventually developed AIDS and died a horrible death; but before he did, he sued Chuck for wrongful dismissal and there was an out of court settlement, exactly as in the film, “Philadelphia.”
Finally, after thirteen years of Chuck, the Board had had enough of their plummeting dividends and booted him out. Plus, his wife left him. Unfortunately, they installed as President the guy who ran our California office, Leon Embry, who seemed to be friendly but who was in reality as crazy and vicious as Chuck. We used to refer to him as “The Smiling Cobra.”
I had high hopes that I might get my job back when Leon took over. But no. Then, Leon found out that I was editing books for Smith & Kraus under a pseudonym. I did this starting in 2001 because I had not received a raise in seven years and needed the money. It was another seven years before I would get one. Also, as I said, I had nothing else to do. With malicious glee, he offered me a choice between resigning or being fired. Well, I had never been fired from a job in my life so I resigned, even though that meant I could not collect unemployment. I thought of putting down on paper in my letter of resignation everything I had done for the company over the years but I decided, “Fuck it, what’s the point? I’m outta here,” as I knew this wouldn’t do any good.
So, that was the end of my thirty years at Samuel French.
Two or three years after I left Samuel French, I was standing in front of a W. 45th St. theatre waiting for my companion of the evening to arrive, when who should come walking down the street but Chuck the Knife, hand in hand with a mousy little woman whom I assumed was “the Judge” (as Lloyd Kamphorst referred to her), called so because she was some kind of a judge. She was also a Gramercy Park Hotel barfly who was Chuck’s girlfriend when he was in town. Chuck had put on about fifty pounds, had shaved his head and was wearing his ankle-length black leather coat and wide-brimmed black leather hat. He looked like Humpty-Dumpty’s evil twin brother. He walked right by without seeing me. I resisted the temptation to go up to him and say, “Well lookee here, if it isn’t Chuck the Knife. Hey Chuck, how did it feel to be booted out of the company you schemed all your life to run? Oh, and by the way, Chuck, how’s the wife?”