Tales of a New York Press Agent: Bill Schelble

Tales of a New York Press Agent: Bill Schelble Bill Schelble was seven years old when his mother took him to see Katharine Hepburn in a touring production of Jane Eyre in Milwaukee.
Veteran press agent Bill Schelble.
Veteran press agent Bill Schelble. (Photo by Photo by Christine Ehren)

Bill Schelble was seven years old when his mother took him to see Katharine Hepburn in a touring production of Jane Eyre in Milwaukee.

Longtime New York theatrical press agent Schelble told Playbill On-Line that with stars in his eyes, having seen Hepburn in the film, "Alice Adams," he sat on the running board of Hepburn's car after the play and waited for her to leave the theatre.

When Hepburn appeared, Schelble told her he loved "Alice Adams" and she replied, "It was a good movie, wasn't it?" When he asked for her autograph, she nudged him off the running board and drove off.

That's a classic Bill Schelble story, rich in character, period and personality. And told with affection.

Now in semi-retirement, Schelble (the German name is pronounced "Shell blee," but is often reduced to "Shelby") has collected a thousand stories over a career that includes acting in stock, studying at the Pasadena Playhouse, dancing in the chorus of "Singin' in the Rain," being personal assistant to writer-director Burt Shevelove, and press-repping dozens of shows in New York and on the road. If there's a showbusiness function and an expert on celebrities is needed, people call Bill Schelble for perspective. Friends have told him he should write a book. He said he wouldn't know where to start.

His brief date with Kate in 1937 came full circle in 1976 when he was handling a tour of A Matter of Gravity, starring Hepburn. While putting together a souvenir program for the show and shuffling through photos, Schelble observed to her that there was no photo from Jane Eyre.

"She said, 'I have no pictures from then, The Philadelphia Story was my next show,' " Schelble says. "And I told her I saw her in Jane Eyre and she said, 'You couldn't have! No one saw it, it was a flop, it didn't play New York!'"

Schelble told her he saw the play in his hometown, Milwaukee, and she said, "Spence was from Milwaukee!" and gave Schelble a big hug.

He reminded her that she pushed him off her running board when he was a child. Hepburn laughed, "At least I'm consistent: I still don't give autographs."

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Sitting in his memorabilia-cluttered apartment in the Upper West Side, Schelble, who turns 70 on April 11, 2000, talked about his work in theatre over the years. The walls are lined with photographs of his industry friends — Dorothy Collins, Blythe Danner, Rosemary Harris, Amy Irving, Patti LuPone, Eileen Atkins, Swoosie Kurtz, Donna McKechnie, Liza Minnelli, Karen Morrow, Sian Phillips, Faith Prince, Lynn Redgrave, Ann Reinking, Chita Rivera, Liz Smith, Jean Stapleton, Leslie Uggams, Gwen Verdon, Marcia Wallace, Karen Ziemba — and posters of shows he represented: A Chorus Line, The Rink, Dancin', Jerome Robbins' Broadway, Indiscretions, Lettice & Lovage, Amadeus, works at Lincoln Center Theater and more.

"It's changed," he says of the industry. "It used to be much more personal, now it's so much more corporate. In the old days, if you did a show and had a good time with it, there was nice satisfaction — a warmth. In those days, you had David Merrick, you had Robert Whitehead, Alexander H. Cohen, Herman Levin, Kermit Bloomgarden — personalities. They were all people who loved the theatre, it was the love of their life. You don't have those kind of producers anymore, except someone like Roger Berlind, Hal Prince or the Shubert people. I admire them."

But Schelble is still addicted to the energy of the theatre.

He traces his fascination with theatre to his mother, who, like his doctor father, hailed from LaCrosse, WI. When still in high school, his mother worked in the local variety music hall, serving as dresser or helper to visiting performers like the Dolly Sisters and Marilyn Miller. She later helped raise money for a professional Milwaukee theatre called The Fred Miller Theatre.

His mother took him to the Hepburn Jane Eyre in Milwaukee and then, in 1941, for his birthday, to New York City for the first time. His first night in Manhattan, he saw Lady in the Dark starring Gertrude Lawrence and, the next day, Gene Kelly in Pal Joey. The shows were sophisticated for a child, but Schelble says they were still magical. And he still has the Playbills.

"I decided I wanted to go into the theatre," he says, "but I didn't know what I wanted to do, exactly."

Summers in Cedar Lake, WI, put him close to a local theatre where Geraldine Page worked, and she encouraged him to pursue theatre. They performed on stage together in Outward Bound in Wisconsin, and after two years at Marquette University, he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse in southern California. "I think I just wanted to get out of Milwaukee," he says.

Among his classmates in Pasadena was Chris Manos, who would later produce shows at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. Manos is putting together a summer 2000 tour of the Tony Award winning musical, Parade.

Schelble studied acting 1950-52 in Pasadena and performed on the small stage at the playhouse, not the mainstage. While a student in Pasadena, he would visit movie sets, where he was able to mingle with his idols. Along with others on the lot, he was asked one day to be a dance extra in the "Broadway Melody" section of M-G-M's "Singin' in the Rain." After his work at the Pasadena Playhouse, he was drafted into a stateside U.S. Army post in the Korean War.

Schelble moved to New York City in 1955 to look for acting work. Without an agent, he auditioned for live TV productions, plays and movies.

After working odd jobs — delivering mail, stocking brassieres and being pinched by lady clerks, selling radios at Schirmer music — a friend invited him to speak to a theatre man who was looking for an assistant. The man turned out to be Shevelove, who, Schelble says, hired him to be an assistant, but the relationship developed into Schelble being a pal and a younger brother figure to the writer-producer.

Schelble assisted Shevelove for the next nine years, on 10-12 shows including TV productions with Dinah Shore, Phil Silvers and Judy Garland, plus several editions of "The Bell Telephone Hour," and Broadway's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (co-written by Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, who took home the "Best Author" Tony Awards), and Hallelujah, Baby! (directed by Shevelove).

In 1968, he was recommended by Shevelove to shepherd Judy Garland for a day leading up to her appearance at a songwriters' tribute and benefit at Philharmonic Hall (later Avery Fisher Hall) in Manhattan. Shevelove directed the benefit. Garland was a little tipsy, Schelble says, but they got to the hall. However, the organizers didn't have faith in her ability to perform that night.

"We got to her dressing room, and she asked me to make a drink for her," says Schelble. "I made a drink and I put it near the end of the table, and we talked, and I knocked the drink off the table with my elbow. She said, 'You're in worse shape than I am.' I told her I was angry and she asked what I was angry about. I told her I was very angry because her name was not on the program 'because they don't know if you are in shape to appear.'"

Garland asked, "What are we gonna do?"

Schelble said, "I think we should get some coffee and maybe some English muffins..."

He lifted Garland's spirits with jokes and impersonations (Garland doing Hepburn, Schelble doing Margaret O'Brien) and had a seamstress come up to fix her worn, salmon-colored gown, which had been seen on her TV specials. They came downstairs and watched some of the show backstage, and Harold Arlen himself played the opening notes of "The Man That Got Away" on piano. The audience went wild, he says. The organizers were amazed.

"Judy went on," says Schelble. "She still knocks me out. There's no one like her."

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Work and friendship with Burt Shevelove "was heaven," says Schelble. "I had a great time with him. Working with Burt started everything. He knew so many people..."

Schelble briefly lived with Shevelove in London during the West End run of Forum. They stayed at scenic designer Oliver Messel's lavish home, where the guest list for dinners or parties included Cecil Beaton, Ned Sherrin, Emlyn and Molly Williams, Coral Browne, Ingrid Bergman, Michael Redgrave and none other than Queen Elizabeth II.

Shevelove moved to England permanently in 1969 and died in 1982.

"Everybody adored him," says Schelble. "He was funny and warm and clever. Burt was just one of those fun people. His mother said to me, 'Burt is so thrilled with you. You're like a younger brother to him.'"

Schelble had a number of jobs over the years, including being the maitre d at The Grenadier restaurant in Manhattan and working in the subscription office at Lincoln Center Theater. Lincoln Center's resident theatre press rep, Susan Bloch, came by and spoke with him one day and she was impressed.

She invited him to dinner and later asked if he might be interested in being a press agent.

"It sounded interesting," he says. "I called Burt in London and he said, 'I think you'd be good at it. People seem to like you, you get along so well with people.'"

He started as Bloch's assistant on the fall 1970 staging of Lincoln Center's The Good Woman of Setzuan, with Colleen Dewhurst, a friend from Milwaukee.

He repped such LCT plays as Playboy of the Western World with David Birney, A.R. Gurney's early effort, Scenes From an American Life, Twelfth Night with Blythe Danner, Enemies with Barbara Cook, Nancy Marchand and Frances Sternhagen, The Beckett Festival with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn and A Streetcar Named Desire with Rosemary Harris and James Farentino (later replaced by Lois Nettleton and Robert Foster).

He admits he had no communications, public relations or advertising degree: He fell into being a press rep. Working at a number of press offices in town, including Merle Debuskey's, Schelble repped such New York and out-of town shows as Good Evening, An Almost Perfect Person, the Australian Ballet staging of The Merry Widow with Margot Fonteyn, Sammy Cahn's Words and Music, Sweet Bird of Youth, Joseph Papp's Public Theater shows on Broadway (including The Water Engine), plus Circle in the Square productions including Arms and the Man with Kevin Kline, Raul Julia and Glenne Headley, directed by John Malkovich, Tina Howe's Coastal Disturbances with Annette Bening and Tim Daly and Streetcar with Blythe Danner and Aidan Quinn.

Schelble also handled the mid-run of the phenomenon, A Chorus Line, including the historic day when the musical broke the long-run record on Broadway. The Sept. 29, 1983, milestone included a performance that featured more than 400 worldwide veterans of the show.

"I had to put together 400 bios for the program, from people as far away as Finland and Germany," says Schelble. "We got eight pages in People magazine, three front pages in The New York Times..."

Putting together such an expansive program was good preparation for editing the special Playbill Tony Awards edition that is issued only at the ceremony. He was program editor of the Tony book for two years, when it was presented at Radio City Music Hall.

A Chorus Line is still his favorite press rep experience: "After working it for 10 years, it was like being with a family. There were so many different people, I must have worked with more than 150. The show got out around 10 o'clock at night and I would go out many times with the cast to eat dinner or go to piano bars..."

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Schelble is a kind of senior, paternal figure to younger press agents these days. Publicists handling revivals such as Kiss Me, Kate and The Iceman Cometh accept his offers of Playbills, recordings, souvenir programs and clippings related to the shows.

Schelble is taking things slower these days: Keeping up with old friends and new shows, and confronting prostate cancer that has spread to lymph nodes. "I feel fine," he says, adding that the prognosis is good and chemotherapy (beginning Nov. 22) will battle the cancer, which has not spread to other areas.

"I'm not thinking of it as anything negative," he says.

Anything seems possible for a man who got the implacable Kate Hepburn to finally sign an autograph for him. Her inscription on a photo reads: "At long last, to the boy on the fender. Kate Hepburn."