Shirley Herz, Veteran Theatre Press Agent, Dies at 87

By Robert Simonson
12 Aug 2013

Shirley Herz
Shirley Herz
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Shirley Herz, a veteran theatre press agent who ran her own firm at a time when her industry was dominated by men, died Aug. 11, at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. The cause was complications from a stroke suffered on July 18, said Sam Altman, a longtime friend.

Born December 30, 1925 in Philadelphia, Ms. Herz worked in the theatre trenches for 65 years. She was honored in 2008 by having a section of the renamed Biltmore Theatre, now the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on West 47th Street, christened the “Shirley Herz and Bob Ullman Lobby." (Bob Ullman, also a press agent, was a longtime colleague.)

In 2009, the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League awarded a special Tony Award for “Excellence in Theatre,” given to “individuals that have demonstrated extraordinary achievement in theater but are not eligible in any of the established Tony categories." A year later, she received the Theatre Hall of Fame Founders Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Theatre. 

She worked on nearly 100 Broadway plays, revivals, and musicals, including Do Re Me, 3 Penny Opera, Jerry’s Girls, Perfectly Frank, Legs Diamond, Gypsy starring Tyne Daly, The Royal Family, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Singin’ in the Rain, Fiddler on the Roof, On Golden Pond, Oh! Calcutta! and Dancing at Lughnasa.



Perhaps her proudest credit was the Jerry Herman musical La Cage aux Folles, which she help ferry to four years of success on Broadway. "That was a three and a half year laugh," she said of the show. "I had a fabulous time on that." Demand for tickets to the hit was so great at one time that scalpers were getting $500 a ticket (in 1984), and Tony Bennett gladly accepted standing room.

Shirley Herz dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania. She found a job in publicity six months after having moved to New York, and remained in that line for the rest of her life.

"I always thought I was going to be a doctor,” she old Playbill in 2004. “And then, in junior high school, I would save my allowance and go to the Forrest Theater every Saturday matinee. One day I saw Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. She gave the first curtain speech I had ever seen. She came out, and there was some magic in it that made me think, ‘I want to be a part of that world.’ I never wanted to be an actress, but I thought there has to be something else for me to do." Because the Hepburn moment was so magical for her, she didn't want it spoiled; she spent decades dodging opportunities to meet the actress.

She became Rosalind Russell's personal press representative after her long tour of Bell, Book and Candle, and a Broadway run of Wonderful Town (1953). She then apprenticed under Broadway press agent Dorothy Ross, working on House of Flowers, a 1954 musical by Harold Arlen with book by Truman Capote. To accept the $50-a-week position, she left a job at an ad agency, where she earned $175 a week. Part of her duties including bringing news items about Ross' clients to the powerful newspaper columnists of the day, such as Walter Winchell, hoping that they were be printed.

"It was very personal and a lot of fun," she recalled later. "You would write an item and send it to Winchell and he’d send it back to you unused. You had to wait till it came back. Then you’d rewrite it for Kilgallen. Then she wouldn’t use it, so you’d rewrite it for Jack O’Brian. Or Leonard Lyons."

She later worked with Friedman and Bill Doll, another well known publicist of the time. Friedman, known for his temper, was unhappy having a woman in the office, complaining that he could no longer curse at will.

She would often work tirelessly to promote her shows. When sales to a June Havoc show called Marathon '33 dropped sharply following the assassination of President Kennedy, she and Havoc went out in Herz' car, which was filled with show posters. "We would glue them on telephone booths, bus stops and storefronts from 125th Street down to the Bowery," recalled Havoc. "I had lived through vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood, but until that night, vandalism had not entered my life."

In 1971, she launched her own agency, Shirley Herz Associates. As a longtime member of the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers (ATPAM), she served on its Board of Governors for decades. She was a member of The Broadway League and also served on the board of the nonprofit Dorothy Strelsin Foundation.

Among Off-Broadway companies, she represented The Irish Repertory Theatre, Abingdon Theatre Company, The Living Theatre and Theater Breaking Through Barriers; in 1984, she banged the drum for Charles Busch's Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, his first hit show.

  Through the decades, she donated her services for numerous AIDS benefits, including the legendary "Best of the Best" concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1985, an event which eventually gave birth to Equity Fights AIDS; "Angela Lansbury – A Celebration"; and a historic reading of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? starring Uta Hagen.

  Shirley Herz married Herbert Boley in 1948. They never divorced. He survives her, as do Beth and Jeff Alper, and many other cousins from Philadelphia.

Blonde, salty and possessed of a dry sense of humor, Ms. Herz was known as a straight shooter. "I remember once that Judith Crist of the old Herald Tribune introduced me and said, ‘No matter what she tells you, you can believe her, good or bad,'" she told Playbill. "That’s the kind of relationship that you have to have, and that you have to maintain."