THE BOOK SHELF: "Tales of a Broadway Flack" and Photos and Poems by the Harnicks in "The Outdoor Museum"

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16 Sep 2012

Cover art for
Cover art for "Tales of a Broadway Flack: The Charmed Life of Press Agent Sol Jacobson"

This month's column looks at "Tales of a Broadway Flack," from old-time press agent Sol Jacobson; "The Outdoor Museum," a celebration of New York by Margery Gary Harnick and Sheldon Harnick; plus two manuals for actors and students of acting.

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Readers interested in Broadway of yesterday find a certain magic in memoirs by old-time press agents. These are filled with behind-the-scenes stories, naturally enough, but from a specific angle. The press agent doesn't necessarily know everything that went on; someone handling six shows simultaneously can't necessarily be expected to have a full picture of the artistic and business aspects of a particular venture. But a good press agent usually found himself or herself standing beside the producer at times of crisis. So this subset of theatrical literature — which includes such delightful tomes as Richard Maney's "Fanfare," Bernard Sobel's "Broadway Heartbeat" and Harvey Sabinson's "Darling, You Were Wonderful" — often brings new insights on old shows.

A new entry in the field has recently come along, Tales of a Broadway Flack: The Charmed Life of Press Agent Sol Jacobson by David A. Long [Infinity]. This is not quite in league with the aforementioned books, for various reasons; but it recreates a time, a place, and a world long gone.

Jacobson — like most Broadway press agents who managed to survive in the field for 40 years or more — cast a wide net. After learning the job on site at Jasper Deeter's Hedgerow Theatre outside Philadelphia, he moved into the Shubert press room in 1936. Then it was on to George Abbott's office in 1939, after which Jacobson went to work for the legendary Maney. In this period — prior to being drafted — Jacobson worked on such fare as the Rodgers and Hart musical Too Many Girls and handled the opening of such plays as the record-breaking Arsenic and Old Lace and the Pulitzer-winning The Skin of Our Teeth.

After service in the war, Jacobson returned to town and set up his own shop. His resume — which includes such titles as Summer and Smoke, The Teahouse of the August Moon, Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer, Sweet Bird of Youth, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, She Loves Me and Fiddler on the Roof — suggests the scope of the tales he has to tell.

The above-mentioned press agents books were written by men at the end of their careers but still in full command of their typewriters. Jacobson, who died in 2010 at the age of 97, dictated this book of frequently-told stories to his friend David A. Long in the course of his final year. Thus we are not getting a book from Jacobson, polished, edited and finished like one of his press releases. What's more, I have a suspicion that he relayed these stories in roughly chronological order and that he ran out of steam along the way; the sections dealing with his later career contain minor errors and mischaracterizations that don't seem to occur earlier in the book. So this is not, perhaps, a great piece of literature. But it does tell us stories of the people and the shows, and there is plenty here for people interested in this aspect of show business.

Passionate about theatre books? See what the Playbill Store has on its shelves.



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