A Life in the Theatre: Shirley Herz

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Shirley Herz
Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft
Shirley Herz
Shirley Herz

Shirley Herz has been a press agent on and Off-Broadway for more than 50 years. When Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, and when Dancing at Lughnasa and La Cage aux Folles won their Tony Awards, Shirley, as everyone calls her, was behind the scenes in charge of publicity.

In all, in the last half century, she has helped more than 200 shows and their stars get their names into the city’s and the nation’s newspapers, magazines and radio and television stations. And yet, as a child growing up in Philadelphia, being part of the Great White Way was the last thing she might have imagined.

“I always thought I was going to be a doctor,” she says, sitting in her office nine floors up from Broadway and down the block from the discount TKTS booth. “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.”

She attended the University of Pennsylvania for two years. “My cousin was at Drexel, and she was on a work-study program where she went to New York for six months to study designing. And my mother said I could drop out of school for a semester and go to New York, but if at the end of that six months I hadn’t found a job I had to go back to school. So I came to New York and got a job at the Georg Jensen store selling watches.”

She would hang out at stage doors and get to know theatre people, and she found a job in entertainment publicity—“a foot in the door”—working with celebrities and nightclubs. That led to a stint doing publicity for Rosalind Russell, who was on tour in Bell, Book and Candle. “I learned more from her, I suppose, than anyone I’ve worked for since,” Shirley says. “After the performance we would go back to her hotel and have a few drinks every evening and sit and talk.” Then Shirley worked for Russell when the actress starred on Broadway in Wonderful Town in 1953.

“All the time I had one objective,” Shirley says. “I wanted to get into the theatre press agents’ union so I could work on a Broadway show.” After Wonderful Town, though, she was ready to give up, taking a job with an advertising agency. But then she got a phone call from a press agent named Betty Lee Hunt, who was with the Dorothy Ross press office. Hunt offered her a position as a press apprentice on a musical called House of Flowers, which opened on Broadway in December 1954 with a book by Truman Capote, music by Harold Arlen and a cast that included Pearl Bailey, Alvin Ailey and a newcomer named Diahann Carroll.

“At the ad agency, I was earning something like $175 a week, which in those days was a lot,” Shirley says. “And I went to work for Dorothy for $50.”

Of all her shows, she says, La Cage is perhaps her favorite, because “everybody was like a family.” But she also remembers fondly a musical that, in her words, was “a dismal failure”—Peter Allen’s Legs Diamond in 1988.

“The union says you go on contract on a musical five weeks in advance of the first rehearsal, and rehearsals were going to begin in the fall. But I was working with Peter from February on. He was doing a photo shoot for Harper’s Bazaar, and he asked me if I was being paid yet, and I said no. I said I didn’t expect to be, because this was how it worked, at least in those days. And he said, ‘Well, you’re not going to work for me for nothing.’ And he put me on his payroll until the producers started picking up my salary. He was an incredible guy. Just wonderful.”

In Shirley’s early days as a publicist, working with the Bill Doll agency, one of her clients was the legendary singer and dancer Josephine Baker. “Little did I know that Josephine had the sheriff chasing her because of all her debts,” Shirley recalls. “We were in Philadelphia, and they were going to impound her costumes. So we packed up a lot of them so I could take them to the 30th Street train station and send them to New York so she could do her show. Just as I was coming out of the hotel, the guy who was going to serve the summons was on one side of the revolving door and I was on the other. But I made it out and got to the station and paid the conductor to bring them to New York until we could straighten things out.”

She has also loved working for Edward Albee, starting with The Lady From Dubuque in 1980. “Edward is very quiet and doesn’t say much,” she says. “But he has changed over the years. Early on, he didn’t like doing press at all. But now he’s a very willing player.”

To what does she attribute her longterm success? “You have to have friendships with people in the press. Not that they’re going to favor one over the other, but they have to be trusting. 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.’ That’s the kind of relationship that you have to have, and that you have to maintain.”

There was one show Shirley refused to work on—because it involved Katharine Hepburn, the reason she fell in love with the stage. “I never wanted to meet her. When I was working for Harvey Sabinson in 1969, he was going to give me Coco, the Alan Jay Lerner musical she was going to star in. And I quit. I just did not want to meet her. I didn’t want an illusion shattered.”

But Shirley did meet her idol once. It was 1977, and Shirley was doing press for a play called An Almost Perfect Person, starring Colleen Dewhurst and directed by Zoe Caldwell. “Zoe was great friends with Hepburn, and Zoe knew I didn’t want to meet her. But I went backstage one Wednesday matinee, and I was coming down the stairs, and Zoe said, ‘Shirley, I want you to meet a friend of mine.’ It was so unexpected. I felt my knees buckle. I shook hands and ran out of the theatre. I just thought she was the perfect person. And my illusion wasn’t shattered.”

But there are reasons besides Hepburn that her love for the theatre has stayed strong. “Remember, when I started, there weren’t many women in positions like press representative. I think the union had about six. And the fact that men accepted a woman was really important to me—if you could do your work, you were hired. There was no women’s movement in those days, but I was treated as an equal.”

And, of course, there was “meeting all these people I had seen onstage, and working with them and being friendly with them. One play I haven’t mentioned was Marathon ’33 from 1963, which was written by June Havoc and starred Julie Harris, and they both became dear, dear friends. The friendships you make are very important.”

So important that Shirley plans to keep doing what she’s doing. “There was a period in the last year when I thought I was going to cut out. I thought I’d try staying home for a few weeks and see how it went. But what do you do if you’re not working? I found myself wanting to come back, and I did. Because there’s nothing like having a hit. I love it.”

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