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Alan Livingston Winds Down to Two Careers

August 19, 1985|MARSHALL BERGES | Times Staff Writer

"You can achieve anything if you want it badly enough," says Alan Livingston, echoing an adage he first encountered half a century ago, during the Great Depression.

Through the years, he has rediscovered the truth of the adage many times. In his youth, for example, he dreamed of attaining financial independence and of marrying a beautiful woman.

He married the woman: Nancy Olson, film actress (Academy Award nominee for "Sunset Boulevard") and arts activist (currently chairman of the Amazing Blue Ribbon, the Music Center fund-raising group). And he also achieved financial independence.

No Unfinished Tasks

Quick and inventive by nature, he is a perfectionist who refuses to leave a task unfinished; his diligence and persistence border on the obsessive.

He has tackled a series of careers, having been at one time or another a professional musician, liquor salesman, writer and producer of children's records, business executive and television mogul.

Widely recognized on the Los Angeles social scene, he is quiet and reserved. Guests at dinner parties have observed many times that Livingston seems content to listen to others while saying nothing about himself.

But the quiet man, at 67, is, in fact, busily involved in two careers. He is an investment adviser, and he is also on the verge of achieving recognition as a writer, having turned one of his youthful fantasies--plus his musical background--into a novel and a screenplay, "Ronnie Finkelhof, Superstar."

The book is scheduled to be published in 1986 by Random House, to coincide with release of the film version, currently slated to be made at Warner Bros., with Livingston as co-producer (his partners: Richard Zanuck and David Brown).

The title hero is, Livingston said, "an extremely shy and unpopular high school student who, through a series of strange events, becomes the No. 1 rock singer in the country."

Livingston, the one-time boss of Capitol Records who signed such groups as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, explained in an interview that Ronnie Finkelhof is "a totally fictitious character, more than anything a figment of my own childhood dreams of becoming someone important. But in terms of the record business, the details are authentic. There is nothing in the story that could not happen."

No Desire to Sell Shoes

Music enveloped Livingston's youth. The youngest of three children, he grew up 17 miles from Pittsburgh in McDonald, Pa., a town of 3,000. "My father was placid and easygoing," Livingston recalled. "He owned a small shoe store where I helped out on Saturdays. I think he'd have been pleased if I'd made a career of working in the shoe store. But my mother was ambitious. She encouraged us to read books, and she pushed us toward a musical education. That was fine with me, because I wanted no part of the retail shoe business."

Alan took saxophone and clarinet lessons while his brother, Jay, studied piano. (Years later, with collaborator Ray Evans, Jay became an Oscar-winning songwriter whose credits include "Mona Lisa," "Buttons and Bows," "Que Sera Sera" and "To Each His Own.")

At the University of Pennsylvania, 300 miles from home, Alan and Jay organized an orchestra to play at fraternity dances and school functions. The Depression-era dollar went a long way. "I earned $5 a night as a musician," Alan Livingston said, "and it paid my expenses, including $5 a week for room and $1 a day for food."

Alan hustled to find summer bookings for the band on cruises and at resorts. He said: "One time on Long Island, after we worked two weeks at a nightclub, the place folded without paying us. We had no money. We were renting a Packard for $1 a day. We kept driving, arrived at a hotel and asked the manager to hire us. He declined, saying he already had an orchestra.

"We could have walked out, but I kept remembering that maxim about wanting things badly enough. So I told the group: 'I don't care what he says, let's show him what we can do.' We got our instruments from the car, sat down in the lobby and played music. The guests came around and applauded, and so did the manager's wife. The manager fired the other orchestra and hired us."

Fine Arts Studies

Livingston began his college studies in fine arts ("I thought about becoming a writer") but later transferred to the university's Wharton School of Finance "because it seemed like a good idea to learn more about business."

For a senior thesis, he researched the liquor industry's advertising problems--Prohibition had been repealed several years earlier, but temperance groups continued to denounce liquor ads--and after graduation he rushed around in search of a job with an advertising agency.

The Depression-era job market appeared hopeless. But Livingston's persistent nature, plus a willingness to flash his senior thesis, eventually helped him to land a $15-a-week job at Schenley Distillers as a trainee. He peppered the company suggestion box with promotional ideas, and soon competitor Calvert hired him away--as a $17-a-week trainee.

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