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The Greatest Show On Earth, Maybe


Phineas Taylor Barnum lives. Well, sort of.

You remember old P.T.? He was the impresario to end all impresarios. At least that is what they thought at the time--the time in question being the second half of the 19th Century.

An inveterate Connecticut Yankee, he began his illustrious career touring, exhibiting and exploiting an unfortunate woman called Joyce Heth. Barnum advertised her as George Washington's 160-year-old nurse.

He went on, very profitably, to make a household name of a midget named Tom Thumb. He capitalized on a fleeting mania for exotic Tyroleana by introducing to the grateful States a much celebrated and well ballyhooed ensemble called the Swiss Bell Ringers. Nobody seemed to care, or know, that the Ringers came from Lancashire, England.

He turned the Crystal Palace in New York into a Grand Musical Congress. Populism in the arts be blessed.

In 1850, he broke all records parading the soprano Jenny Lind around the land for 95 concerts in 19 cities, to the then-incredible box-office tune of $712,161.34.

His taste could be questioned by elitists, scholars, critics and other civilized observers. But there was no doubting his inspired and imaginative penchant for hyperbole, his tireless ability to manipulate publicity, his uncanny knack for sensation simulation--and stimulation.

He was, clearly, a man ahead of his time.

Enter Herbert H. Breslin, the Barnum of the modern world. A few short decades ago, Breslin kept body and soul together by writing speeches for executives at the Chrysler Corp. When this began to bore him, he started his own firm, a firm that would help sell soaps, hats, engineers, even music.

Eventually, he persuaded some famous artists--mostly singers--that they needed his services as an advertising specialist and public-relations maven. Before long he was helping--at least temporarily--to package the American careers of such luminaries as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Joan Sutherland and Renata Scotto, not to mention Itzhak Perlman and Alicia de Larrocha.

He was good at his business and, let no one be fooled, it was a business. He knew how to advance his clients. Not incidentally, he also knew how to advance their commercial Svengali.

"I'm a pretty good promoter of myself," he admitted in an article published several years ago.

Enter a talented, personable, engaging, moderately popular Italian tenor named Luciano Pavarotti. Breslin became his manager. The universe changed virtually overnight.

"Isn't it nice when a Pavarotti comes along?" Breslin once asked an interviewer in San Francisco. "And isn't it nice when a guy who makes it happen is a pretty good guy himself?"

For most practical purposes, the dauntless Breslin turned the susceptible Pavarotti into the Caruso of our day. When that began to pall, Breslin somehow convinced the world that Pavarotti was the greatest tenor in the history of Western Civilization.

No. The greatest tenor in history. Period.

No. The greatest singer.

No. The greatest artist.

No. The greatest anything.

"The general methodology of the classical music business," Breslin explained, "is like any other business. People say you don't sell art the same way as you sell a product, but you do.

"The goal is to have Pavarotti's music, his art, his services desired. There's an exchange of his art for something else. . . . I work with the hard sell, if necessary. You use anything you can to sell an artist."

It was Breslin who invented the Pavarotti love-in, a public appearance masquerading as a concert. It was Breslin who took Pavarotti out of the paltry opera houses and ordinary concert halls--no money in those tiny places--and plunked him down in the mammoth sports arenas.

Who cared if the acoustics were awful, if microphones reduced the human sound to echo-ridden, distorted blasts?

Who cared if the world's greatest anything was singing badly, singing too much or singing music that was unsuitable for his basically lyric voice? Who cared if he was squandering his art on junky music? He was communicating with the masses, wasn't he?

Breslin gave the masses a stuffed superhero, in person, big as life (in this case that was very big). He supervised the creation of a popular image: the unconventional romantic idol perspiring, beaming, emoting, blowing kisses, alternately clutching and waving his quaint white tablecloth.

Bellowing beneath the beer signs and the scoreboards in a basketball stadium wasn't totally fulfilling, of course.

That must be why Breslin went on to place his boy in a dubious autobiography, in fancy coffee-table books, in commercials, in crossover appearances with the anachronistic likes of Loretta Lynn, in a whole catalogue of recordings, in not-so-special television specials and talky talk-shows, in flashy parades and bizarre charity bazaars, even--and this has been the only flop in the breathless success saga--in a gauche Hollywood movie.

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