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The Mighty, the Fallen : The story of the William Morris Agency : THE AGENCY: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business, By Frank Rose (HarperBusiness: $30; 416 pp.)

July 23, 1995|Gregg Kilday | Gregg Kilday, a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, is currently writing an account of Dreamworks for Dutton

Show business' greatest lie is that talent, like cream, always rises to the top. At any of the ubiquitous "How to Break Into the Business" seminars that proliferate throughout Los Angeles, from UCLA Extension to the newest multimedia conference, the panel of pooh-bahs on display dispense empty bromides about Practicing Your Craft Because Talent Conquers All. But their eager, often desperate, listeners already know the score: All they want is a contact, a phone number, a business card, an agent. What does it matter if you can sell a song when what you really need is someone to sell you?

Forget that next seminar. Invest in Frank Rose's "The Agency: William Morris and the Hidden History of Show Business" instead. It's like sitting in on a long, gossipy afternoon at the Hillcrest Country Club, feasting on a collection of war tales from the front lines of show business. Can you believe it, William Morris, the German emigrant, who set himself up as a vaudeville booker in New York way back in 1898, worked so hard that he canceled passage on the fatal voyages of both the Titanic and the Lusitania. And poor Johnny Hyde, he spends a couple of years trying to turn Marilyn Monroe into a star and just a few days after Fox finally signs her, he dies of a heart attack. What about that affair between Kim Novak and Sammy Davis Jr., which could have killed both their careers, but word had it George Wood, a New York Morris man with ties to the mob, made a few phone calls that forced Sammy to back off. And what about the ones that got away--the conservative Morris agency may have snapped up Elvis, but it failed to see the potential in Streisand and the Beatles. Win some, lose some.

"The Agency" is more than just a titillating string of bold-face names, though; Rose uses the saga of the Morris Agency's rise and fall as a prism through which to examine the constantly evolving nature of show business itself. Founder William Morris definitely had an eye for talent--"No act too big . . . no act too small" was his motto as he went about signing early clients such as rodeo performer Will Rogers, blackface singer Al Jolson and novelty acts such as Conrad's Pigeons and Singer's Midgets. But discovering talent was just the beginning. To book his acts, Morris had to battle first the Combine, a booking agency established by theater owner Benjamin Keith to drive performers' prices down, and then the monopolistic Keith-Albee vaudeville chain, which controlled the best houses. So Morris scouted Europe for even more new acts, opened his own theaters and, quick to realize that Hollywood's "talkies" would completely upset the balance of power, opened an L.A. outpost in 1927.

To succeed, the Morris Agency had to continually master the changing terrain, as vaudeville gave way to movies, which had to make room for radio, which eventually gave way to TV. What good was talent, if you didn't also cultivate buyers? And whenever the dominant buyers got too powerful, the smart agents encouraged competition by seeking out even more buyers. After the Morris Agency's arch-rival, MCA, stole away clients like Amos 'n' Andy and Jack Benny and delivered them to the rising CBS, establishing its dominance first in radio and then TV, Morris served up stars like night-club comic Danny Thomas to the upstart ABC in a bet that ABC family sitcoms like "Make Room for Daddy" could challenge the older-skewing roster on CBS. Forty years later, the ongoing network battles, for all the ink they command, are really nothing more than multimillion repeats of ancient skirmishes.

Given the choice, in its early years, between controlling talent or controlling vaudeville houses in which the talent appeared, William Morris opted to throw out his lot with performers. And, as Rose recounts his agency's steady rise--drawing upon an unpublished biography of Morris written by his children, government files and vivid anecdotes from show business veterans--it proved a shrewd decision. For while the showcases for that talent changed over time, the demand for talent never abated. If anything, the Morris Agency, with its cadre of agents all wearing identical dark suits, chose to cultivate a certain faceless anonymity. When its competitor, MCA, plunged into TV production in the '50s, a move that would eventually lead to unrelenting scrutiny from the Justice Department, Morris hung back, foregoing the immediate profits TV offered rather than facing the government's wrath. Without putting itself on the line, the agency prospered instead by selling its talents to all the other producers and networks.

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