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Box Office Boffo

INSIDE VARIETY The Story of the Bible of Show Business (1905-1987) By Peter Besas; Ars Millenii: 566 pp., $39

October 01, 2000|NEAL GABLER | Neal Gabler is the author of several books, including "Life: The Movie" and "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood."

Variety, the legendary show business trade paper, brought out the ardor in her employees. For those who worked there, it was never merely a job; it was a mission to which they devoted their lives. There was no need for time clocks or time sheets at the Variety office. Reporters were happily on call 24 hours a day, skulking about the nightspots and entertainment palaces of Broadway, trolling for news. Employees talked about little else than their paper. In later years, when it was being buffeted by financial pressures, they would ask one another tremulously, "Is there life after Variety?"

As a 30-year Variety veteran who ran the paper's Madrid office before being unceremoniously dumped by new bloodless corporate ownership, Peter Besas remains so ardent that he has written an exhaustive, frequently fascinating and unflaggingly loving history of the paper and its plethora of colorful denizens. By his own admission, Besas is no cultural historian. For him, Variety is a living, breathing organism rather than a metaphor. He says at the outset that he prefers anecdote to amplitude, description to diagnosis, and as "Inside Variety" "cruises through the near-century of the paper's existence," that is pretty much what you get . . . until the homey little paper gets trampled under the jackboots of modern business and Besas begins to wax nostalgic for simpler, better times.

In this he is a true son of Variety, which kept its eye fixed on the week's box office receipts or the latest show business news. Yet for all its professions of unpretentiousness, Variety was not only a perfect chronicler of the ascendant entertainment culture but one of the enduring symbols of that culture, and the paper's shifting ethos wound up uncannily reflecting the changing role of entertainment in 20th century America.

From the first, its founder and for 28 years its guiding spirit, Simon "Sime" Silverman, seemed to understand that show business was the reprobate stepchild of American culture--a status on which it prided itself every bit as much as Silverman prided himself on his incorrigibility.

By the turn of the last century, show business was deliberately challenging elite culture, taunting it, and in so doing empowering millions of Americans by giving them a demotic culture of their own that was the antithesis of high culture. In reporting on entertainment, Variety exulted in a similar insouciance. If there was anything it avoided, it was the slightest hint of gentility.

Perhaps Silverman appreciated the relationship of show business to high culture because in some ways it replicated his own relationship to his father. Born in Cortland, N.Y., in 1873 to a prosperous money broker, Silverman seemed to chafe at his father's respectability, preferring the demimonde of show business to the staid Manhattan financial world Silverman pere inhabited. While working for his father during the day, he reviewed vaudeville shows at night for a short-lived paper called Daily America and then for the Telegraph. When he was fired--allegedly because he panned an act that subsequently canceled an ad in the paper--he decided that he would either become a partner in his father's firm or start a weekly vaudeville paper. Denied the partnership, he decided the die was cast. With a $2,500 promissory note from his father-in-law, Silverman launched Variety on Dec. 16, 1905.

Silverman was a man of no great intelligence (he called himself an "illiterate") or ambition, but he did have a rather peculiar passion for amusement. He loved entertainment and spent his evenings at vaudeville and theater. Perhaps even more he loved the culture of entertainment, particularly as it mushroomed around Broadway in the second and third decades of the 20th century. This was the Broadway of Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell, Florenz Ziegfeld, Earl Carroll and Texas Guinan, the Broadway of gangsters and gamblers, of beautiful chorines and molls, of lights and action and excitement. It was an imaginative city, no less than Hollywood, and for a brief time it captivated the entire nation with its showy display of modern clothes, modern talk, modern sex and modern values.

Variety not only covered this Broadway; under Silverman it was an integral part of it, which was a source of its popularity and its charm. It prided itself on a certain lowlife Broadway sensibility. Its offices on 46th Street and 7th Avenue were appropriately dishabille. The dingy ceiling was painted green matching the paper's cover; the desks were cluttered; the floor space was undefined. Not even Silverman occupied a cubicle; he sat on a dais at the end of a long room on the second floor that one entered through a set of swinging doors.

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