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Born to build a buzz

THE BIG PICTURE PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

June 15, 2004|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

As long as he can remember, Larry Solters was a publicist's son. "Other kids mowed the lawn or had paper routes," he recalls of his childhood in Long Island. "Every Sunday morning my job was to go out and get the seven New York papers so my father could see what items had made the columns."

It was the 1960s, New York was still full of glamour and greasepaint and Lee Solters was the king of Broadway publicists, representing clients as varied as David Merrick, Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. Other fathers took their sons to baseball games or fired up the barbecue in the backyard. Lee Solters took his son through stage doors. "The theaters were all within a couple of blocks of each other and my father had the timing of when the big numbers would play down to a science," Larry recalls. "We'd walk in just in time to stand in the wings and hear Streisand sing 'Funny Girl.' Then we'd go through Shubert Alley and catch Carol Channing doing 'Hello Dolly' and then slip in the stage door just up the street in time to see Jackie Gleason do a big number in 'Take Me Along.' "

Is it any wonder Larry Solters became a publicist too?

With Father's Day arriving Sunday, it's time for our annual look at a pair of father-son showbiz insiders. This year I wanted to hear how two generations of publicists approach the elusive art of image-making and manipulation. Lee is as old school as a big-finned Cadillac. At 85, he's still going strong. His firm, Solters & Digney, represents an eclectic mix of clients that includes Della Reese, Diane Schuur, ESPN and Universal Studios Hollywood. Just back from New York, Lee met Larry and me for dinner at Nate 'n Al's, a favorite hangout even though Lee once repped the rival Carnegie Deli, whose opening made a big news splash when Lee had Channing -- also a client -- drop a beach-ball-size matzo ball into a vat of chicken soup.

One of the last surviving links to the Damon Runyon-esque era when publicists would hand items to columnists at 1 a.m. over drinks at Toots Shor's, Lee started his own publicity firm in 1948. He represented a variety of ventures -- restaurants to movies -- including "Sweet Smell of Success," the fabled portrait of the gossip column racket, with Burt Lancaster as columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as the conniving press agent Sidney Falco.

I always know Lee is calling when I pick up the phone and hear his raspy purr, "J.J., this is Sidney." Lee claims to have given Curtis the idea behind slam-dunking a crumpled newspaper into a trash barrel after discovering his item hasn't made the column. "I told Tony, 'Be more vehement.' "

Lee's big break came when he was handling the actor Walter Slezak, who was appearing in the musical "Fanny" and getting more coverage than the show's star. The star's wife complained to "Fanny" producer David Merrick, hoping the Broadway impresario would fire Solters. Instead, Merrick hired him to do all of his publicity.

In 1961, when a musical called "Subways Are for Sleeping" was in danger of failing, Solters and Merrick cooked up the legendary stunt of running ads with raves from men they'd recruited from the phone book who had the same names as the top critics of the day. "We wined and dined them and then gave them the quotes we wanted, like 'Best Show in Years!' " Solters recalls. "David had wanted to do it for years, but he had to wait till Stanley Kaufmann took over at the Times from Brooks Atkinson, because there wasn't another Brooks Atkinson in the phone book."

Over the years, Lee has been a mentor to generations of eager young publicists. "Lee was like a father to me," says Sid Ganis, producer of films including "Mr. Deeds," whose first job at age 19 was working for Solters as an office boy. "He had the entire town wired. Lee would scold, teach, encourage and then scold me again, just like a dad would. I promise you, what I learned from Lee in 1959 I still use today."

The Solters clan lived in the shadow of Lee's 24/7 work habits. At Christmas and Easter, the family would vacation at Caesars Palace. Everything was fodder for the publicity mill. When Larry, now 53, was at camp one summer in Vermont, his father was repping Robert Ryan, who was then in an Irving Berlin musical, "Mr. President." According to an item Lee planted, Larry was asked by his counselor what his father did for a living. "Oh," he nonchalantly replied, "he does publicity for the president."

In Lee's heyday, columnists exercised a less vigilant attitude toward veracity than in today's mainstream media. Ganis still has a photo of his father, a New York City cab driver, handing Claudette Colbert her poodle that she'd left in his taxi. The incident never happened. The photo was simply a good plug for Colbert, a Solters client. As Ganis recalls, "Lee said one day, 'Oh, your father drives a cab. I've got an idea ...' "

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