In His Own Words...

Leo Shull: "Show Business" Begins

 

The iconic publisher of over sixty magazines, newspapers, and periodicals dedicated to the entertainment industry, Leo Shull began his journey in 1941, when a serious of surprising circumstances befell the budding playwright and changed not only the course of his career, but the path of theatre in America.  The memories below, written by Mr. Shull himself before his death, capture the gritty, exciting world of 1940's Broadway...and the birth of his first publication, "SHOW BUSINESS."

 
 
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About me swirled performers, chattering, running to the phone booths when they heard a tip, going to the johns to freshen up or change costumes for a just-heard-about audition.

THE FIRST DAY: WALGREENS DRUGSTORE, SEPTEMBER 1941.

LEO SHULL: SHOW BUSINESS began life without a name, as a two-page mimeo sheet, a sort of newsletter, written in an abbreviated, informal style, a give-away bulletin, size 8 1/2 x 11, hand-typed, two columns to a page, right on the wax stencil, in my bedroom, on 48th Street near Broadway, above an Italian restaurant that had a four-man orchestra keeping me awake at night -- in September 1941.

I started the paper with $8 capital: mimeo rental $5, paper $1, ink $1, etc. It had tips and typos, I wrote fast, impatiently, X'd out the errors which were left on the stencil that was pulled out of my typewriter as fast as the stencil filled up, by my girlfriend, a blond actress named Jane, now famous in another field.

In two hours the paper was created, typed, printed and went into circulation thus: she and I rushed out and handed each other copies, she collated as we hurried to Walgreen's Drugstore four blocks away on 44th and Broadway, a half-block from Sardi's.  Walgreen's is now a clothing store (SW corner).  It was my first HDQ and office in New York, till evicted (years later, Sardi's became my office, till evicted).

I printed 50 copies of the first issue, and four of them had been promised to actress friends of Jane, whom I had promised I would collect casting tips -- being an unemployed journalist -- and playwright here in New York with my first play which these actresses had read for me, in a helpful way.  On the corner, waiting, I looked for them and while waiting, handed out a few -- or tried to -- to passersby who spurned the thing as they would a strike leaflet or a massage parlor invitation.

So I went in the store and downstairs where there was a large dining room -- a noontime rendezvous for performers and young tyro show people, who made grand entrances as they descended the stairs, watching themselves in the mirror walls as they minced down.

There were lots of mirrors and lots of johns and phone booths in this hangout and lots of hopefulness, bravado, preening and lots of unknown whom you know now as Lauren Bacall (my first newsboy -- she was a tomboy), Shelley Winters, Kirk Douglas, Tennessee Williams, Jan Sterling, Joey Far, Henny Youngman, Sam Levenson, Eli Wallach, Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Jesse Whyte and lots more who are now gone.  And many then-famous show people who became my friends: Hume Cronyn, Lee Strasberg, John Carradine, Elia Kazan, Jules Garfield (they later lectured at my classes).  Frederic March, Gypsy Rose Lee...

Down into the basement lunchroom I went, into the hubbub to find my friends.  I saw down at a table, put my papers on it, and looked at the menu to see what's doing in the 25-cents department.  About me swirled performers, chattering, running to the phone booths when they heard a tip, going to the johns to freshen up or change costumes for a just-heard-about audition.  The girls carried big bags filled with shoes, high heels, low heels.  And combs, curlers, wigs, false pigtails, ballet costumes, dozens of jars and tubes of face colors, hate, notebooks, photos of themselves, false resumes with quotes and listings of mythical roles they claimed to have played.  Their lunch was usually coffee, five cents, and buttered toast, ten cents.

I gave the waitress my order.  She picked up a paper.  She too was an actress.  In a half hour the papers were gone.  In an hour a hundred people had surged to me, excited.  I was flattered, overwhelmed.  I said that I still had the stencils at home and would reprint next morning -- meet me here at noon.  I got up late.  I was doing a show, nights, with the Italian orchestra downstairs.  Boom...I had become an instant celebrity, an authority, a COLUMNIST, and a "power" to job-hunting actors, a magnet for aspiring actresses, models, comedians, playwrights, directors...

I hated to leave this place...this new home.  It was heaven.  And also, my new friends were offering to pay my check, to buy me drinks, to take me to dinner, supper, or nightclubs, to come see their "work" in acting classes, to come home with them.

They also -- this is important -- told me news of the day.  Where they'd been, what they'd heard, who was casting -- secretly -- who was a fake or a wolf, who operated a hot casting couch, who needed a stand-in, lead, comedian, where a show was rehearsing, which producers wanted walk-ons for $1 a performance, where a waitress or bartender was wanted, or temporary typists, hat check girls, the private address of the Shuberts.  They asked me to mention the show they were "up for," that he/she was "terrific," talented, looking for a job, looking for a roommate or vaude partner or co-writer, or money for a "great" script.  They demonstrated their dialects, they read me lines from scenes they were studying with tutors.

But underlying all this was an ominous, basso note -- the tom tom's unending beat of misery -- the thread of helplessness of the artists in show business -- and their mighty courage and optimism and the terrible state of unfairness, rip-offs, tragedy and exploitation.  It infuriated me, it made me determined to fight.  It's never left me.  It turned me to evangelism.


THE SECOND DAY: AN OVERNIGHT SENSATION

There had never been a casting organ before.

Some trade publications, now deceased, had, as an after-thought, printed a few announcements of forthcoming productions, but from the producer's angle, or press agent's bull factory.  There was no casting news because producers hated and feared an office full of actors.  So news of casting a production was hush-hush.  No reporter wanted to antagonize a producer and lose free press seats.  No one had ever listed job openings, roles, addresses of agents, producers, directors -- until my invention came along.

As for my own credentials, I was a journalism graduate, two college degrees, a writer since age eight, a playwright with a script I'd brought to New York, ready to go into rehearsal.  These factors may have put the idea in me.  I don't know.  Why didn't VARIETY, which had been around for 30 or more years, think of doing it?  Or BILLBOARD, 50 years old -- why hadn't they?  All I know is that I did it.  Me.  I unconsciously started something which is now a whole industry -- imitators have sprung up since then.  Information today was non-existent in 1941.

* * * *

On the second day I printed 150 copies.  This time four pages, column style, flip, sneering at the holies in the theatre.  I had news and gossip which I'd picked up from my new staff of reporters and roving correspondents.  News also came pouring in from the 12 phone booths in my new Walgreens offices.  On this second day, what a difference in my life.  When I arrived outside Walgreens there were mob conditions.  A cop on horseback was chasing them off the streets back onto the sidewalk, and when I came up, wearing my porkpie reduced-price Stetson hate -- which became my image to photographers -- when I arrived with an armful of 8 1/2 x 11's, one mountie seized a copy -- he said he had me figured for a bookie.  And I've had trouble with the Broadway cops ever since.

My eyes and head swam when I descended the store stairs.  The place was mobbed.  At my table a free lunch appeared, eggs, bacon, etc.  It had become my table, a la Winchell at the Stork, I was now a columnist.

They swarmed around, grabbed the papers, grabbed my shoulders, whispered, yelled in my ears, telling me hot dope, grievances, new casting couch dramas.  They put money on a plate for the paper, although I told them it was free.  For three years afterwards I printed a daily.
 

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I was now a columnist. They swarmed around, grabbed the papers, whispered, yelled in my ears, telling me hot dope, grievances, new casting couch dramas.

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Our profession — show business — is made up of two words.  Everyone concentrates on the first, when they should master the second, as all great artists do to become great, as Charlie Chaplin did, and Barbra Streisand did, and even Marilyn Monroe did.

THE THIRD DAY: SHOW BUSINESS BECOMES A BUSINESS

On the third day three important things happened:

1) A newsstand dealer came to sell the paper.
2) I recognized that I was in a business.
3) I decided I would preach, convert, editorialize, exhort and lecture.

The third day was even more ear-splitting than the day before.  I was trying to eat, write and listen, when...a decrepit man, a news dealer, shuffled up asking for me.  He had a newsstand across the street.  He picked up a paper, examined it and said "This?  What you selling this for?  I been getting calls."

"It's free."

"Free? I can't make a profit on free.  Charge for it, I'll sell it."

"I don't know."

"Charge five cents. I'll give you three.  What's the name of this?"

It had no name.  But the next day I named it "Actors Cues" and scratched five cents on the top and wrote under the title: "Reliable but not infalliable.  Are you?"  That was to take care of the typos.  That's what it was called until Cue magazine sent me a summons demanding $5,000 for plagiarism of their title.

Since my capital totalled about $5 I wrote a note in my next issue asking for help.  A lawyer named Ira Blue responded and became my attorney and still is, and still has never charged me a fee.  Although he did make ten percent when some years later I did what Cue had done to me.  I started action against Hugh Hefner's new magazine "Show Business Illustrated" since it was a facsimile take-off of my new title SHOW BUSINESS.  Hef, a darling man -- a big man -- settled for $90,000.  I'll never forget the day he sent me a Playboy check for $25,000.  I pinned it on the wall and still carry photostats on me.

SHOW BUSINESS.  An apt title.  Particularly since it described my philosophy, which is that this phrase which describes our profession -- show business -- is made up of two words.  Everyone concentrates on the first, when they should master the second, as all great artists do to become great, as Charlie Chaplin did, and Barbra Streisand did, and even Marilyn Monroe did -- she was a master at reading and drafting contracts, dumb blonde though she was supposed to be.

* * * *

On the fourth day "it" was on the newsstand.  This time I printed a thousand copies, gave the newstand 100 and he came back for 200 more.  And in a couple weeks I printed three thousand, still mimeographed in my bedroom factory, with two girls, two electric mimeo machines, but still delivered by hand via a couple of actors, one of who you might have recognized: Cliff Robertson.  (Later came Al Pacino, delivering via red kid's coaster wagons.  He got $3 a hour, I think it was, and with him were five other actors with little wagons, going to other newsstands, for there were 30 now and soon fifty, all on Broadway.)  Actually, Lauren Bacall was my first newsboy.  She offered to sell it outside Sardi's and she split the take.  She returned in an hour with a skirtpocket full of money.

In a week there must have been fifty magazine reporters that came to interview me.  Newspaper columnists would sit for hours in Walgreens and watch the swirl -- writing, interviewing, taking pictures -- the Times' biggest theatre reporter, Sam Zolotow, came, the New Yorker, Bob Sylvester of the News, Frank Farrell of the World-Telegram, Time, Look.  I can't remember them all.

I began getting money in the mail from all over the country for "subscriptions."  It was time to become a publisher, to learn circulation, press room know-how.  And that's how I dropped playwriting and got into full-time newspaper business.  I also dropped my play which was in rehearsal -- my director, Leo Bulgakov was at my house daily, pleading for me to come to rehearsals, to spend time on rewrites, but I had no time.

In a few months I put out another publication, "Summer Theatres," in which I encouraged my readers to make their own jobs, play their favorite role, start their own theatre.  I told them to find lofts, garrets, basements.  To produce their own shows.  I printed locations, I published casting calls, advertised for angels -- investors to help.  "Who's Where" came in 1942.  "Model's Guide" came in 1943.  The book of investors, "Angels," in 1945.  And many more, at least one new book a year.  Sometimes three.  I've published almost 60 titles, most of them didn't make it, not enough circulation and I was busy, too busy, to build an advertising department.  It was too boring.  Nor did I promote or delve into the mysteries of subscriptions peddling.


THE FIFTH DAY: GENIUS, INC.

Back to September 1941.  After days of congestion in Walgreens, when their regular paying diners stopped coming for lack of tables, management sent a delegation to explain that I'd have to find another office, they couldn't continue on the coffee and toast business.

I was evicted.  I stood on the corner outside.  I printed that story in my "newspaper," my column, my diary, whatever the hell you'd call this time bomb in the theatre.  In an hour up came a new friend, one of my loyal attaches -- and I had them by the hundreds now.  He was protective, exhilarated that someone cared, had opened up the dark labyrinth of mysterious Broadway.  His name was Nick, a short swarthy menacing character actor who lived in a hotel on 45th Street called the St. James, where a new owner, a nut, stage-struck himself, named Perry Frank had switched from stock brokerage to owning a hotel for indigent performers.  Nick said Perry wanted to see me, to offer me new quarters.

I went.  In this hotel was an abandoned restaurant.  I could have it free, no rent for a year, said Perry.  Go get it started again as a restaurant, a hangout and I could have a suite of hotel rooms upstairs for myself.  He was crazed by show business, by the maniacal zoo that had implanted themselves in his hotel.  Perry knew I would fill his hotel rooms, put his hotel on the map...and we did, too.  I named my place Genius, Inc.  In one of my diary memos, I said we needed a stage in the back room to do shows -- the first showcase in New York.  Next day came a rich theatre buff, Harry Schumer, who drove up with two carpenters, walked in and said to me, "Where do you want your stage?"  Next day, there was a stage with curtains, lights and other paraphernalia from his warehouses.  It was all installed overnight.

Opening night, the stage and floor shows ran from 5pm till five days later, night and day, day and night, actors paraded, MC'd, danced and sang.  The rooms were packed.  Audiences sang as choruses.

I can't compress 38 years in a few pages...This requires a chapter.  Let me go on.