The Butcher of the Beltway

Years ago, on my first job in the PR biz, I had the great fortune of representing theatrical impresario David Merrick for the Broadway opening of “42nd Street” (starring Jerry Orbach and Wanda Richert). The late Fred Nathan was Mr. Merrick’s in-house publicist who was charged with, among other things, keeping the show under wraps so the journalist “snakes,” as Mr. Merrick called them, wouldn’t spill the beans. (In fact, I vaguely remember the mustachioed Merrick arranging to have a cage of actual snakes placed in the theatre’s lobby while the show was in previews — for advance WOM, of course.)

The show’s opening night was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which was that, unbeknownst to the cast and crew, its legendary director/choreographer Gower Champion (pictured above) died earlier in the day after a brief illness. Other memories included WWD theatre critic Howard Kissel helping this 23-year-old straighten his black bow tie; AP photographer Richard Drew capturing Mr. Merrick on stage for the curtain call to announce Mr. Champion’s death with a stunned cast as his backdrop — a picture that landed on the cover of the New York Post with the headline “Lullaby on Broadway. Drew won an award for that one; And, last but not least, it was The Times’s Frank Rich’s first day on the job as the paper’s Broadway theatre critic (soon to be known as “The Butcher of Broadway”).

I had learned of Champion’s death some time before intermission. When the show ended, I remember Mr. Rich making a dash for the exit to meet his filing deadline. We sort of knew one another from his previous job as a film critic for TIME magazine. I was able to catch him on the way out to tell him about Mr. Champion’s untimely demise. I then headed back into the theatre to lead the TV crews and stills to the front of the stage for what I was told would be photos and footage of the audience’s standing ovation. (Merrick’s appearance on stage surprised me as much as it did everyone else.)

Anyway, with all this a distant memory, I remain a big fan of Frank Rich’s writings in Sunday’s New York Times. Mr. Rich, however, is no fan of our profession — at least as it’s practiced by the current residents of the White House. His new tome “The Greatest Story Ever Sold” eviscerates the media, and especially those who spin it. From Publisher’s Weekly:

“This blistering j’accuse has vitriol to spare for George Bush—calling him a “spoiled brat” and “blowhard”—and his policies, but its main target is the PR machinery that promoted those policies to the American people. New York Times columnist Rich revisits nearly every Bush administration publicity gambit, including Iraqi WMD claims, Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” triumph, the Swift-boating of John Kerry and the writing of fake prowar letters-to-the-editor from soldiers.”

As this blog has written on many previous occasions, the duplicitous approach to PR by this administration has tarnished any respect our profession has managed to eek out over the years. Frank, for what it’s worth, please know that there are many practitioners who also abhor the bygone brand of PR that is plied in the Beltway.

Postcript: Mr. Rich did send me a nice note after I reminded him of my small role in that famous opening night, which he recounted so colorfully in a NYT Magazine cover story “The Butcher of Broadway.” That was then. This is now.