Every highway was at a complete standstill. The sheer volume of humanity, peaceful as it was, had surged through the fences taking down any notion of a paying customer. The backers stood to lose $2 million. To make matters worse, the crowded highways made it impossible to get the talent to the stage. That’s when Glen Ridge resident and seasoned publicity agent Dick Gersh became involved in three actions that helped save the Woodstock Festival and preserve its place in history for generations to come.
He suggested transport helicopters, large enough to hold the performers and their equipment. He got into a conversation with his friend and well-known record executive, Ahmet Ertegun about a live concert album and about something else. Ertegun brought into Gersh’s office a skinny kid full of enthusiasm named Martin Scorsese who would become assistant director even though his only official credit is for editing on the film, Woodstock: Three Days of Peace and Music. Gersh, the consummate publicity agent, had the helicopters fly talent to a heliport downtown right after each performance. Limousines were waiting to drive the artists directly to his NYC office, where sandwiches from the Carnegie delicatessen and phone call interviews from journalists all over the globe – from Australia, Japan, Germany, France — awaited.
Imagine you are holding a kaleidoscope and that you spin it before each of the paragraphs that follow, arriving at different times and places in no particular order. Some stories are best told that way.
Gersh was there for Kris Kristofferson’s debut performance at The Bitter End. He heard a whooshing sound go through the audience and concluded that it was the women whispering about his good looks. He told Kristofferson’s agent that the singer had crossover potential. “He could be in movies,” Gersh said. Kristofferson was anxious about his singing voice, and wanted to be sure the opening act did not show him up. “Don’t worry,” said the owner of the place. “It’s a new girl. We’re just letting her on as a favor to her father.” It turned out to be Carly Simon.
Cy Leslie came up with the notion of selling videotapes of films directly to customers. MGM/UA wanted to know why customers would buy if they could rent? The test case would be Gone with the Wind. A big name was needed to promote the idea. As a favor to Gersh, his friend Gene Kelly agreed to seek the help of Olivia de Havilland, the last living major member of the cast. Kelly appealed to her sense of nostalgia. Gersh fielded the positive phone call from Kelly in his Glen Ridge home, and headed to Paris. As luck would have it an original copy of the film had been found in a vault in a salt mine out west and this pristine master would be used for the videotapes.
In the middle of George Burns’ lengthy career Gersh found himself in the actor’s dressing room taking notes on a project. He noticed a hole in the wall that separated Burns from Charo’s dressing room. “That’s not right,” Gersh remarked. “Let her look,” Burns replied.
Phillip Green recommended Peter O’Toole for the lead role in Lawrence of Arabia. Impressed by O’Toole, Gersh agreed but suggested a memo be written about the actor’s prodigious drinking, just in case. O’Toole perceived the career opportunity before him and remained relatively sober during the filming. Jackie Gleason was a Gersh client; The Jackie Gleason Show became the #1 show on television. Gersh shared offices with Tony Bennett who never became an official client, but has always been a friend and sought Gersh’s professional advice throughout his career on many occasions.
Without Arlene Gersh, Dick’s wife and business partner, many of these things might not have happened. She had a knack for winning the confidence of performers who had learned to be guarded about their personal lives and connections. Dick credits Arlene with consistently finding out the critical back story.
Richard Rodgers had the original commission to write the score for Lawrence of Arabia. When he was ready with something to show David Lean asked him to come with it to his office. Rodgers refused. He explained to Gersh that directors always came to him. Lean stood his ground. Rodgers kept the commission but never delivered the music. That opened the door to a French composer Maurice Jarre, whose score won an Oscar, as did two subsequent collaborations with Lean — Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India.
In the early days, Gersh landed a job at Cashbox, a now defunct weekly print magazine covering the music industry which showed him the magic of the press pass — entry to every party, every opening, every interview. Years later, he rose to a VP position at Columbia Pictures where he had a hand in many operations, including Screen Gems, which brought television shows like The Flintstones and The Partridge Family to the viewing public. Eventually, Columbia wanted him closer to the action in Hollywood but Arlene didn’t want to move the family from Glen Ridge, so Gersh and Columbia parted ways, and he continued to ply his trade as an independent agent.
Publicity agent is a round-the-clock job. One memorable night at 3AM Gersh was roused by a call from The Who on tour somewhere deep in Texas with a question about their next engagement. Gersh threw a party for is client, The 5th Dimension, at Lincoln Center. “The Omelette King” who had cooked breakfast for JFK’s inauguration and many other famous events, did the honors. Lead singer Marilyn McCoo, in Gersh’s words, was one of the sharpest performers he knew. She could size up the room with a glance and calculate the box office receipts to the penny.
One of Gersh’s biggest surprises was the musical talent of The Monkees who were hired by Columbia television to impersonate musicians, but it turned out they could play. At Gersh’s suggestion, Neil Diamond wrote several songs for the Monkees, including I’m a Believer. Otis Redding was a Gersh client, as was Meatloaf; Gersh did the publicity for the album Bat Out of Hell; he still has a copy of the platinum album.
Gersh introduced extensive merchandising of products for his client Shari Lewis, from the hand puppets themselves to watches, pajamas and other items. He did the same for The Flintstones who even had their own vitamins. Yaba-dabba-doo.
One more spin of the kaleidoscope takes us to England. Gersh visited the composers and producers behind the album Jesus Christ Superstar before it became the first rock opera. Gersh had the idea of introducing the album in a church on Fifth Avenue. The end result – an album became an opera, a Broadway play that toured the country and then a film.
More spins would take us to still other places and personalities, but by now you have an idea of Dick Gersh. When you see him in the restaurant, he’ll tell you more.