Friday, February 28, 2014

Show Business

Way back when, Ed Justin of the TV production company Screen Gems, Art Shulman of TV Guide and I were having lunch at the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. In those long ago days the Oak Room was a prime watering hole for those in the broadcasting industry. Justin had just returned from London where he witnessed “four skinny kids with long shaggy hair” take over England. The quartet was due to appear the following week on the Ed Sullivan Show. Justin predicted they would sweep the USA as well. Neither Shulman nor I believed him, hooted at his prediction and had him pick up the tab. Short weeks later Justin had the last laugh when The Beatles conquered audiences on this side of the pond just as they had in Europe.  

Flash forward to 2014 and witness the Beatles in the headlines again. The Fab Four is minus John Lennon and George Harrison these days but Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney keep the flame burning with no diminishing of the fire they lit a half century ago. As I write this column news has come in that the great Sid Caesar has passed away. Before the Beatles dominated America, television comedy ruled the airwaves. Names like Caesar, Imogene Coca and Ernie Kovacs pioneered the genre and will ever remain in television's pantheon. Then and now there are creative men and women like Justin and Shulman to be sure the show goes on.

As part of The Greatest Generation, Ed and Art faced the challenge of World War II. Justin's guts and his Yiddish tongue talked dozens of German soldiers into surrendering, a feat for which he won a Distinguished Service Cross and a battlefield commission. Later in civilian life, among a score of outlandish stunts, he marketed three guys dressed in costumes as Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Fred Flintstone. They attracted hundreds of thousands of hysterical fans here and abroad as he set up Jellystone parks amid frantic promotions that rivaled the madness of his WWII days.

At the same time as Justin was fighting on one side of the globe Shulman was in the Pacific theater of operations sweating out the probability of invading Japan. After the war Art, went on to prominence in the publishing business, all the while writing comedy material for The Tonight Show and other network programs. In the closing days of his career he masterminded an outstanding event honoring the SS Exodus and its heroic effort to save thousands of Holocaust survivors by transporting them from France to Palestine. As part of the festivities surrounding this celebration, he talked Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca out of retirement to headline a successful fund raiser. Caesar and Coca brought down the house earning standing ovations just as they had in their glory days a half century earlier.

Stars will always have their names in lights, but just as surely there will be unnamed heroes like Ed Justin and Art Shulman standing in the wings of show business to make sure the magic happens.

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