Our roots in show business go back over 100 years. Norman followed the family tradition. He has been at the William Morris Agency over 65 years. He in turn passed on the family tradition to us.
Nicholas Hyde was the first Russian dancer ever to appear in the United States, being imported here from Russia in 1898 with his family, then known as the Haidabura Troupe. The specialty was composed of the Haidabura family, Nicholas, his wife, Rosa and the children, Victor, John and Alex, Betty, Marie and Olga. Norman likes to point out that the William Morris Agency was established in 1898.
The Haidabura Troupe were an instantaneous success, the novelty of the Russian steps catching on at once. The family played all the important circuits then in existence and continued up to 1911 when the Nicholas made his final professional appearance in a principal role in the William A. Brady production, "Siberia," at the Academy of Music on Fourteenth Street.
With the dissolution of the act, Nicholas retired permanently and Victor Hyde became a producer of vaudeville acts. He staged more than a hundred so-called "flash acts" and formed the first show of circus acts for the Marcus-Loew circuit. He was one of the few capable instructors of Russian dancers of the old school.
John turned to the business end of the profession. He became the assistant booking manager of the Marcus-Loew Vaudeville Circuit until 1926 when he joined the William Morris Agency. John was a legendary Hollywood agent who represented an array of big stars including Marilyn Monroe. He was a Giant in the business until he passed away in 1951.
Alex was an accomplished violinist who produced many successful musicals over the years.
A CHARMED LIFE, OR A THIRTY-SIX
SHORT MAKES IT BIG
William Morris Agency, Los Angeles, 1943
Norman Brokaw followed in Abe Lastfogel’s footsteps, rising from office boy to chairman of William Morris. Today Brokaw gives anyone he hasn’t met before a star-studded tour of his career, right down to the row of pictures on his office credenza. It’s not braggadocio; he just feels that to know his life is to know him, and to know that his life has been devoted to William Morris is to know him best of all.
If you want to be in this business, there’s no greater place to learn than in a mailroom.
I got my job on Saturday, July 7, 1943. My mother and I were at her brother’s house—her brother being Johnny Hyde, one of the all-time top William Morris agents. He handled Lana Turner and Betty Hutton and Marilyn Monroe. He was a partner with Abe Lastfogel, who ran the company, and had himself started as William Morris Sr.’s mailboy and assistant.
Three things took place on that day. First, Johnny Hyde had just closed a deal for two moguls, Leo Spitz and Bill Goetz, and formed Universal-International Pictures. Later he told my mother, “There’s a young lady named Esther Kovner who’s going to be a big, big star, and I just made an important deal for her. She’ll be here shortly.”
I was inside having a sandwich, and when I came out, I saw this attractive young lady jump into the swimming pool. Her name was Esther Williams. She had just married Dr. Kovner.
Then Johnny asked if I’d like to go to work as a mail boy at William Morris.
I was fifteen years old. Only Mr. Lastfogel started younger. The company didn’t call it a training program at the time, but Mr. Lastfogel loved William Morris, and William Morris loved him. Out of that relationship our New York office was built. Lots of young men started that way and grew up in our company. Lou Weiss, Sol Leon, et cetera. If I had to relive my life again, I would still want to start at the William Morris Agency, in the mailroom, and learn show business from the bottom up.
My grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and mother were the first Russian dance troupe to arrive in America, in 1898. Coincidentally, that was the same year the William Morris Agency was founded. My mother appeared on the bill with George M. Cohan; she retired early and raised a family of six sons. I was the youngest.
One of my brothers went to New York Military Academy at Cornwall-on-Hudson. In August 1941 he was sent to the Philippines. Four months later the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, continued to the Philippines, and bombed Albay Gulf. My brother, a reserve officer with General MacArthur, was in the area. Later we found out that he was executed at the age of thirty-two during the infamous Bataan Death March.
My father had died about a week before my brother went overseas; he had a coronary. When my mother got a letter from the War Department telling her my brother was missing in action, it gave her a heart attack. Later one brother joined the army, one the navy, and one the marines to avenge our brother’s death, and we moved to California, where my brothers were being trained. My mother came to California right from the hospital so she could be with her children. I later entered the army.
My first day at William Morris, I took the streetcar from Gramercy Place, got off at Cañon Drive three or four blocks away, and walked to the office. I carried my lunch in a brown bag, probably a chicken salad or tuna fish sandwich my mother had made.
My wardrobe was one pair of slacks, a bow tie, a regular tie, and a sport jacket I’d bought at Jerry Rothschild’s, a top haberdashery. It cost forty dollars. I took home twenty-one dollars and forty cents a week and paid off my jacket at two dollars a week.
It wasn’t my first job—before William Morris I’d worked at the Pennsylvania Drug Company in New York, delivering prescriptions for a nickel a delivery; I was lucky if I made fifteen bucks a week—but I guess I’d always been interested in show business. Back East when I was nine and ten, I would take milk bottles to the grocery store, collect the money, then take a streetcar to the Riverside Theater on Sunday afternoons to see the talent shows. Sometimes on the weekend I’d go to the Loews State Theater on Broadway and see Ella Fitzgerald and the Chick Webb Orchestra. I’d see Mickey Rooney or Judy Garland at the Strand. I’d go to the Music Hall. When I started at William Morris, my interest showed. I’d even come into the office on Saturday. I was the only mail boy, but I was told that if I worked out well, they’d like me to be the first trainee in the Los Angeles office.
My uncle Johnny’s two sons also worked in the office, but I didn’t want people to think I’d gotten the job just because I was his nephew. I wanted to get ahead on my own. As it happened, Abe Lastfogel became my mentor, so I didn’t have to be wholly identified with my uncle.
An agent named Ben Holzman was also like a father to me. He handled Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor and the Marx Brothers. Every Monday night he’d take me to the Orpheum Theatre.
At the end of my first day they gave me the keys to a 1941 Ford two-seater coupe to take the mail to the post office. We were at 202 North Cañon, and the post office was a few blocks away. I said, “I’d like to go, but I’m only fifteen and I don’t have a driver’s license.” Then I started to worry. Can I still work here? They promised to work out something, and Doris Appel, a girl who worked in the mailroom, got the job of driving me to the post office at night. When I had to deliver something to a studio, I took the streetcar into Hollywood, then walked to Columbia and RKO and Paramount to pick up checks. I got to know everyone in town, as well as what our clients earned. Knowing that information was a stepping-stone to my being promoted: when I served coffee to a group of agents having a picture meeting, one said so-and-so got three thousand a picture, and the other said, “No, it’s thirty-five something.” I said, “Sir, it’s thirty-eight fifty,” and I was right.
When I was older, I got to drive Lana Turner to meet L. B. Mayer. Both the guard and the receptionist said, “Oh hi, Mr. Brokaw. Hi, Miss Turner.” Being greeted by name, particularly in front of Lana Turner, was very impressive.
I also used to pick up Marilyn Monroe, on Harper Avenue and Fountain, and take her early in the morning to her acting coach at Twentieth Century Fox. She was going around with Johnny Hyde then. I took her out often on job interviews. I remember selling her for fifty-five dollars a day for a movie. Paramount used to have an audition room where people would perform; they could see you, but you could not see them. I took Marilyn there and I asked the man in charge, “Would you be interested in her?”
He wasn’t. He said, “She’s just another blonde.”
When she scored big, I ran into him one day. His head was down. “I missed it,” he said. “You were right.”
About a year and a half after I arrived, I officially became a trainee, which meant being groomed to be an agent. A few years later I got out of the mailroom and worked as the secretary to three men: Moe Sackin; Murray File, who handled Mae West; and Joe Schoenfeld, who was later the editor of Variety. Eventually I worked only for Joe. By twenty I was a junior agent. I had dinner with Mr. Lastfogel on Monday and Friday nights, religiously, and sometimes during the week as well. One day he said to me, “We’re going to start working with something called television. I’d like you to start our TV Department.”
I’ve made this business and this company my life. It’s exciting: running and building careers, making success happen. I like seeing results. I knew that by putting in the time and making sure my clients did well, I would make great progress. I wound up representing people like Loretta Young and Barbara Stanwyck, Susan Hayward, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Bill Cosby, Clint Eastwood, and President Ford. I just tried to do a good job every day. It wasn’t to impress anyone; I just worked hard so I could have a job.
There’s a picture in my office today of Red Skelton, Joe Louis, Harpo Marx, George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Calvin Jackson, and me. I was very young. You don’t just stand with people like that unless they ask, which they did, because I made it a point to develop relationships early on. The picture was taken at a benefit by a paparazzo at the hotel; I still don’t know his name. I made copies for Burns and Harpo and Sinatra. They said they were glad to get it.
Some people always look for ways to promote themselves and say, “I’m the greatest.” I never say that. Other people have said that I’m in the same category as Lew Wasserman, Myron Selzick, Abe Lastfogel, Jules Stein, and Charles Feldman—but I would never say that about me. I’m not self-aggrandizing. I’m just a guy who learned the agency business from the bottom up, became William Morris’s first vice president, became their cochairman of the board, became president and CEO, became chairman and CEO. When I turned seventy, I gave up being CEO because I thought it was time to give that to someone else.
Along the way I was offered a studio to run; a network contacted me about being president. I always said no. I wanted to stay at William Morris because I respect and love the company. I appreciate what they did for me. We’re the oldest company in the business, and the sky was always the limit. Even now, nearly sixty years later, I still put in seventeen hours a day. I’ll stop by the office on Saturdays and Sundays, try to catch up on calls, read my mail, make deals.
Once an agent, always an agent.
Rensin, David. A Charmed Life, or a Thirty-Six Short Makes It Big. The Mailroom: Hollywood History From The Bottom Up. New York: Ballantine Books, 2004. 16-20.