Going First Class

To feel important, most stars must go first class, all the time. They have to have the best suite at a hotel, the first-class seats in a plane and the choice table at the best restaurant. It’s even written in their contracts: When they do promotional appearances, it must be first class, all the way.

By Bernie Ilson

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Published: Sat 4 Jul 2009, 10:54 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:59 AM

When I opened my own public relations office in New York City, my first account was the Ed Sullivan Show. It enabled me to pay my bills and hire a secretary. A few weeks later, my friend Bobby Brenner introduced me to Benny Goodman, and I soon added his name to my growing list of show business clients. Sullivan was a major account, but Benny Goodman was my idol. I had seen him at the Paramount Theater when I was a kid, and I never dreamed then that I would meet the great man himself, better yet, represent him. I played it cool, or tried to, but I am sure that Benny knew I was proud to have “The King of Swing” as a client. I called him Mr. Goodman. He called me Bernie.

Although Benny Goodman always went first class — he lived in a beautiful apartment in New York and had an estate in Connecticut—he was not a big spender. He never lunched at Le Cirque, at least not with the “hired hands.” He watched every penny.

He was also a tough taskmaster. There were stories about him firing musicians for being late for a show.

I had been doing Goodman’s publicity for six months when I set up an appearance for him on the Arlene France’s Radio Show. It was a live programme and I called him that morning to remind him to meet me at the radio station. I knew he didn’t like to wait so I mentioned that the show would go on promptly at 10:05, right after the five-minute newsbreak.

Arlene and her producer, Jean Bach, had had Goodman on their show many times. He always had something interesting to say, even if he said it in his slow, unemotional voice. But Goodman was a living legend and that was enough for Arlene.

When Benny didn’t show at 10, or at 10:05, Arlene and Jean got nervous. I jumped into the breach as the substitute guest. I chatted with Arlene about Goodman’s recent engagements, his recordings and his coming European tour. I was good at radio banter, but I was not Benny Goodman.

At 10:25, Goodman walked in. He said something about getting stuck in traffic, took my place and proceeded to do his most charming interview with Arlene for the next 35 minutes.

When we left the studio, he mumbled, “Thanks for filling in, Bernie,” he mumbled. “I heard you on the radio in the taxi,” he added.

Benny had never thanked me for anything before. He may have been a tough on the help, but he was toughest on himself. He was embarrassed and knew I had bailed him out. “Thanks,” he mumbled again.

We walked up Broadway a few more blocks. He finally turned to me and said, “How about having lunch—on me.”

“Great,” I said. Goodman had never asked me to lunch before. “Where?”

“Right here,” he said, pointing to a Nedick’s hot dog stand. “I love their hot dogs.” So we ambled up to the counter and Benny said, “Two dogs for me and two for my friend, Bernie. Oh—and two orange drinks.” He smiled and patted me on the back.

I’ve been to Le Cirque, but having those hot dogs at Nedick’s with Benny Goodman was going first class, all the way. It’s not the food or the ambience, it’s the thought that counts.

Bernie Ilson is the author of “Sundays With Sullivan: How the Ed Sullivan Show Brought Elvis, the Beatles and Culture to America.”© IHT

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