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article imageBook offers insight into Variety, the racy 'showbiz' paper

By Jack Kindred     Jul 7, 2000 in Lifestyle
New York (dpa) - "Inside Variety", a history of the racy newspaper that
influenced America's show business, set critical standards and coined new
words for the English language has been launched at New York's renowned
Gotham Book Mart in central Manhattan.
Present at the summer ceremony was the author, Peter Besas, former owner
publisher Syd Silverman (grandson of the legendary founder of Variety, Sime
Silverman) and former staff, all of whom rejoiced at the fact that a unique
era in American journalism has been recorded.
A decades-long landmark in New York, Variety still exists on America's West
Coast in a version partly resembling the famed "bible of showbiz" during the
heyday of America's freewheeling journalism and cynical, irreverent
Besas, former Variety bureau chief in Madrid and author of three books on
Spain, decided to bring out a private, limited-edition book covering that
period via a Madrid publisher.
Literary agents and publishers in New York had turned down the book as not
sufficiently commercial, it being a history related to journalism rather
than show-business glamour, he explained.
"I knew that if I did not push through the project on my own," Besas said at
the launch, "it would never be published and a memorable chunk of the
history of American journalism relegated to oblivion."
The author spent nearly a decade researching Variety's history, beginning in
1905 during the paper's early buccaneering vaudeville years in New York up
to its sale in 1987 to a multinational company.
The result was a 563-page, illustrated hardcover book, written in a lively,
anecdotal style while retaining well-documented historical facts.
Besas includes excerpts from some 50 interviews with ex- employees in
various world cities, some of whom have already passed on, and long sessions
with Syd Silverman at his home in White Plains, New York.
The naysayers in New York may have thumbed down the project, but "Inside
Variety" makes for fascinating reading, not least because of the parade of
characters throughout, beginning with founder Silverman and his notorious
During the roaring 1920s Sime entertained the likes of nightclub and gossip
reporter Walter Winchell, Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty,
raucous comedian Jimmy Durante, western movie star Tom Mix, and New York
major Jimmy Walker, who came up to the fifth floor of the Variety building
to share Sime's booze and to carouse with him through the nights.
Besas also recounts how it was to work in the the old walk-up brownstone
building on West 46th street, Variety headquarters from 1920 to 1987, which,
with its antique typewriters and desks, resembled a set from the Hollywood
"Front Page" movies.
"Inside Variety" also devotes a chapter to the legendary chief editor, Abel
Green, known throughout show business as the world's greatest "freeloader,"
a word that may have been coined by Green himself, who was notorious for
never picking up a restaurant, bar tab or hotel bill.
Variety's contribution to journalism included the tradition of strict
honesty in reviewing vaudeville, plays and films, with no stops pulled
despite the potential to lose advertisers.
Indeed, it was this Variety tradition that made its reviews feared but
respected throughout the entertainment industry.
And it was Variety's use of a peculiar, innovative and often totally
outrageous "slanguage" that came to identify the paper within the world of
show business.
Variety's unique headlines, such as "Sticks Nix Hick Pix," referring to
provincial rejection of films based on rural themes, and "Wall Street Lays A
Big Egg" drawing on a show-business term used when a play or act flopped,
likewise underlined the paper's style and identity.
Words such as "corny", "pay-off", whodunnit", and "soap opera" are all
credited as Variety coinages. Others still in use include "ozoner" (drive in
cinema), "bird" (satellite), "web" or "net" (TV network) and "kidvid"
(children's TV).
The sage of Baltimore, the newspaper man and critic H.L. Mencken, paid
tribute to Variety slang in a chapter found in his definitive 1936 book, The
American Language.
Variety periodically put out a chart clarifying its frequently used terms
because some avid readers, such as Britons, often found the paper's use of
language incomprehensible.
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