Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lenny Litman

A 1950 Copa Club ad featuring, of all people, Bela Lugosi

When Old Mon was growing up in the fifties and sixties, Lenny Litman was the alpha dog in the back rooms of Pittsburgh's music business.

Litman was a promoter, club owner, show biz reporter, and sports entrepreneur. If it involved entertainment in the 'Burgh, Litman had his hand in it.

He entered the world as Norman Leonard Litman on May 15, 1914, in North Braddock, and became known far and wide as Lenny. Litman was the son of immigrants who dabbled in a bit of Prohibition-era bootlegging and eventually ended up with a beer distributorship. (In fact, Lenny's attorney brother S. David Litman represented his sibling in some liquor license transfer cases, and was thought to operate the first local firm with its own liquor law section).

His working career began in 1931 as a stringer covering high school sports for his school paper, the Braddock Daily News Herald, The Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. One thing he did learn early on was that life was easier using your smarts rather than your back; Litman lasted all of thirteen days working in the mill.

After graduating from Braddock High School in 1932, he went on to Shenandoah College and the University of Richmond, where he got his first tub-thumping job as the Spiders' sports publicity director. He finally got his sheepskin from the University of Pittsburgh in 1937.

Litman then became a flack for Pitt's 150th Anniversary celebration, setting up shows for the year-long event. Never shy about his talents, he went on a road trip to California with high school buds, aiming to become movie stars. Lenny never did get to perform on the golden screen, but he did make some Hollywood contacts from the production/publicity spectrum.

He returned to Pittsburgh in 1938 at his dad's urging to go to law school. That lasted a year, when he dropped out to produce the Hoot Gibson Rodeo and Thrill Circus, which folded after playing Homestead and North Braddock. Litman's brother Archie paid off the cowboys, Indians, and the hotel bill at Oakland's Webster Hall.

But he kept on keepin' on. He was a press agent for Gibson, the Wallace Brothers Circus and later the Russell Brothers Circus; he also promoted boxing cards and a donkeyball group (no, we're not going there, hey, we're not even asking, lol.)

Then came 1941 and the war. Litman enlisted in the Navy and was a swabbie for the duration, getting his discharge in 1945.

He returned to Pittsburgh, and with a hand from brothers Archie and Gene bought Mercur's Music Bar. From 1945 to 1948, The Music Bar was the downtown jazz joint. Its stage held Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Ethel Waters, George Shearing, Mary Lou Williams and Walt Harper.

Litman and his brothers bought the Villa Madrid at 818 Liberty Avenue, a block from the old Nixon Theater (now the site of the August Wilson African-American Cultural Center) in 1948 and turned it into the Copa, the last grand dame of the club era in Pittsburgh.

And that block rocked. Beside the Nixon shows, the Copa was right across the street from Litman's main competition, the Carousel Lounge. The action never stopped.

Lenny came from a jazz background, and also knew the nightclub circuit of Vegas-act singers and comedians. But he opened the Copa with a pop singer, Frankie Laine, and sold out the house.

Don't ask how many warm fannies that would entail; the Copa held 287...but only when the fire marshall was in the house, and that wasn't often. There were three shows a night, Monday through Saturday.

We suspect more than 861 fans jammed in there over the course of an evening. Even with a cover, if you look at the ad above the post, you'll see dinner started at the princely sum of $1.50. Hey, a guy gotta pay the bills...

Liking Laine's gate, Litman rolled the dice, booking Vic Damone and Ella Fitzgerald. Their success convinced him to follow the pop charts, a new twist to night club scheduling. Pittsburgh at the time was all jazz, interspersed with visits from the Vegas circuit. So Litman, in his way, helped open the gates for pop musicians to tour.

The Copa's national headliners were many and varied: Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Cab Callaway, Mel Torme, Conway Twitty, Patti Page, Andy Williams, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Henny Youngman, Pearl Bailey, Johnnie Ray, Rudy Vallee, Artie Shaw, Bela Lugosi, Marty Allen, Lili St. Cyr, Jackie Kahane, Buck & Bubbles, Billie Holliday, Bill Haley and the Comets, Al Hibbler and Miles Davis.

He missed a couple of acts, though. Litman passed on Elvis Presley and Lenny Bruce (although he helped book him into other venues), both being a little rowdy for his taste. It was a life-long thing; Pat DiCesare said in the Post-Gazette's 2001 "Hittsburgh" series that Litman left him a niche in the promotion biz because of his preference for MOR-type musicians and shows, leaving DiCesare the hard rockers.

Litman knew all the tricks. Beside squeezing in an extra table or two, he had a knack for picking out up-and-comers. It made great business sense. He signed them to contract options to play at the club, locking them into a low rate for future appearances if they ever hit it big, and providing affordable off-night acts if they didn't.

He also figured out how to skirt the state blue laws that outlawed Sunday entertainment. For New Year's Eve in 1950, which fell on a Sunday, he closed the Copa, rented the upstairs room, and moved the tables there to host a "private" party.

The Copa boomed for awhile, but the club business was being eroded by newer, larger suburban venues and escalating pay scales for the acts. At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, 1959, the Copa closed. Funny what a difference the opening and closing of a decade can make.

Over the years, he also shared ownership of a half-dozen clubs and lounges, like the Encore, Midway, Carnival, and Rock and Roll. But that era was done, and without missing a beat, Litman pulled on his promoter cap full-time.

He had been promoting shows through the fifties. After the Copa closed, he booked every act he could find in just about every local venue:

The Civic Arena (Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., Bolshoi Ballet); The Syria Mosque (Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Kingston Trio, Mort Sahl); Loews Penn Theater/Heinz Hall (Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, Ann Corio in "This Is Burlesque"); The Stanley (Carol Channing in "Hello, Dolly!"); Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall (Newport Jazz Festival) and the Carnegie Music Hall (Brenda Lee).

He even booked West View Park, when he partnered with KQV in 1964 to bring in the the Rolling Stones at Danceland, who as the story goes were outdrawn by DJ Mad Mike.

Litman wasn't limited to working just the Tri-State region. Joining with other partners, he produced concerts virtually across the country, from Cleveland to to St. Louis to Albuquerque. Litman promoted concerts through the seventies.

The Impresario was also the main man when it came to covering the City scene. He was the Pittsburgh correspondent for Billboard Magazine from 1948 until 1960. Then he succeeded Harold V. Cohen as the correspondent for Variety (Cohen actually anointed him as his successor), and he covered the local show biz news for the magazine for the next three decades. From 1970 to 1985, Litman also penned the "Nightlife" column for the Pittsburgh Press.

It was a point of personal pride for Litman that he never wrote a discouraging word about anyone in his column. He was proud of Pittsburgh's entertainment scene (heck, he was usually right in the middle of it) and pushed it and its performers every chance he got.

He could sniff out coming trends as well as anyone in the City. Shows Inc., which he started with Hy Kotofsky in 1958, built Valley Cable TV in Turtle Creek, the first cable company in Allegheny County.

Litman sold his share of the firm in 1978 when he couldn't position the company into the Pittsburgh market. If he'd had only known how cable and sports would become the new peanut butter and jelly, he might have hung on to it and the synergy it would have offered him.

You may remember that Litman started way back in the thirties as a sportswriter, college sports publicity guy and promoted boxing and donkeyball. Well, he also pushed the highly profitable roller derby after his Copa days were done, and had a small piece of the Pirates with his brother Gene.

His best known sports venture was forming the Pittsburgh Rens (for Renaissance) with his brothers and Gabe Rubin, placing the team in Abe Saperstein's American Basketball league after the NBA turned down their application for a franchise.

That gave Pittsburgh fans a chance to catch the great Connie Hawkins, blackballed from the NBA, hoop it up in the Arena. That started him on the road to redemption and eventually the NBA Hall of Fame.

And it was thanks to Litman, who the Hawk called "dad" and was quoted by Post Gazette writer Christopher Rawson as saying of the Litmans "I've gone to all their funerals and bar mitzvahs. I'm family."

Despite Hawkins' warm and fuzzy tale, Litman considered the Rens his greatest bomb, along with booking Charles Laughton, who cost the promoter more in pre-show advertising alone than he got back at the gate.

But even the non-stop Litman couldn't go on forever, although he gave it a pretty good run. He passed away on July 30th, 2002, from Alzheimer's Disease at the age of 88 and was buried at Ahavath Achim Cemetery in Forest Hills.

Left behind were his wife of 55 years, Roz, and his daughter Rebecca. He left behind a legacy, too, the Lenny Litman Performing Arts Fund, which helps support deserving programs with an emphasis on youngsters.

(Old Mon tips his hat to Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette critic, whose obit of Litman provided much of the information in the post.)


Anonymous said...

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They will be hosting a special Valentine's Show on Monday, February 14th with a Johnny Mathis interview, from Noon - 3pm (New York Time). Friends and fans can call in to leave a greeting for Johnny - in the USA call toll-free: 877-577-2630 and use Option #6. For those outside of the US, call:
540-288-4001 and use Option #6. Join Johnny and friends for this very special show honoring one of the greats, Mr Johnny Mathis! plays THE BEST MUSIC of the '40s, '50s and '60s...24/7. Tune in and enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Never forgot to say something nice about the local music scene, musicians, clubs, even the club owners..thanks Lenny you are missed..John Papi