If maestro Eugene Jelsenik doesn't know all of the colorful characters in the entertainment industry, he's acquainted with someone who probably does.
One of his longtime friends, Seymour Heller, paid a visit to Salt Lake recently for one of Jelesnik's pops concerts.If Heller's name doesn't ring a bell, certainly those of some of his clients will.
Heller is (or has been) a consultant, promoter, producer and personal manager for such celebrities as Liberace, Helen O'Connell, Frankie Laine, the Four Preps, Jimmie Rodgers, the Hi-Los, Neil Hefty, Margaret Whiting, Ray Anthony and Tex Beneke's orchestras, and "the superstars of the Lawrence Welk Show," including Jack Imel (who was a guest star for the Salt Lake Philharmonic's concert on July 13 in the Salt Palace), Jo Ann Castle, Joe Feeney, Myron Floren, Bobby & Elaine, Ralna English, Sandi Griffiths and others.
When Jelesnik and Heller get together and start reminiscing, the tale-swapping provides enough anecdotes to fill a good-sized book.
Heller has been involved with the entertainment business since the pre-World War II years. When he was a senior class officer at Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio, one of his jobs as chairman of the entertainment committee was to hire bands for school dances.
One band leader, Al Zieger, told the lad he was looking for a manager for his band.
"I didn't have any experience, but he said all I had to do was read the society section of the newspaper every Sunday and call everyone who was having a party. If they needed music, I was to ask them how many musicians they wanted, line them up on union scale, and add 10 percent for myself," he said. He was somewhat reluctant, until Zeiger said his drummer had his own lithograph and was prepared to print business cards with raised lettering just for Heller.
The thought of having his own professional-looking business cards impressed the young man.
"When I write my book someday, `On the Turn of a Card' will be the title," Heller said.
After high school, Heller and a friend began their own band-promotion business while attending Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Later, while attending law school, he worked for Music Corporation of America (MCA) and suggested they start a separate division just for booking entertainment for schools and colleges.
"I made a fast $40 per week plus a percentage," he said.
He left law school before graduating (he didn't really want to be a lawyer anyway) and was faced with weighing two offers - one from the Miss America Pageants, promoting that event in various cities, and another to manage the Ted Fio Rito Band. The first just paid a commission, and the other paid $75 a week plus expenses . . . and the enticement that "when we get to California, you'll never want to leave."
Except for a stint with the Coast Guard (stationed in Cleveland, putting together shows with such stars as Gower Champion, Sid Caesar and Victor Mature) and a few weeks in New Jersey (where he advised a very young Frank Sinatra to strike out on his own and managed to cut Sinatra a 7-year contract with MCA), Heller has been based in California.
In 1945, he joined General Artists and signed up a gospel act called The Treniers. He still manages the group, and it's become known as the longest manager-client relationship of anyone in the business.
Five years later, in 1950, Heller was helping promote a movie ("South Seas Sinner" with Shelly Winters, Macdonald Carey and Frank Lovejoy). There was also a young man in the film who played the piano.
His name was Lee Liberace.
The studio asked Heller to arrange a promotional tour, maybe have this Liberace fellow play in the background for some singers.
Then one of Heller's friends in the business called and said he had seen Liberace perform and "he was the coolest cat around." Liberace had just played Ciro's Club in Hollywood and, during a conversation with Liberace's brother, George, Heller was told that their manager had gotten drunk and passed out. Liberace had fired him and they were in the market for a new manager.
Lee and George invited Heller to listen to one of their performances during an engagement at the world famous Del Coronado Hotel in San Diego (where Liberace was playing in a small club down in the basement - not even in the main dining room).
Heller, who sat at a table with Liberace's attorney, John Jacobs, said he had learned one thing about signing up new acts: If they don't get my attention in the first 16 bars, I'm not interested.
When Liberace played "the audience stopped drinking and was mesmerized. I turned to Jacobs and said, `You've got a deal.' "
Heller represented Liberace as his personal manager for 38 years - until the day he died.
"We played Salt Lake many times and Eugene Jelesnik was our promoter. One morning, in 1958, Eugene and Virginia
(his late wife) found out we were coming through on a train. It was 6 a.m. and the porter came up to me and said there were some people waiting at the depot. It was the Jelesniks with a pizza from the Cinegrill Restaurant," he said.
"He was so nice to work with," Heller said of Liberace. "Once he went for about six months without a record contract, but Lee was a firm follower of Dale Carnegie's `The Magic of Believing' and knew he would get another contract."
As a young performer, Liberace just focused on what he did best: play the piano.
But about 1954, when he was booked to play in Hollywood Bowl with the 90-piece Los Angeles Philharmonic, he was worried about sitting there in a black tux-and-tails, surrounded by all the other musicians also in black. He decided to go against the grain and wear white tails, so he would be seen.
"All the critics commented on the the white suit and this started his trend toward wearing flashier clothes," Heller said, noting that the pianist progressed from gold lame jackets to beads and - for his final concert at Radio City Music Hall, he came out in a suit encrusted entirely in rhinestones, which matched his grand piano and the limousine that drove him out onto the giant Music Hall stage.
Christmas was always an important time for Liberace, Heller said. He would invite friends and family over to his home in Beverly Hills for an all-night event of opening presents. He routinely spent about $15,000 just to decorate the inside of the home, and the gift-giving would include dinner, bonuses and expensive presents - gifts that Liberace would select himself year-round, not just last-minute whims.
Liberace took his rare vacation time very seriously, too, but one time the manager of the Sahara Tahoe placed an emergency call to Heller. His star, Englebert Humperdink, was ill and could not go on - could Liberace fill in for him?
Heller was reluctant and turned down the offer, then called Liberace to explain what he had done. "Liberace thought about it for about one minute - and told me to accept the offer."
Heller's newest client is Tom Burns, a singer who was the grand prize winner of the Star Search program for 1993.
And he's also still managing some of the former Lawrence Welk stars, who will soon have a new performance venue - the Lawrence Welk Champagne Music Makers theater, restaurant and hotel complex in - you guessed it - Branson, Mo.