A Hell of a Businessman: A Biography of Joe Glaser

Friday, January 29, 2016

By Simon Hodgson

Born in 1897, Joe Glaser was the son of a successful Russian Jewish physician in Chicago. He originally intended to follow a similar career and entered medical school, but after passing out in the operating room, he realized he wasn’t cut out to be a doctor. He started off in business selling used cars, but found better luck managing prizefighters.

In his biography of Al Capone, Laurence Bergreen notes, “Glaser’s power to fix fights earned him a reputation as a sage of boxing, especially among reporters.” With advanced word as to which fights were fixed, Glaser could predict the results—and even the number of rounds—of many bouts in Chicago. His connections with organized crime continued in his next career change, when he began running nightclubs and whorehouses in the South Side for the Chicago Outfit, the powerful underworld gang led by Capone.

Glaser’s tendency toward illegal action nearly ended his career. In 1928, he was sentenced to ten years in prison for the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl, but he dodged the charge by marrying her. Although his connections with Capone were enough to help him escape a similar charge months later, the scandals forced Glaser out of the nightclub business and back to boxing.

When Louis Armstrong approached Glaser to become his manager in 1935, both men were at a crossroads in their careers. While Glaser’s rise had been stalled by his run-ins with the law, Armstrong was looking for protection. He’d been threatened by several mobsters, including notorious New York gang leader Dutch Schultz, and after a series of inadequate managers, he wanted a partner with both savvy and steel. For the trumpeter, the businessman’s link to Capone and his reputation as a tough customer only added to his appeal. “You don’t know me,” Glaser would tell new acquaintances, “but you know two things about me: I have a terrible temper, and I always keep my word.”

From the start, the partnership was profitable. Glaser gave up his prizefighters, made Armstrong his sole focus, and went on the road with the musician and his band, where he quickly learned the ropes of touring. More importantly, he took on the “bad cop” role of negotiating contracts and firing band members, leaving Armstrong free to blow his horn.

Their symbiotic relationship was not just based on business. Armstrong saw in the older man the father figure he’d been searching for all his life. Glaser felt a similar loyalty. “I’m Louis and Louis is me,” he said in an interview with TIME in 1949. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for him.” Barney Bigard, a clarinetist and longtime collaborator with Armstrong, said that the relationship between the two men was genuine. “When Louis said in an interview that Joe was the greatest man he had ever met, he probably meant it. They really were plain old-fashioned friends. Louis wasn’t just saying that for business reasons.”

With the former nightclub manager handling the business and the trumpeter drawing the crowds, Glaser and Armstrong made millions. Glaser steered the musician toward mainstream audiences by securing spots on television shows, in national magazines, and in Hollywood movies, not to mention lining up his most successful single—“Hello, Dolly!” The resulting publicity helped turn Armstrong into an iconic figure in American public life.

While Glaser kept a lower media profile, he also enjoyed the rewards of their joint success, spending his time raising thoroughbred bulldogs, attending baseball games, and driving a blue Rolls-Royce convertible. The company he founded, Associated Booking Corporation (ABC), went on to represent not only Armstrong but also Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and dozens of African American musicians. “If I have Joe Glaser’s word,” said TV-show host Ed Sullivan, “I can go to sleep. And the performer he is booking can go to sleep too.” Glaser was “a hell of a businessman,” said Bigard. “I don’t think anyone else could have taken Louis as far as he did.”

Although Glaser’s career and his relationship with the musician were secure by the time of his death in 1969, his old criminal connections would sour Armstrong’s memory of him. Only after Glaser’s death did Armstrong realize the financial imbalance of their “partnership.” Control of ABC went not to him—as he had expected—but to gangland lawyer and fixer Sidney Korshak. The switch in succession had taken place seven years before; court documents from 1962 show Korshak’s acquisition of stock and voting rights. While Satchmo at the Waldorf suggests that the mob lawyer used blackmail to persuade Glaser, exactly how this transfer of corporate control happened remains
a mystery.

*To read more about Glaser and Armstrong, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

New Strands Festival: Thanking Our Artists and Community

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

By Cecilia Padilla 

Thank you to the hundreds of people who attended A.C.T.’s first New Strands Festival! Bringing together 65 artists from across the Bay Area and nationwide, this festival presented works-in-progress across animation, dance, music, and theater. As The Strand comes to the end of its inaugural season, it was amazing to see our new space filled with so many different artists and extraordinary new work. Here's a glimpse of just a few festival events that took place in The Strand. Keep an eye on our website to see other exciting events like this one!

   Michelle Summers (L) and Lauren Spencer (R)
in a reading of How to Catch Creation by Christina
Anderson. Photo by Jay Yamada. 

Thom.Green in a reading of How to Catch Creation
by Christina Anderson. Photo by Jay Yamada. 

Banda Sin Nombre. Photo by Jay Yamada. 
Miwa Matreyek. Myth and Infrastructure. Photo by Gayle Laird. 

Byron Au Yong (L) and Dohee Lee (R). 
Contemporary Music Experiments. Photo by Le Mello.



A Trick of Lighting: An Interview with Scenic Designer Lee Savage

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

By Michael Paller
Scenic designer Lee Savage has worked at regional theaters across the country and has extensive credits in New York City. He joined the creative team for Satchmo at the Waldorf in 2011 and has been with the crew ever since. “I love working on one-person shows,” says Savage. “It’s a very intimate experience.” We spoke with Savage about the challenges and exciting discoveries that have come from designing Satchmo at the Waldorf

What sparked your interest in designing Satchmo?
I had been approached by [director] Gordon [Edelstein] to do it, and I had never worked with him before, so I was very excited by the opportunity. After reading the play, I was really thrilled by its theatricality. Not only the biographical aspects of Louis Armstrong and his manager, Joe Glaser, and their relationship, but how they were being embodied by one actor. There’s an innate theatricality and awesome skill that only actors have: they can transform not only from who they are every day into a character, but they can also transform between characters right in front of your eyes. That was something that, after meeting John [Douglas Thompson] and seeing what he could do, was really inspiring.

Actor John Douglas Thompson in Long Wharf Theatre’s 2012 production of
Satchmo at the Waldorf. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Is designing for a show with one actor different from designing a show for multiple actors?
Yes. [The actors in one-person shows] bring a lot to the process. You get to know the actor really well. We involved John in the selection of props and whatnot. There were things that John found in his research and in his character development that he felt were important to include in the space, so we worked together to do that. Sometimes those decisions are made solely by the director or the designer.

Was there a particular challenge in designing this set?
It definitely evolved. It started at Shakespeare & Company [in Lenox, Massachusetts],which has a really deep thrust, and is a much bigger stage area than subsequent productions. What we learned [in Lenox] is that John’s connection to the audience was very immediate and really important to the storytelling. When we went to Long Wharf Theatre [in New Haven, Connecticut], the relationship between John and the audience was less immediate because the space was an end stage. The set became a very realized interior with a ceiling and walls. Although it was successful and we got to have more detail in the set, we learned that it was too enclosed; it felt like John and the audience were in different rooms. When we got a chance to do it again at The Wilma Theater [in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania], we eliminated a portion of the ceiling and sidewalls so it really opened up. That turned out to be the most successful version and the one that will be onstage at A.C.T.

So, more of an open approach?
It’s like a kind of shadowbox, I guess you could say. The room’s implied, there’s definitely architecture, but it opens up in the front, so it’s not an enclosed box. There’s no separation between John and the audience. There’s no frame around him. He’s thrust out into the audience as much as possible.

Working in the theater, you learn what you don’t need. The set at Long Wharf Theatre looks fairly realistic, but I was wondering what you chose to leave out.
It’s real, but it also has to respond to this gesture of changing character. I was trying to find the real dressing room at the Waldorf Astoria, which is where the play takes place, but there were no formal dressing rooms for performers that I could find, and I even went there to ask them. It turns out that a star who performed there would probably just get ready in his hotel room. So we looked at some hotel rooms, and we looked at a lot of research about Louis Armstrong when he was on the road and the different dressing rooms that he spent time in. That was very inspiring to us. But we also wanted to respond to the fact that we needed some sense of transformation when he switched to Joe Glaser. So, without giving too much away but giving it all away, the mirrors in the dressing room become the windows of Joe Glaser’s office by a trick of lighting and a two-way mirror. The set is able to respond to the character shifts, so we can actually change the location without changing anything except light.

So when John Douglas Thompson transforms, the set transforms with him.
Yes. We realized after version two [at Long Wharf Theatre] that we didn’t need the space to be completely real. It needed to be a little less real, more flexible, more open, more accessible to the audience. So it was great to have the opportunity to revisit the design and make it better each time. Sometimes you want a set to make a big statement, have a very muscular, spectacular design. This set is really about supporting John, the play, and the story. It’s a supportive set, I like to say. Everything is there to serve the play.

*To read more about Savage's set design, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

From Reel to Real: Louis Armstrong and Personal Recording

Friday, January 15, 2016

By Simon Hodgson 

For Louis Armstrong, a man who experienced the world through sound, recording himself came naturally. When commercially manufactured reel-to-reel tape recorders became available in the late 1940s, Armstrong was an early adopter. He was introduced to the new machines by his friend Bing Crosby, who saw the value in the magnetic tape technology exported from post–World War II Germany. The trumpeter invested in a Recordio reel-to-reel tape machine manufactured by Wilcox-Gay Corporation and took the bulky device with him on the road, transporting it in a steamer trunk.

While Crosby went on to use reel-to-reel tapes professionally and revolutionized broadcasting (he prerecorded radio shows rather than performing live), Armstrong used the new equipment in a more personal way. Initially, Armstrong used the audio technology to record his stage performances, enabling him to listen to and polish his sets. Gradually, however, he started recording ordinary life as well. He would tape postshow radio interviews, intimate conversations with dressing room visitors, dirty jokes with friends, or just himself tinkering around at home while watching a baseball game on television. 
A reel-to-reel tape recorder. Photo by Joe Haupt.

By the time he died in 1971, Armstrong had 650 reels of taped personal conversations as well as thousands of music recordings stashed in his house in Queens. For researchers, the hundreds of reels stored in an archival center in the Queens College library in Flushing, New York, are a gold mine. Previously, biographers had to track down Armstrong’s old collaborators for nuggets of information. Now, they can listen directly to the source. Author, drama critic, and playwright Terry Teachout used these tapes in writing his biography of Armstrong, Pops, as well as the play Satchmo at the Waldorf. Actor John Douglas Thompson, who plays Armstrong in Satchmo, also traveled to Flushing to listen to the tapes and hear the difference between the cultural icon and the man: one folksy, upbeat, and entertaining, the other capable of rage, resentment, and joy.

History has a way of revealing the flaws of the famous. Generals, presidents, and sports stars usually fade in the unblinking glare of hindsight. But in the recordings he left, Armstrong emerges stronger, more human, more believable. Yes, he could be angry, or crude, or embittered. But even in his most vulnerable moments—exhausted or irritated, high on his beloved “gage” (marijuana) or trying to get his wife into bed—he was never afraid to reveal himself.

Armstrong had a sense of himself as a public figure and a cultural leader. That explains his 1954 autobiography, about a musician who comes from the streets of Storyville and rides his talent to the top. He was proud of his rags-to-riches story—it was true, and he wanted people to hear it—but there was more to his life and personality than that one narrative, and he wasn’t afraid of sharing it with the public. It is that sense of himself as a historic figure that explains his frequent references in the tapes as to why he was making the recordings: “It’s for posterity.”

Armstrong didn’t just leave behind recordings. The Queens College library archive contains a trove of information for fans of the jazz man, including more than 80 scrapbooks full of newspaper articles and photos, 1,600 phonograph records, and even books by his nutrition advisor, Gayelord Hauser, the German-born doctor who became a Hollywood guru preaching the virtues of natural foods and laxatives.

Armstrong’s hundreds of recorded personal conversations show more than just a man who lived life through music. They disclose a musician of stature and integrity, who retained a sense of himself as a public figure—a jazz trumpeter who came from the streets and rode his talent to the very top. In the end, they reveal a man who was able to look history in the eye and be at peace with himself, his feats, and his foibles.

*To learn more about the man behind the trumpet, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

Fulfilling a Dream in Theater

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

By Amy Grace Lam

Back to the Source is A.C.T.’s annual week-long professional development program that invites educators to immerse themselves in the transformative power of performance. Taught by A.C.T. professional artists, faculty from our conservatory, and national leaders in arts education, this comprehensive course is a chance for teachers to take creative risks, bring new insight to their classroom practices, and ignite their passion for theater. Amy Grace Lam, a poet and community advocate who works at Community Health for Asian Americans in Oakland to empower immigrant and refugee communities to tell their own stories, participated in Back to the Source last summer, where she rekindled her own passion for theater.   

As an immigrant kid, words associated with performance, music, and the arts were “you can’t, you won’t, you shouldn’t.” I still have a vivid sixth-grade memory of my mom making me cut one of my three music classes in order to focus more on academics.  

Over the years, the performing arts became that extra special yummy dessert I treated myself to once in a blue moon. The kind you save up for months on calories just so you can fully enjoy the few moments of full richness and taste. The arts would only be a guest at my kitchen table.

And then last summer I was given the incredible opportunity to be part of A.C.T.’s Back to the Source educator institute. I broke the rules handed to me by the pragmatic, restrained values of my Chinese culture. I indulged in a full week of voice, physical play, improvisation, and song. I was told, “Yes, and wilder, go farther, be bolder!”

No one had ever given me permission to be myself and more. In pushing myself to be wilder, go farther, be bolder, I found that little girl inside who said, “Yes! This is home.”

The day after our ensemble’s final performance, I talked to my mom in China. She could hear the excitement in my voice as I told her about writing a song and performing it onstage at The Geary Theater. She laughed and said, “Did you know my first love was dance and acting?” She proceeded to tell me for the first time ever about her secret passion that had been extinguished because of the limitations of circumstance: a girl with polio living in poverty during the era of Communist China.

I listened with amazement as her story unfolded to the present with my week at A.C.T. Despite all these challenges, life had not given up on my mom. The dream she had as a child had buried itself deep inside my soul and grew in a soil rich with opportunity until it could lift its head above the ground.

At the start of the summer, I thought my fearless summer was defying my family and not asking others for permission. Instead I learned being fearless meant fully embracing myself and answering a call that was speaking to me from before I was born, a call from a dream given to my mom that would not give itself to fear.

Applications for Back to the Source 2016 are due March 24. For more information and to apply, visit www.act-sf.org/backtothesource.

A Major-Key Artist: An Interview with Playwright Terry Teachout

Friday, January 8, 2016

By Shannon Stockwell
It is a Sunday evening in 1964. An eight-year-old boy plays in the backyard of his small-town Missouri home. His mother leans out the door and tells him to come in. When he walks inside, he sees that the television is on. His mother says, “I want you to watch this. I want you to see this man, because he won’t be around forever.” On the screen are Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, playing “Hello, Dolly!” on The Ed Sullivan Show. The young boy is entranced.
This is Terry Teachout’s first memory of the music of Louis Armstrong. Teachout later went on to become a jazz musician, the theater critic for the Wall Street Journal, the author of Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and the playwright of Satchmo at the Waldorf. We caught up with Teachout to talk about the inspiration behind his first play, the complexity of Louis Armstrong, and the pure joy of Satchmo’s music.
What is it about Armstrong’s relationship with his manager Joe Glaser that is ripe for the stage?
Even in the first draft of the play, Satchmo at the Waldorf was already about the complex relationship between Armstrong and Glaser. Armstrong wanted to be able to go onstage every night and perform without having to worry about what to pay the members of the band or who the bass player should be or where they were going to play the next night. He simply wanted, as he liked to say, to blow his horn. Glaser made that possible. He told Armstrong where to play and chose the members of the band and gave Armstrong advice about how to present himself as a popular entertainer. And Armstrong trusted his judgment.
In the 1930s and the early ’40s, this kind of relationship wasn’t looked at askance. But that generation gave way to a more politically conscious generation of black musicians, like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and the way that Armstrong talked about Glaser in public made them uncomfortable. Along with this generational shift, younger blacks, more generally, became ill at ease with Armstrong’s stage manner, which they saw as ingratiating to the point of obsequiousness.
Louis Armstrong at the Aquarium in New York.
Photo by William P. Gottlieb, 1946. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Finally, the world of music itself was changing after World War II. The traditional jazz that Armstrong played gave way first to bebop and then to rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll. As a result, Armstrong lost most of his black audience. He became a person who, for the most part, played for white people in white nightclubs and concert halls.
Armstrong was aware of this. It was something that genuinely troubled him; he felt that he had been a figure of real importance in seeking out opportunities for his people. He couldn’t understand why anybody would condescend to him because he liked to be entertaining and make people happy. It was Armstrong’s growing awareness of this conflict that I put at the center of the play.
Why did you make this a one-person show?
I first imagined that the play would be performed by one person, who would switch between the roles. I knew that having the play done by one actor who has to cross a racial line to play the part of Glaser was what would give the play its dynamism. In a sense, Armstrong and Glaser are two sides of the same coin. Glaser is Armstrong’s dark shadow. He did the dirty work that Armstrong didn’t want to do and didn’t even want to know about. My Glaser explicitly talks about all this at the end of the play; by aligning himself with mobsters, he had made it possible for Armstrong to go onstage and be the fundamentally radiant, optimistic figure that he was as a performer.
In Pops, the epigraph is a quote from artist Constantin Brancusi: “Don’t look for obscure formulas, nor for le mystère. It is pure joy I’m giving you.” What does that quote mean for you and for Armstrong’s life?
I have described Armstrong as a major-key artist. I don’t mean that he was naïve. He really understood how hard the world could be—remember the difficult life he had as a child in Storyville, New Orleans. But his orientation, even when playing the blues, was essentially an affirming one. He accepts the good and the bad of the world, and, through his art, transmutes it into something beautiful. And what he wants you to feel, what he felt playing it, is pure joy. 

*To read more of Teachout's interview, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 
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