Saturday, June 20, 2009

Appreciation: Shelly Gross, wisecracking lion of the theater

Shelly Gross (1921-2009).

By Hap Erstein

To know Shelly Gross was to put up with his jokes.

A compulsive entertainer, he began as a radio and television personality in his native Philadelphia, before becoming a prolific producer of Broadway shows and national tours. Never one to shy away from a challenge, he frequently produced major musicals headlined by some of the theater’s biggest, and most hard to handle, stars, such folks as Yul Brynner, Robert Goulet, Shirley MacLaine and Carol Channing.

Yet it seemed that one of his greatest joys was reaching back into the filing cabinet of his mind for a wince-inducing corny joke. Or maybe he had a blind spot for how corny they really were. Interviewing him last year, I asked Shelly how long he had been married. He told me “62 years,” and then couldn’t resist adding, “A long time to bear a grudge.”

Shelly Gross, 88, died Friday morning after a long battle with cancer. He had retired to Palm Beach Gardens, but show business continued to course through his veins. So when he discovered a small local theater called Palm Beach Dramaworks crazy enough to produce tough plays by Edward Albee, he recognized its founders as kindred spirits and became involved with the company. He chaired the non-profit’s Advisory Council, was a substantial monetary contributor to the theater and was one of its most enthusiastic champions, not just attending its shows but bringing busloads of his neighbors from Devonshire, the upscale adult community where he resided.

One story that Shelly loved telling was how he gave a small girl her first professional role, as one of Tevye’s youngest daughters in a national tour of Fiddler on the Roof. Who was she? Sue Ellen Beryl, Dramaworks’ managing director.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and some of my earliest theatergoing experiences were at a colorful summer stock tent theater called Shady Grove Music Fair. There I saw such star package shows as Do Re Mi with Jerry Lester, The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Gloria de Haven, Sweet Charity with Juliet Prowse and a pre-Broadway tryout of A Joyful Noise, starring John Raitt, but more significant for being the directorial debut of Michael Bennett. The productions weren’t all great, but I loved them.

Shady Grove was part of a circuit, including Valley Forge (Philadelphia), Painters Mill (Baltimore) and Westbury (Long Island), that Shelly founded and ran with his producing partner, Lee Guber.

The two of them broke onto Broadway with a comedy romp Catch Me If You Can in 1965, a 103-performance flop starring Tom Bosley and Dan Dailey. He considered the 1977 revival of The King and I with Brynner to be his biggest hit, certainly compared to such classic expensive failures as Sherry! (the musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner), Bring Back Birdie (yep, the short-lived sequel to Bye Bye Birdie) and Lorelei (the follow-up to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). If critics and audiences did not see the wonders of these shows, that did not stop Shelly from being their staunch defender.

As he once told me, expressing his philosophy of life, “If you get knocked down, get up and try again. I don’t care how many people tell me I’m wrong, I know I’m right and I do it.” Fortunately, he had the resources to back up that point of view.

Shelly was what passes for a Renaissance Man these days. He wrote a dozen novels in his time, though he was always quick to add that only four of them ever made it into print. Asked to recommend one, he mentioned Roots of Honor, a fictional tale of a Russian Dreyfus case, as his best. I can’t say that I ever read it, but I’ll keep an eye out for it when I prowl through used book stores in the future.

A memorial service with be held Saturday, July 11, at a site to be determined. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in his honor to Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach, FL 33401.

I hope someone tells some of his jokes at the service. The cornier the better.

1 comment:

veryblonde9 said...

As my grief quietly engulfs me,
after learning of Shelly Gross's recent death, your wonderful article gently comforted me. I had the immense pleasure and honor to serve Mr. Gross as his executive assistant for Valley Forge Music Fair (and Westbury Music Fair) from 1990-1997, when Valley Forge
closed permanently, and was demolished.

In the years since the theatre closed, there hasn't been a day that's gone by, that I haven't missed him, as well as my incredible co-workers. I never tired of his fascinating stories of the entertainment industry and celebrities, his keen intellect and savvy business ways...we were a "smooth" and highly organized team together, and he taught me so much! My first "Secretary's Day" luncheon with him was marvelous, as we sat in a beautiful, historic inn, he drinking dry martinis, and me, gin and tonics; the very beginning of my relationship with this talented, and kind man.

Our last employee barbeque was spent phoning him in Florida; one by one, we each updated him about our lives. Then Shelly told us he was very ill, and we listened, and consoled him. He then warmly thanked me for making it possible to speak with everyone, and how it had deeply touched him.

I have no doubt that Mr. Gross has found that theatre "in-the-round" in Heaven, and is busy auditioning the Angels for a new Broadway hit!

Mr. Gross, you shall be deeply missed by us all. What an amazing life he led... television announcer, Broadway producer, successful author, loyal husband, father, and grandfather....and how marvelously he lived it!!

With love and gratitude to you, Mr. Gross, I remain, as always,
your faithful assistant,

Janice Wildemore