Joshua Ellis is probably one of the best well-known theatrical press agents of his time. During his time as a "Broadway PR Rep", he had represented some of the biggest names in show business including icons such as: Carol Channing, Eartha Kitt, Stockard Channing, Dame Angela Lansbury, Richard Gere, Denzel Washington, and Dustin Hoffman (just to name a few of the MANY, the list goes on and on!). Among the shows he publicized are the original Broadway productions of Into the Woods, 42nd Street, Fences, The Elephant Man, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, Big River, and the award-winning revivals of The King and I (Yul Brynner), Dracula (Frank Langella), Peter Pan (Sandy Duncan) and Morning's at Seven.
With a career lasting decades in the theatre, Ellis decided to tell his story once and for all, and add some humor to it as well! He created a one-man show in which he calls: Call my Publicist!- The Starry Education of a Broadway Press Agent.
In the interview below Joshua Ellis speaks exclusively to me about his new show, his best and worst shows, who he loved working with, tricks of the trade and more!
What was it like being a press representative for Broadway shows back in the day? What did you enjoy most about it?
The happiest places for me were the stars’ dressing rooms. Before, after, and sometimes during a show, I loved hearing their stories, getting to know them as people, meeting their friends. Example: During performances of The King and I Yul Brynner would make dinner for the two of us on his dressing room wok. He started during the "Small House of Uncle Thomas” Ballet (he was off-stage in that production), and we’d eat when the curtain came down. Janet Gaynor introduced me to two friends of hers in her dressing room: Mary Martin and Greta Garbo. Lena Horne’s dressing room after a performance was the best party in town! Celebrities every night.
How has the world of PR for Broadway changed over the years since you have left?
The Internet Age changed everything. I used to take subways to hand-deliver press releases and photos to the media around town. We had face-to-face relationships with quite a number of outrageous characters in the press. No cell phones. We were always looking for working pay phones. Broadway felt like a family. It wasn't corporate like it is now. Shows had one or two producers. Meetings were much, much shorter.
Who were some of your favorite stars to work with at the time?
A long and wonderful list. Here goes major name-dropping: Yul Brynner, Carol Channing, Lena Horne, Claudette Colbert, Geraldine Page, Uta Hagen, Frank Langella, Sandy Duncan, Bernadette Peters, Robert Preston, Dame Angela Lansbury, Teresa Stratas, Janet Gaynor, June Havoc, Ruby Dee, Carole Shelley, David Bowie, Jerry Orbach, Tammy Grimes, Lauren Bacall, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Sutton Foster, Barry Manilow, Eli Wallach and Sir Derek Jacobi. Not to mention the great behind-the-scenes “stars” — dare I call them that? — like David Merrick, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Sir Peter Hall and Richard Rodgers. Enough?
What show did you most enjoy representing, and why?
The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby: Hoped but never expected it to be the gigantic commercial hit that it was. The Time Magazine cover was like the Pulitzer Prize for a press agent.
The King and I: Yul Brynner was a great teacher and friend, and the show is a forever masterpiece.
Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music: Expected a 4-week run. Ran over a year. Everyone should have a Lena Horne in their life. She showed me that being in one’s 60s was a sizzling time in life.
42nd Street: David Merrick fired the original press agent the morning after its famous opening night when, during the curtain calls, David Merrick announced Gower Champion’s death to the cast and audience. Merrick hired me immediately thereafter — at 7:30 AM. See my show for details!
Rags: The Metropolitan Opera’s Teresa Stratas was magnificent. Charles Strouse’s score is perfection. It ran 4 performances and its closing broke my heart.
This show is back by popular demand, you must be so ecstatic about that! Without giving away everything; are you going to be changing up any of the show at all?
I’m trying to make it shorter. I’ve trimmed a few stories, cut about five and added two short ones. Lena Horne taught me so much about editing when she did The Lady and Her Music. You have to be ruthless with your own material.
What made you decide to take your life story of the PR world of broadway and turn into a staged show?
I tried to do it as a book but I have too much fun imitating people I worked with. I love impersonating Carol Channing, Eartha Kitt, Yul Brynner and many more.
Do you think having the right Press Representative for a show is crucial for that show to be successful?
Of course! Long relationships between producers and press agents are the most satisfying. I did 19 shows with Elizabeth I. McCann and Nelle Nugent. I worked for David Merrick for 13 years. And I handled a bunch of shows produced by Jimmy Nederlander.
For those who may not be aware, can you tell me just some of the duties/responsibilities of a Broadway Press Agent?
Getting your client in — or out! — of the media. Good news in, bad news out. It’s the same for all press agents, whether your client is the President of the United States, Pope Francis or Bill Cosby. You must be 100% truthful to the press. If you lie to them and lose their trust you’ll never regain it.
What is one thing we would be surprised to know about being a press rep?
No matter how much we seem to tell, we’ll die with our secrets.
What is the best advice you can give to future PR majors, and future press representatives?
(1) Find a job with a terrific public relations office. (2) Learn every trick of the trade from them. (3) Say “good-bye” to nights and weekends. It’s a 24/7 job.
If you could describe your show in three words what would they be?
Building Broadway Buzz
ONE PERFORMANCE ONLY!
THURSDAY, AUGUST 20TH AT 7:30 P.M. AT THE YORK THEATRE COMPANY AT SAINT PETER’S, OPEN TO THE PUBLIC! Please visit www.yorktheatre.org