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A Life in the Theatre: Recalling 20 Years of Back Stage

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Let me open by wishing all of you a very happy New Year. And, begging a bit of self-indulgence, wishing myself a hearty congratulations! Friday, January 3, 1997, marks my 20th year as editor of Back Stage. Twenty years may seem like a long time in one position, but you have to keep in mind that, because Back Stage has seen such tremendous growth in its 37-year history, my position as editor has been an ever-evolving one. There were, and there are, new and different challenges and responsibilities that I deal with all the time in an industry that's changing almost as quickly. I came to the job as a wide-eyed innocent and, truthfully, there are times when I still feel that way.

As some of you know, my dad, Ira Eaker, began Back Stage with his partner, Allen Zwerdling, in December 1960. While still in college, I had worked a couple of summers in the office--as receptionist, as an editorial assistant--but my father never quite made it clear to me that I could work there full time nor did it ever enter my mind that I could. I taught in the New York public school system upon graduation, but after five years (and an MS in Education) knew for sure that teaching was not for me. I spent the summer of '76 and the next couple of months on the hunt for a new career.

My dad was terrific in helping me set up interviews, because he knew so many people in the business. Unfortunately, I found myself either over-qualified or under-qualified for any of the positions I went up for, and a question I kept hearing over and over again from those who were interviewing me was, "How come you don't want to work at Back Stage?"

Well, that idea finally came to fruition in December 1976, when the then-theatre editor of Back Stage, Charlotte Harmon, decided to retire from the paper after being with it for 15 years. My dad and Allen asked me if I would like the position . Would I! It was a dream come true. You'll have to envision what Back Stage was like in January 1977. The entire front section of the 32-page weekly was devoted to TV commercial production. The 10-to-14-page "Legitimate Theatre Section" was my domain and was filled mostly with casting notices which I took and typed myself on my manual typewriter, and then handed in the copy to be sent to our outside typesetters. I wrote an occasional feature story when the back page wasn't sold as an ad, updated lists of agents and casting directors, and wrote reviews of all the shows that I went to see. I had one part-time assistant (Julie Cesari, an actress-director), my very own office, and was busy learning about the industry during that premiere year. Remember, I was the boss's daughter and had to work harder than everyone else to prove myself in my position.

I had inherited a few columnists (Jay Barney, "Equity Theatre News"; Harry Linton, "Actors & Income Tax"), and a theatre and dance reviewer (Jennie Schulman, whose dance reviews are still a mainstay in Back Stage), but after a while I saw the need to expand the scope of the section and focus on more hard news stories, regular service feature articles, interviews, and reviews. With the number of advertisers increasing, and more casting notices running, we certainly warranted more pages for more material.

I had established contacts with all the performing unions and eventually got them to write regular columns for us. We had "SAG Views," "AFTRA News," "AGVA News," and a bi-monthly column from the Television Academy, (NATAS). I began to use freelance writers and reviewers (Judy Thrall, Victor Gluck, Lee Morrow, and others) so that we would be on top of covering the Off- and Off-Off-Broadway arena. In 1980, Back Stage had a facelift and started sporting the familiar logo that's on the front page today. The "Legitimate Theatre Section" became "Theatre and Talent Casting." Jennie Schulman began her "Dance Diary" column, we began "OOBA News," written by the Off Off Broadway Alliance's (now A.R.T./NY) then-exec director, Ellen Rudolph. My roundup of films shooting in New York was a monthly feature offering information to performers, tech, suppliers, and location scouters, and I loved piecing it all together.

My staff of writers continued to grow, many of whom are still writing for Back Stage today. Richard Miller began as a freelance contributor and ended up as editor of the commercial production section of the paper for a number of years. Michael Sommers was my first associate editor and did his first theatre reviews for me--he's now the New York theatre critic for Newhouse Newspapers. Frank Sheck wrote reviews (he's now the critic for Christian Science Monitor and Hollywood Reporter). More specialized columns were added to the paper: Fred Silver's "Audition Doctor" (the collection of which was eventually published in book form); Jack Poggi's "Monologue Shop" (also eventually published as a book); Jill Charles' column on regional theatres and summer theatres; John Allen's non-Equity summer stock column; Michael Hofferber's "Stage West" (the beginnings of Back Stage West). Bob Harrington's "Bistro Bits" began in November 1984, and it was his coverage of the New York cabaret scene that helped bring this special art form to the forefront once again.

Feature stories now ran every week in addition to news stories, interviews, columns, and reviews, all of which provided opportunities and valuable information to the performer. On January 20, 1984, the theatre section "broke off" from the main section of Back Stage and became a separate insert--placed upside-down so that readers would be sure to pull it out. This was the first step toward the independence of the performing arts section from the rest of the paper. The idea went over very well and I finally became editor of my very own 40-to-44-page section. Gary Prouse, a former Back Stage production manager-turned-ad-agency-creative director, helped me to design the front page (very similar to what you see today) and the rest of the section. The weekly feature now began on the front page, then jumped to the centerfold where we were able to dress it up with photos, sidebars, and lists. It gave us all the incentive to come up with even better and better features each week.

However, after 26 years of success with Back Stage, my dad and Allen decided to sell the paper. They accepted the offer from BPI Publications, publishers of Billboard and other industry trades, and the deal was set on November 20, 1986. For awhile, it left me in a very tenuous position, not knowing in which direction the new owners would want to take the publication. Fortunately, my fears were allayed. The Billboard folk entrusted me with my responsibilities and let me carry on.

Within their group was a book-publishing company and when I had an idea to compile many of the feature articles that Back Stage ran each week into a book form, they liked it and, within a year, my first "Handbook for Performing Artists" was published. (It's now in its third edition.)

There had always been talk about separating the publication into two distinct newspapers, but Ira and Allen never followed through on it, hesitating on the practicality of the idea. Our new BPI group publisher, Howard Lander, was in favor of the idea and for months before it happened we planned out a new format for the new Back Stage. July 4, 1990, was certainly an Independence Day for me. That's when the all-new Back Stage, the Performing Arts Weekly hit the newsstands. (The TV commercial section would be called Back Stage Shoot, and then eventually, Shoot.) My "CenterStage" column premiered in that issue, along with new columns written by correspondents across the country whom I met through one of my professional associations. What a thrill it was to see Back Stage reach this point.

The following January we presented our first live Bistro Awards Show at Eighty Eight's, which Bob Harrington produced and hosted. That same year also saw the second edition of the "Handbook for Performing Artists." My own full-time staff was growing and so were the number of reviewers, freelance writers, and correspondents. Back Stage West was launched in 1993, first as an insert in the national edition, and then on its own in 1994.

The shift we made in producing the paper each week is unbelievable. Remember, I began in 1977 using a manual typewriter. We had eventually added our own in-house typesetters, then each writer eventually got his or her own personal computer, but up until a year and a half ago, we still put the paper together using the old cut-and-paste method. Not now! It's remarkable to see pages put fully together on a computer screen.

In my earlier years at Back Stage I would listen to Ira and Allen talk about how things used to be when they started out; heard all about the people who used to work or write for Back Stage and how they have gone on in their careers; and saw them testing their memories by recalling dates and names of people. (My dad has a terrific knack for that!)

Now I find myself just like the two of them, giving sage advice based on my own life in the theatre industry. There's something about time and experience that nothing else will ever re

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