5. SELLING THE THEATER (YOUTH PUBLICIST FRANK GOODMAN)

When Flanagan was working in New York as opposed to traveling or attending to administrative chores in Washington, she used an office on the mezzanine of a bank building in the theater district that the Federal Theatre Project had taken over as its headquarters. It was yet another of the ironies of the depression that government employees, many of them dedicated to dramatizing capitalist shortcomings, should now occupy a former branch of the Bank of the United States. Its four-story building at Eighth Avenue and 44th Street, fronted with columns in the style of a Greek temple, had closed, along with fifty-nine other branches, in December 1930. The bank had some 400,000 depositors, many of them immigrants in the New York garment trades; its failure was the largest in the country to that date, and it underscored the absence of systems to protect depositors. Two of the bank owners eventually went to the New York state prison at Ossining for questionable stock dealings, but that was no consolation for the customers who lost their life’s savings.

The project’s operations had overflowed into other locations. One, another former bank two blocks away, housed the operation that researched plays for rights clearances. An ordinary office building at Sixth Avenue and 23rd Street was home to the information and promotion department, which included press, photography, and radio. It was here that a child of immigrants sat at a desk hammering away with two fingers on the keyboard of a battered Royal Number 10 typewriter. The jacket of his three-piece suit hung on a coat hook, his shirtsleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and he clenched a pipe between his teeth, the B-movie model of a theatrical press agent. His name was Frank Goodman and he was just nineteen, but he had half a dozen people working under him in his domain, which peddled stories to high school and college newspapers. The job required skills that matched his wardrobe: he was a fast-talking, irrepressible salesman.

Goodman had been born in 1916. His father, a waiter in a restaurant, died in the influenza epidemic two years later, leaving his mother to care for Frank and his infant brother, Larry. Rebeccah Goodman had few skills: English had failed to supplant the Yiddish she had spoken in her native Poland, and she struggled to support her young family with housecleaning jobs, moving them from a Lower East Side tenement to East Harlem in 1928.

Their marginal existence became harder still after 1929. Goodman, barely in his teens, hustled odd jobs before and after school to earn money: he shined shoes, pushed rolling clothes racks through the garment district, hawked newspapers. Every morning, he loaded a twine-bound hundred-copy stack of the Daily News and a stack of Daily Mirrors into a child’s wagon and pulled it to a stop under the Third Avenue el, where he cried out the morning’s headlines to work-bound riders and made change from a canvas apron tied around his waist. At the end of the day he caught the same riders coming home and sold them copies of the lurid Evening Graphic. But he and his mother could not earn enough between them to keep the family together. She finally took a live-in housekeeping job, and Frank and Larry were sent to foster homes. She was given one free afternoon a week, on Saturday, when the two boys would journey from their separate foster homes to meet her in a park or a diner, where she would nurse a nickel cup of coffee for hours while they talked.

At some point Rebeccah left her live-in job and retrieved her sons from foster care. She rented a rundown apartment in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, south of Crotona Park. They lived on meager meals of potatoes or macaroni boiled with spinach, and Frank and his brother coached her to improve her English. They all wore discarded clothes given them in twice-a-year visits to the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society. Larry’s clothes were twice passed along: he wore Frank’s hand-me-downs.

When Frank was about sixteen, the child welfare system placed him in the Murray Hill Vocational High School, on the East Side of Manhattan in the thirties. When the other kids hazed him unmercifully, he ran away, then enrolled in Haaren High School, a cooperative school that mixed academics and job training. Frank attended its aviation annex, which offered courses in avionics and aircraft mechanics, and got himself assigned to work as a mechanic’s assistant, spending alternating weeks at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and North Beach Airport in Queens. Sometimes he actually flew from one site to the other in the small planes whose pilots flew Daily News photographers on assignment, or with one of the pilots who worked for Rudy Arnold, a commercial aviation photographer. He always carried a notebook, in which he scribbled notes for the school newspaper he’d started, Sky Scandal. He enjoyed flying, but his real gift was for gathering and dispensing information.

Frank Goodman also had an instinct for what today would be called networking. He asked magazines such as Aero Digest and Aviation to give him their used engraving plates so he could improve Sky Scandal’s graphics. Before long he started to look around at other high school papers in the city. Columbia University had started the Columbia Scholastic Press Association about ten years earlier to encourage excellence in the nation’s high school papers, and Goodman thought he would do the same thing in New York. He approached the Post and the Herald Tribune for a meeting room, and in a matter of weeks the New York Scholastic Press Association, comprising both college and high school editors, was holding monthly meetings.

Next, he cast his sights on the theater. He was confident that theatrical publicists would welcome the attention of a high school newspaper, and badgered them for tickets to plays he wanted to review. This brought him in touch with Broadway press agents, including Phyllis Pearlman, who worked for playwright Elmer Rice and had gone with Rice when he accepted Flanagan’s offer to head the WPA theater project in New York. As soon as Goodman graduated from high school in 1935, he approached Pearlman for a job. When she told him he had to be on relief in order to qualify, he promptly went downtown to the former Siegel-Cooper department store building to fill out an application.

New York was full of symbolic contrasts between boom and bust, and one of them was the beaux arts Siegel-Cooper building. The six-story, block-long store, built before the turn of the century on Sixth Avenue’s “Ladies’ Mile” of posh emporiums, featured marble facing, high arched entrance doors, and columns reminiscent of the Roman Forum. Its elegant shoppers had long been history, and the once-magnificent surroundings were now crowded with the poor applying for relief and the clerks who processed them. On the echoing first floor, Goodman, his mother, and his brother joined the line of threadbare men and women with children in tow, all waiting their turn under the light of bare bulbs suspended from the ceiling.

When they reached the clerk, Goodman introduced his Yiddish-speaking mother and his younger brother and said he was their sole support. That was true, except for the few unpredictable dollars his mother earned cleaning houses. The processor approved him for relief, and he returned to Phyllis Pearlman with his papers the same day. She sent him to the press department, where he was assigned a clerk’s job that paid $16.50 a week. But unsurprisingly, Goodman saw this only as a start. Before long he proposed to Ted Mauntz, a former newspaper reporter who headed information and promotion for the project in New York, that he could spread the word by getting WPA theater news into college and high school newspapers.

Mauntz was impressed. “Write it up, kid,” he said. “I’ll kick it up to Washington.”

Goodman put his plan on paper and gave it to Mauntz. The next thing he knew, he had an appointment to see Hallie Flanagan in Washington. In February 1936, he turned in a travel voucher, took a train at Penn Station, and met Flanagan at the Federal One offices in a cavernous D.C. auditorium. She liked the plan he spelled out, but sent him for a second opinion to her new deputy, William P. Farnsworth, an attorney who had helped administer codes governing the amusement industry, one of the myriad business sectors regulated under the short-lived National Recovery Administration. Goodman repeated his spiel. “Why should we do it?” Farnsworth asked bluntly.

“Politically or economically?” asked Goodman.

“Politically.”

“Because the kids I want to reach in this plan are tomorrow’s voters.”

Farnsworth responded just as Goodman hoped he would. When the nineteen-year-old boarded the train back to New York, he had a job running a national press operation for high school and college papers out of the Federal Theatre Project’s New York office. He would earn a supervisor’s pay of $32.50 a week and have a staff of six. Using his scholastic press contacts, he quickly developed an extensive list of target papers in New York and the other cities that had active theater project production units, notably Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and started bombarding them with weekly listings. And within a month, flush with his new riches, Goodman could afford to discard his secondhand clothes and purchase a wardrobe befitting a press agent, complete with a fedora.

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