5:16 PM CST, February 23, 2013
As it says here, on page 64 of the glossily fascinating coffee-table book "Variety: An Illustrated History of the World From the Most Important Magazine in Hollywood," Al Capone, interviewed in his Chicago home, told Variety he was approached often to appear in gangster films but "snorted at most." He hated gangster films but liked movies and often had "private showings with professional projectionists to run the show." He was also famously self-aggrandizing, and on a wall of his home — a home protected by 70 bodyguards — it was noted his portrait hung beside portraits of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
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That interview, described by Variety editor-in-chief Tim Gray, whose prose anchors this eccentric, addicting account of the magazine's evolution, appeared in 1931 and goes on to say — wait, Variety interviewed Al Capone?
Though the often visually drab 108-year-old entertainment trade magazine first covered minstrel shows and circuses — and perhaps remains best known for its clever showbiz "slanguage," which gave us such words as "cliffhanger" and "biopic" (as well as the phrase "Will it play in Peoria?") — one of the joys of Gray's splattery assemblage of excerpts, anecdotes and history are odd little finds like the Al Capone interview. In fact, also mentioned on page 64: the rise of "talkers" (sound motion pictures), Variety's early coverage of Adolf Hitler and an item from 1934 assuring us that, yes, if there is a Loch Ness monster, it will likely appear in a movie.
Woven throughout this pastiche are tributes from studio execs and artists (Sarah Silverman, Martin Scorsese), landmark obituaries (James Dean, Elvis Presley), period ads. But the real draws are its reproductions of Variety's great cluttered front pages stuffed with grabby headlines — "Garbo Deal at 300 G's" (August 1934), "Can O.J. Still Make Hay?" (October 1995), "Cops No Booze Smellers" (August 1927).
We spoke recently with Gray from his Los Angeles office. The following is a edited version of our conversation.
Q: Do you write Variety headlines yourself?
A: Not all of them, but I do, yes. My favorite headline that I wrote was — we did this piece on the rising middle class in Russia, and yet everyone thinks of Russia as relentlessly bleak and gray — "Putin on the Ritz." Which is shameless, I know. But I think, go for the cheap joke in a headline sometimes!
Q: A Variety rule of thumb.
A: Well, we always write a lot of headlines for each story and usually throw in one or two to amuse ourselves. Sometimes a headline will be rude and raunchy, sometimes (headlines) get absurd but are used.
Q: One of the striking things in the book is how interchangeable the actual headlines could be with stories written today — there's a 1929 front page in the book with a giant headline reading "What Sound Has Done," which could just as easily be "What Digital has Done." There's another about a Hollywood theater promising to show only 3-D films, which was premature but prescient.
A: Change is inevitable. You recognize it or get stuck behind. There were people in vaudeville (in old Variety stories) saying vaudeville wasn't dead. OK, you can think that, but ... The same thing happened with sound. Now digital: People used to have five-year plans, now you don't even know if your jobs will exist in five years.
Q: I wonder then if the book, to an extent, didn't come out of a feeling of watching the physical magazine lose steam? The image of people reading Variety on a movie set or at a cafe is such an iconic Hollywood image — the large size of the magazine is so rooted in how we picture Variety — I wonder if the book was partly an attempt to construct some argument for the physical thing?
A: That's a valid question. Every day you hear print is dying, but I don't know if it's seen that way in the entertainment business. There is something about print media in the entertainment business, it's still part of the culture. People still love to see their names in print and frame it, and a screen grab is just not the same thing — we still get a lot of calls from people asking, "Can we have 25 copies of today's Variety?" It's part of the culture in Los Angeles still.
Which reminds me, as I was working on this book and going through the archives, I found a lot of stories about how television meant the end of movies. True, people were going to movies three times a week then, and I don't know anybody who goes that frequently, but movies didn't end.
The print issue of Variety might become a cult item, but I don't care if you read us on email or in print as long as you read us. I kept being reminded (while working on the book) by how things change and stay the same. Variety started out covering wild-west shows! And even now we occasionally get calls from people who are mad that we are not covering certain things. But, you know, we don't cover vaudeville today, either.
Q: What was the catalyst for the book?
A: Rizzoli approached me because they wanted the history of the world as seen through the pages of Variety. My first thought was, how interesting, and also, what a weird idea. I honestly didn't know we could do that. I have been at Variety since 1981, and I knew (the magazine) had covered a lot of world events, but I didn't know if they had covered events in the '20s and '30s, and sure enough, when I went through the archives, I found way too much material.
Variety started in 1905, and OK, what were the significant world events since 1905? Variety covered every one that I thought of, sometimes extensively. The sinking of the Titanic? There was an article about a woman in a vaudeville theater who fainted when she heard the Titanic had sunk. She had a relative on board, and a lot of people had been told that it hit an iceberg and was being towed to Nova Scotia. So when this announcement was made, she fainted. The article also talked about the mood of gloom in the entertainment business — people were shaken up — and when would people recover? Six months later, we had this piece on vaudeville doing a re-enactment of the sinking. They recovered fast.
Q: What else did you find?
A: When Nixon resigned, Variety did a good piece on the television coverage — that's in the book. There was a piece written during the Russian Revolution directed at the people in vaudeville, saying basically, if you have a booking in Russia, you might want to wire ahead, because, they're having this revolution, so, you know, your booking may be canceled perhaps. Which is hilarious. Not the revolution, the idea of that story.
Q: Did Variety have war reporters?
A: We had people covering the Arab Spring recently. We had people covering World War II. But Variety doesn't necessarily send its reporters into war zones. In 2007, we did a piece about television and Iraq and basically what television was like, what was on there. We had this great story about how the contestants on the Iraqi "American Idol" were dodging bullets on their way into the studio and how their "Extreme Home Makeover" show was about these homes destroyed in the war. Again, kind of a weird angle on an event, but fascinating.
Which is what I love about the Variety archives — all this history I had never heard before. But would I send a reporter now to interview a drug lord, the way reporters interviewed Capone? I don't think so.
Christopher Borrelli is an entertainment reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
By Tim Gray, Rizzoli, 320 pages, $50
Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC