Sunday, November 05, 2006

Book Review: Hollywood and Me by Bernie Rothman

Hollywood and Me: My Wild Ride Through the Golden Age of Television by Bernie Rothman never quite lives up to its title.

The subtitle is flat-out deceptive. I'll leave aside my objections to his tamely written "wild ride" and focus instead on the "Golden Age of Television," which usually refers to roughly the 1950s. This book apparently self-defines it as the period when Rothman was working in television, in a career that spanned the 1960s to 90s.

The front page blurb goes on to explain that the book reveals "tales of my time with Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, Rudolph Nureyev, George Burns, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee, and many more." Some of those names barely appear in short anecdotes that don't rate a mention on the cover, except to inject some star power, of course.

In the introduction, Rothman writes:

"This is not a memoir. ... Only famous people write memoirs, because people want to read them. Publishers aren't stupid, you know. So if a memoir is what you're expecting, read no further. This isn't one."

Of course it's a memoir. The fact that Rothman isn't a household name is exactly the reason for the hyperbole of the front cover, the redefining of TV's golden age, the name dropping of people who barely appear on the pages inside. Publishers aren't stupid, you know.

Rothman's career began as a writer low on the food chain, and moved up to executive producer on various television specials. Highlights given space in Hollywood and Me include The Danny Kaye Show, The Judy Garland Show, specials featuring Liberace, Diana Ross, and skater Elizabeth Manley, and a Humanitas-award-winning TV movie about autism, Son-Rise. He also won Emmy awards for producing the specials Danny Kaye's Look-in at the Metropolitan Opera and the Julie Andrews-Rudolph Nureyev starring Festival of the Lively Arts.

Hollywood and Me is more the story of the "me" than the "Hollywood." For one thing, to be literal-minded, Rothman talks about his career in Canadian television, with pit stops in Australia and England, as much as in American TV.

We learn of Rothman's privileged Montreal upbringing, where he went to summer camp with lifelong friend Leonard Cohen, who also appears in the book as an anecdote or two. After following his father into the tailoring business, Rothman realizes his real love is the theatre, where he becomes a producer before entering the more stable - but not actually stable - world of television.

Rothman has a distinctive voice that is an obvious attempt to duplicate speaking patterns, with streams of sentence fragments, interjections, and colloquialisms. Depending on your taste, that could be charmingly folksy or annoyingly forced. He also breaks into the narrative with self-conscious passages that began to grate on me:

"See what I mean - this really isn't a memoir. If this were a memoir (notice, I use the subjunctive to denote a contrary-to-fact clause), I'd be telling you all about my own career, making myself the hero of it all."

It's a puzzling case of he doth protest too much, because that is pretty much exactly what he does in Hollywood and Me, though not always particularly well. There are a lot of subtle and overt "I told them so"s peppering this tale of one man's ups and downs in show business, but the anecdotes never get into enough detail to present a full picture of what went wrong during the bad times - except Rothman's assurance that it generally wasn't his fault - or what went right during the good times - except his assurance that it generally was his doing.

We don't learn very much about the famous people in Rothman's often amusing anecdotes. Some he seems to have barely met, others seem to be too close for him to spill their secrets. Though we get superficial mentions of George Burns, Liberace, and Diana Ross, there is an entire fawning chapter - which nonetheless reveals little - about Connie Chung and Maury Povich. Ah yes, the golden age of television.

Rothman's personal story is interesting enough for a memoir. He turned his back on the easy career path offered by his father, struggled in a dog-eat-dog world of television production, was caught between family and career demands, encountered the famous and infamous, and learned his craft from some interesting behind-the-scenes personalities.

Too bad a memoir's not what he intended to write, because this collection of choppy anecdotes could have benefited from a more unified story, instead of an insistent voice that strings together encounters with the famous and semi-famous with smatterings of that personal story, and tries to tell the reader what to think about the narrator and his tales.