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Full Court Press

Date: Feb 21, 2008


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Irene Gandy is never shy about speaking her mind, but she's not sure she wants to see a feature about her.

"If I can't get press on my people, they don't need to see press on me," says Gandy, a veteran theatrical press agent, with a husky laugh. Gandy is sitting on a plush couch surrounded by walls of framed theatre posters in the office of Jeffrey Richards, the Broadway producer and press agent she's worked with since I'm Not Rappaport in 1986. She's remarkably subdued this afternoon, and perhaps more remarkably, she's sedately dressed in a brownish ensemble.

Has the fabulous, larger-than-life Irene Gandy--she of the colorful hats and oversized sunglasses, she who once slept on West Village benches with Ritchie Havens and who was on the road with Bob Fosse when he died--begun to mellow with age?

"I'm going to be 65 next year, and I want to be able to take a little more time off," says Gandy, who began her press agent career exactly 40 years ago, in 1968, under the tutelage of Howard Atlee, and who currently reps such Richards productions as November, Spring Awakening, August: Osage County and The Homecoming. "But every time I think I wanna do that, I look at Ian McShane in Homecoming," referring to the 66-year-old English actor who's still going strong eight shows a week.

If anyone can run with the fast crowd, it seems, it has been Irene Gandy, who describes a relatively sheltered childhood raised in one of the few African-American families in Westbury, Long Island. She had planned to attend the prestigious black college Howard University in Washington, D.C., but, she explains, "My mother was concerned that I had not been around the South, and she thought I would get in trouble."

Little did her mother know what would happen when young Irene entered New York University, and more importantly the Village, in 1961.

"I went crazy," Gandy says. "I was Black Woman On the Loose. I was a wild woman. It was fabulous. Ritchie Havens and I would sleep on benches; Peter Tork was a waiter. Shelley Fireman, who owns Trattorio Dell Arte and the Redeye Grill, had a place called the Hip Bagel. Bill Cosby was performing at a local club."

By the time she turned 21, Gandy says, she and her four roommates decided "we'd done everything," so they did the natural thing: They sought work in the Catskills.

"My roommate was a singer, and she said, 'Come, you can be the go-go girl,' like from Shindig," Gandy says. "So we went up to this black resort, oh my God, up in Ellenville, New York--Utopia Lodge, that was the name of it. She auditioned and didn't get the job--but I got the job."

There she met her husband, the musician Joe Gandy, with whom she had a girl, named Myra.  But that's a story for another feature. It was also around this time that Gandy got her first job as a press agent. It started with a brief jaunt as an actor, she explains.

"There was a guy who lived in my building who wrote children's theatre for the Electric Circus--that was really the first big disco, the first Studio 54, Electric Circus on St. Marks. His owl was missing, so he said, 'Can you come be the owl?' I said, 'OK, I'll be your owl.' " While she was there, she ran into a friend who was the company manager for the Negro Ensemble Company, then forming under the leadership of Douglas Turner Ward. The NEC was having no trouble finding actors and directors, but, according to Gandy, her friend told her, " 'But nobody wants to be a press agent, and we've gotta send somebody black; this is the last day, and everybody white has come. I said, 'I'll go, I just have my little baby; I'm not doing anything.' I knew I wasn't going to get the job."

She knew wrong. She showed up at the office of press agent Howard Atlee in the Sardi's building--and promptly interviewed him.

"It was the days of Twiggy; I was like a size 6, maybe a size 4, so I had a suit with a big tie, white stockings, white go-go boots," Gandy recalls with relish. "I was like, 'What is a press agent?' The only thing I knew about press agents was Mae West's line, 'My press agent kidnapped me,' from that movie Go West Young Man. I ended up asking him all these things, and I said, 'Thank you for your time, I know I'm not going to get the job.' He called me the next day and said, 'You got the job.' "

And the rest is history. Interestingly, Irene says she's only ever experienced racism when she was on tour, outside New York.

"I went out on the road with Purlie Victorious in 1970, and my first stop was at the Miriam Theatre in Philadelphia," Gandy recalls. "I'll never forget what I had on: a purple suede suit, a beautiful Afghan coat. Being from New York, I don't know about prejudice or racism. I don't think about it here. But I go there and I say, 'Hi, I'm Irene Gandy, I'm the press agent.' They wouldn't let me in the box office! I called the producers in New York, and they said, 'You know what, we're going to cancel our engagement. If that's the way you're going to treat the person that's handling the show, we're concerned about how you're going to treat the cast and your audience.' "

Another story from her days on the road involves the late great choreographer/director Fosse, who was in Washington, D.C. with Sweet Charity starring Donna McKechnie. The workaholic artiste was prickly about letting in the press while he was still working on a show, but Gandy had decided to invite the Washington Post to a preview.

"I went over to Ebbets Grill, and they called me back from the theatre and said, 'Get back here right away,' " Gandy recalls. Thinking Fosse had found out about her inviting a critic, she strolled back "like Butterfly McQueen in Gone With the Wind. I didn't want to face that." It turns out, of course, that Fosse had died suddenly. "He dropped dead in front of the Marriott, but we put him in front of the Willard--a better hotel. I was so mad at him. I said, 'You are so much trouble! You can't even die in the right place!' Fortunately we were in D.C., which has all the national news service. I held a press conference at midnight and was on all the morning shows."

Gandy has been lured away from theatre publicity just once, to work for CBS Records for a short time in the 1970s. "You had so many people in command that I missed what I had in theatre--the one-to-one."

To this day, Gandy is still a sucker for the footlights.

"I love theatre; I love the people," Gandy says. "I go into Sardi's and see [Shubert president] Phil Smith in the corner, and Max [Klimavicius], who was a busboy, now owns it." Gandy starts to tear up. "I just love the old producers seeing these old-time producers taking meetings, just with the thought, a gleam, that maybe there's still hope. I look at them and see, they still got it, and that keeps me going."

We might say the same about the inimitable, irrepressible Irene Gandy.