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,"
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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
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 (
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
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
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
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