Profiles in Personal Passion

Here it is Jan. 2 already--the first day of the rest of the year--and William Osteck and Norman Fleishman are, in their own ways, still determined to wind up some unfinished show business this year.

The two Los Angeles men don't know each other and operate separately in spheres of their own.

They are offered up here because in their ways they are parts of a frequently ignored side of the entertainment industry. They are collectors of a sort. Fans. Admirers. Dreamers.

Activists, too.

They have separate causes, each with a personal passion with a show-business connection.

In a way, their passions tell us something about the roar of the crowd and why bright lights also attract fluttering flights of humanity. Take away passion and you might as well turn off the lights.

Fleishman's passion is global--he's been weighing ways to enlist some of Hollywood's most prominent names much as he did on a smaller scale a few years ago. This time his goal is a worldwide campaign of education about AIDS.

Osteck's passion is less global and a lot closer to home which, in his case, is the Hollywood hills. He's trying to get people to remember possibly the last great baritone voice of radio and at the same time celebrate a time when there was only one electronic entertainment medium.

So for Jan. 2 and beyond . . . a couple of profiles in personal passion:

Osteck might appear to live in the past, but anyone who talks to him or gets his persistent mailings knows he's very much present. He has a cause, a mild one at that. He doesn't want people to become separated from a part of their culture and their history. Last year, he started trying to link that past and the present by getting Southern California cultural and civic organizations to recognize the centenary of the late baritone John Charles Thomas, the coal miner's son, the once ballyhooed "greatest baritone of his time," and that earlier rarity, an American voice in the opera houses of the world.

So far, there are few takers for Osteck's idea. And clearly no John Charles Thomas sightings, either.

The rejections that Osteck has logged won't stop him. He'll continue giving his talks to community groups and playing his tapes, trying to stir some interest, especially in Los Angeles, where Thomas lived in Mandeville Canyon--raising chickens, pigs and his voice--during the '40s when he had his own radio network programs and in Apple Valley where the singer died in 1960.

A scattered few elsewhere have recognized the centenary of the singer who was born Sept. 6, 1891, in Pennsylvania and later became a star of the concert stage and the Metropolitan Opera. Last April, California's Bohemian Club put on a concert salute for Thomas--60 members of the San Francisco Symphony and six baritones performed such Thomas standards as "The Lord's Prayer," "Trees" and "On the Road to Mandalay." The Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore mounted two exhibits of the singer's memorabilia last year, one of which, "John Charles Thomas, an American Classic," travels to the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum and will run Jan. 14 through March 7.

But that's the closest to Los Angeles that any Thomas celebration will hit. And Osteck finds that strange. Thomas' NBC radio programs of music and talk were national favorites, helping establish a West Coast presence for radio performers.

He became an integral part of Los Angeles life, teaching voice in a studio on San Vicente. His name and presence helped start Los Angeles' Civic Light Opera. In 1938 when Edwin Lester formed that organization at the Philharmonic Auditorium, he needed a name to help sell tickets to this town's early pursuers of theatrical culture. He asked Thomas who agreed on two conditions: that he could pick his leading lady and that he would appear for two weeks only, so that he could get back to his yacht and his fishing. That first L.A. Civic presentation of "Blossom Time" sold out in 48 hours and the organization has been here since.

Now, Thomas is little remembered. There is a star in his name at 6933 Hollywood Blvd. But in this centenary year no record companies rushed out commemorative editions. No enhanced or redubbed CDs. The country can handle only one centenary at a time, Osteck theorizes, and last year belonged to Cole Porter.

Osteck savors the sonic remnants of radio. He listens to his recorded 10,000 voices, voices he calls "heavenly," singers long ago forever silenced. He has a vast collection of radio checks, 16-inch acetate discs and recordings that network radio stations made of their broadcasts. He has packaged many of these performances--their voices long ago went into a heavenly public domain--into audio cassettes and has a small business selling them to collectors.

He wonders if a man and a singer like Thomas, who helped to establish an American presence in opera singing 55 roles and in concert halls and certainly on radio, can't be remembered, what will be remembered of his and our times?

That explains the passion of William Osteck.

A conversation with Norman Fleishman is a flight into dizzying, inspiring, frustrating heights. He is a Hollywood child, that rare graduate of Hollywood High who was neither discovered there for show-business stardom nor name-dropped into high places.

He is a part of and apart of the entertainment business. To define him is difficult. He is neither studio chief nor backlot brave.

He collects causes. He's an activist, an organizer with connections that he's developed over the years. A Rolodex crusader.

During the early '70s when he headed up Planned Parenthood in Los Angeles after a similar career in Houston, he became a pioneer in attaching celebrities to social causes, using informal seminars to get Hollywood producers, actors and writers involved in programs and shows on issues that needed solutions and dollars. When you enlist the Hollywood crowd, the big names and the heavy hitters, you catch people's attention. That was his theory then. And it still applies. Informal, living-room, sit-down seminars that might evolve into scripts.

He became, as one person wrote, "the conscience of Hollywood."

Fleishman's activism is his ability to get people together to talk. A Norman Lear. A Larry Gelbart. A Blythe Danner. An Andrew Young. A Helen Caldicott. He blends the creative and the celebrated with the advocates and the spear carriers. Sometimes something comes out of it. Maybe a movie on a nuclear issue. A TV drama about birth control.

There is no structure to Fleishman's activities. Only the hope that if the creative end of Hollywood can be exposed to the work of someone who has been working the trenches then maybe that huge voice called Hollywood can move governments to change and individuals to think.

Fleishman calls his current one-person campaign "Coming Attraction." The name suggests show business but it also suggests disaster if nothing is done, if social issues go unmet.

While he believes his earlier '70s and '80s living-room sessions stimulated movie and television creators to take on themes that dealt with such sensitive issues as sex training, population explosion and nuclear energy, he spent most of his time last year looking for a global issue to connect with Hollywood this year, listening to advocates, attending conferences, researching issues. He thought he found one last fall during the Thomas hearings, the issues of women, sexual harassment and violence.

That remains high on his list, but now he's directing his energies toward what he feels is truly a global concern: AIDS. "There is nothing as elevated in importance as a global emergency than AIDS," he says. It's everywhere. But its efforts seem fragmented.

Yes, he's certainly aware of all of the present programs, the Magic Johnson effort, the benefit concerts, the existing organizations, the years of earlier warnings.

"That's why this needs a global effort," he says. It also may call for another Norman Fleishman production, a room full of very importantly creative show-business people sitting comfortably in a living room and talking with some equally important expert voices on an uncomfortable issue.

It would be a scene that would fulfill Fleishman's passion.

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