My father ran one of the Midwest’s largest big-name talent agencies, Variety Theater International, managing 300 gigs a year. As a boy, I hung out weekends at his office in Duluth on Superior Street.
In late May 1959, a cold wind tossed the waves of Lake Superior just beyond the office window. A storm was brewing. My father sat in his office reviewing contracts. I perched at the secretary’s desk in the foyer, reading Mad magazine. Suddenly, an impatient knock announced a visitor. I opened the door.
A short woman dressed in nylons and low heels, wearing lipstick, brushed by me. She was followed by a young man who I would learn later was her 18-year-old son. She shouted toward the open door of my father’s office: “Lenny, it’s Beatty. I brought Bobby.”
“Come into my office,” my father said, as I recall the conversation that day. She lunged forward. Tagging close behind her was a gangly high-school senior from Hibbing, with dark curly hair and a permanent scowl. A guitar was slung over his shoulder, troubadour-style. My father stood up from his desk and hugged Beatty, a shirt-tail relative. Bobby just glared.
The office door shut. It was one of those offices whose walls did not reach the ceiling, so I could hear everything. I went back to my magazine at the secretary’s desk. Auditions were common on Sundays and never much interested me. I don’t remember the songs Bobby sang. When he finished, there was an awkward pause. Beatty broke the silence. “Who are you touring this week, Lenny?
“Let’s see. This week it’s Ike and Tina Turner, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash.”
“You’ve come a long way from those days of the Glenn Miller Orchestra,” Beatty said.
“Nowadays, it’s either rock and roll or protest, either ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ or ‘If I Had a Hammer.’ That’s what the public wants.”
I thumbed through the Don Martin cartoons, waiting for someone to say something. Then came Beatty’s blunt question. “Well, what do you think of my son?”
Ever the diplomat, my father said, “Well, he has his own way of singing, Beatty. But my advice is to encourage him to go to college this fall and get a real job.” There was another silent pause.
Then the office door opened. Bobby strode out, noticed me for the first time, and, before he charged into the hallway, gave me, a kid of 10, a quick frown and stare. His eyes were blowtorches.
Beatty rushed after her son, saying over her shoulder, apologetically, “Lenny, that’s what I’ve been telling him for years. He won’t listen to anybody.” The door slammed.
A moment later, my father came out of his office and walked over to the row of windows gazing south toward the ship canal. I looked up from “Spy vs. Spy.”
“You hear that foghorn, Ricky?” he asked. I nodded. “More melodic than Beatty Zimmerman’s kid. He sounds like a strangled cat.”
Thirty years later, the year before my father died, I asked him if he had any regrets from his career as a talent promoter. “None,” he said, not pausing a moment.
“What about Bob Dylan? He’s world famous now. Rich. A brilliant songwriter. You could have been his manager.”
“Ahh, hindsight!” he said, as I recall. “But we live moment to moment, and the way forward is rarely clear. But I’ll tell you one thing I learned for sure in show business. Audiences give way too much credit to those in the spotlight. It’s all an illusion. Fame gets no one into heaven. Money drags down the soul. It’s best to live with no regrets.”
Of course, the irony is that Dylan himself made that same humble prediction in his song, “The Times, They Are A-Changin’:”
“For the wheel's still in spin
“And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
“For the loser now
“Will be later to win
“For the times they are a-changin’.”
The lyrics, too, were a prediction that his rough start in show business would turn to better times ahead. They did.
Rick Naymark lives now in the Twin Cities.