martedì 11 novembre 2014

Jerry Tallmer, Critic Who Created the Obies, Dies at 93



Jerry Tallmer with the actress Julie Harris in 1962, when he received the George Jean Nathan Award in Drama Criticism. CreditGin Briggs/The Village Voice

Jerry Tallmer, who brought professionalism and a personalized approach to arts coverage to The Village Voice in its earliest days, and who dreamed up its award for Off Broadway theater, the Obie, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Abby Tallmer.
The Village Voice would become the model for scores of alternative weeklies, but at its founding in 1955, its midwives thought mainly of giving expression to the sizzling postwar Greenwich Village scene. The barrooms and coffee houses buzzed with the urgent discourse of painters defining Abstract Expressionism, and of writers kindling the language of an odd, provocative new generation, the so-called Beats. The ghost of the recently departed Eugene O’Neill loomed large.
Mr. Tallmer recruited writers like Nat Hentoff and Andrew Sarris, who would both be mainstays of The Voice for many years, as well as the cartoonist Jules Feiffer. But his most visible contribution was putting new focus on the percolating downtown theater scene, in churches, lofts and makeshift theaters, with reviews he wrote or assigned for The Voice. By the third issue, Mr. Tallmer had an idea: an awards show to celebrate this new theater, and in the process draw attention to The Voice as sponsor.
He tentatively named the prizes the Village Voice Theater Awards, but decided that lacked pizazz. So were born the Obie Awards, or Obies, a name derived from the first letters of the words Off Broadway and meant to mirror the Emmy and the Tony.
Obies were boosts to the early careers of actors like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep; writers like Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Sam Shepard; and directors like Harold Prince and Alan Arkin. Mr. Tallmer ran the Obies from 1956 to 1962.
“When The Voice decided to embrace Off Broadway, the paper put the new theater movement on display for the first time,” Kevin Michael McAuliffe wrote in “The Great American Newspaper,” his 1978 book about The Voice. Broadway reviews occupied a secondary position under the heading “Uptown Theater.”
Pete Hamill wrote in “Downtown: My Manhattan” (2004) that Mr. Tallmer was “the essential guide” to the new theater scene, which he called “part of the psychic geography” of the Village.
The Village Voice was the brainstorm of the World War II veterans Edwin Fancher and Dan Wolf, both students on the G.I. Bill at the New School, the epicenter of the Village’s crackling intellectual life. All they needed was money. Mr. Wolf sought out his friend Norman Mailer, who contributed $5,000.
Mr. Fancher, who had started working as a psychologist, was publisher. Mr. Wolf, who had worked as a writer for The Columbia Encyclopedia, became editor. Mr. Mailer was officially a silent partner, although never particularly silent.
The inspiration, Mr. Wolf said, was to create an intelligent, independent voice, what he deemed a sadly needed alternative to the conventional press. As he wrote years later, “The best minds — radical and conservative — were repeating themselves.”
It dawned on publisher and editor that they needed somebody who knew something about newspapers — how to lay one out, write headlines, get ads and so on. Mr. Fancher contacted Mr. Tallmer, a mutual friend.
According to Mr. McAuliffe, Mr. Tallmer had spent much of the previous year staring out the window at pigeons, his great American novel stymied by writer’s block. He paid the rent by working as an assistant editor at The Nation. His first question to Mr. Fancher was whether there was any money in the new venture. No, he was told. Not interested, he replied.
But Mr. Tallmer couldn’t help wandering by the second-floor apartment at 22 Greenwich Avenue, where The Voice was assembling an office. There were three or four ancient typewriters from a pawnshop and a few desks.
“I knew I was home,” he said in an interview for “Mailer: His Life and Times” (1985), by Peter Manso. “It was so ratty and beat up.”
So before he even had a job, Mr. Tallmer, on his own, began visiting movie theaters to ask them to call The Voice with showtimes, which he saw as a staple of the new publication. When Mr. Fancher heard this, he knew Mr. Tallmer was hooked. Soon he was putting in marathon hours for no pay, then working as associate editor for $25 a week. In truth, he was as much the paper’s editor as Mr. Wolf for its first seven years.
Mr. Tallmer hired writers, including Gilbert Seldes, one of the nation’s best-known cultural critics. He edited copy and proofread down to the last comma of the smallest classified ad. He drove editors and helpers to a printing plant in New Jersey. He worked 90 to 100 hours a week.
“Jerry was the only one who knew how to run a newspaper,” Mr. Fancher said in a 2000 oral history.
The first press run, in October 1955, was 2,500 copies, priced at 5 cents each. (Writers got $5 an article.) Operating loss: $2,500. By 1970, when the paper was sold to City Councilman Carter Burden, it had 150,000 readers and was wildly profitable. Since then, the paper’s ownership has changed hands several times. The publication became a giveaway in 1996.
In that first issue, local news predominated, including an article about a young man from New Jersey who had robbed a Village liquor store and was caught, although seven preceding robbers of the same store had escaped arrest. Arts coverage, under Mr. Tallmer, included Vance Bourjaily on the play “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Mr. Tallmer’s review of Brecht and Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera.”
Mr. Tallmer wanted highly personalized styles from his writers, and he was an excellent example. In reviewing Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in 1960, he wrote:
“In one and the same pungent breath it is a comment on time past, passing and to come; on the tinny mechanization of the age and the yet unquenchable wellsprings of the heart; on the anal desiccation and sterilization of all feelings or response in modern man, and his nevertheless immutable thrust toward love.”
It was Mr. Tallmer whom Mr. Feiffer, frustrated in his dream of becoming a working cartoonist, approached with samples of work that would become a hallmark of The Voice. Mr. Tallmer embraced him immediately, telling him he could do pretty much anything he wanted, any way he wanted.
Mr. Feiffer brought a highly distinctive visual look to The Voice, with bold freestyle drawings in white open space. He called his black humor “sick,” and lobbied for the strip to be titled “Sick, Sick, Sick,” although the title was soon changed, first to “Feiffer’s Fables” and ultimately to simply “Feiffer.” (He later used the title “Sick, Sick, Sick” for a book of his strips.) His subjects included neurosis, psychoanalysis and sex in the suburbs. The strip lasted 42 years.
Norman Mailer was another story. His feud with Mr. Tallmer became legendary. Mr. Mailer let it be known that he considered Mr. Tallmer’s reviews long and turgid, which was pretty much how Mr. Tallmer judged the column Mr. Mailer wrote. Mr. Tallmer peered at a new logo Mr. Mailer had designed for The Voice, called it “a little high school” and rejected it.
Mr. Mailer loathed the way Mr. Tallmer edited and proofread his column and became enraged when his phrase “nuances of growth” came out “nuisances of growth.” (Mr. Tallmer later explained that he had been extremely tired when he made the change, and had reasoned that both words made sense in the context. He thought nuisance was the stronger of the two. Mr. Mailer wrote that Mr. Tallmer and Mr. Wolf told him editing errors were partly caused by Mr. Mailer’s habit of handing in his column late.)
The episode prompted Mr. Mailer to tell Mr. Wolf, “It’s Jerry or me.” According to Mr. Tallmer, Mr. Wolf replied, “Norman, you’re acting like the worst cartoon caricature of a capitalist with a high hat beating the slaves.”
The office atmosphere deteriorated, Mr. Tallmer said, with understatement. Mr. Mailer gave up his column in 1956.
Jerry Tallmer was born in Manhattan on Dec. 9, 1920, and got his high school degree from the Lincoln School of Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1938. He enlisted in the Army a few days after Pearl Harbor and was a radio-radar man in the Army Air Forces in the Caribbean and Western Pacific. He saw the atomic mushroom cloud over Nagasaki and later said he “didn’t like it then or now.” He graduated in 1946 from Dartmouth, where he edited the student newspaper.
In 1962, Yale awarded him the George Jean Nathan Award in Drama Criticism for the previous theater season, which carried a $4,000 prize. “Mr. Tallmer has played a very important part in creating the present success of the Off Broadway theater,” the citation said.
Mr. Tallmer resigned from The Voice that same year. He was making $100 a week with no benefits, and his wife had just had twins. The New York Post offered more money and full benefits. Mr. Tallmer became a drama critic there.
In doing so, Mr. McAuliffe wrote, Mr. Tallmer “made the mistake of his life.” He missed The Voice’s financial turnaround, which began almost immediately after he left, and he never had the influence at The Post that he had wielded at The Voice.
Mr. Tallmer left The Post in 1993 at a time of labor turmoil, then wrote and edited for Penthouse, The Villager and many other publications.
Mr. Tallmer’s marriages to Peggy Muendel, Louise Tilis and Marsha Levant ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his wife, Frances Martin, and a son, Matthew, Abby’s twin brother. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Mr. Tallmer said his goal was to put the “ ‘I,’ the human being” back into criticism, a goal that many believed he more than achieved. When asked how to do that, he quoted his muse, George Bernard Shaw:
“Be yourself, and care.”
Correction: November 10, 2014 
An earlier version of this obituary misstated Mr. Tallmer’s age. He was 93, not 95. The error was repeated in the headline. (As stated in the obituary, he was born on Dec. 9, 1920.)

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