The Man Behind The Curtain

Last week in this space I talked about artists winning prizes. A few weeks before that on the editorial page, I talked about this newspaper winning a prize for covering the arts.

Those prizes were nice - nice to win, fun to talk about.

Recognition's important.

But there are people who make the arts happen in this city, and everywhere in this world, for that matter, who never, as far as I know, win prizes.

There's no Oscar for Key Grip or Best Boy.

There's no Tony for Assistant Stage Manager.

There s no Pew Fellowship for Exhibition Installer.

And there's no Oscar, Tony, Pew Fellowship or any other big, glitzy, famous-making award for Publicist.

I used to be a publicist. And I know from my experience on both sides of the telephone that being a publicist can be a terrible job - inflating reputations, nagging terminally bored or frazzled editors, enduring rejection, waiting for crumbs of coverage, making everything fall into place so somebody else gets covered in glory.

But there can be joy in the job - the joy of spreading the word about something you care about. A good publicist is a great fan, someone who can get genuinely excited about a work of art or a play or a movie - and can communicate that excitement to members of the press, not by treating them as gods or servants or enemies or long lost pals, but as partners in the never ending hunt for the good stuff.

Alan Yoffee, who died of an AIDS related illness last week at the age of 30, was a publicist who did the job well, and then some. Besides working full-time as communications associate for the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, he freelanced as a publicist for Philadelphia Dance Affiliates, Society Hill Playhouse, Movement Theatre International and other local organizations, and he did it with inexhaustible energy, good will and efficiency. And when he wasn't working for his paying clients, he was doing the same kind of work for other clients free of charge.

He had a particularly strong interest in dance, serving on the board of the Philadelphia Civic Ballet Company and volunteering his time to promote the Philadelphia Dance Alliance. Local journalist Phyllis Stein-Novack met him four years ago when she became editor of PDA's newsletter.

Alan was the most completely unselfish person I've ever met in my entire life," said Stein-Novack. He wrote numerous stories for her newsletter, all gratis, and "volunteered for everything", setting up benefits and promotion packages for the Alliance without being asked.

His generosity of spirit also impressed Selma Rudnick, director of PR and marketing for the All-Star Forum. A longtime -colleague (and former teacher) of Alan's, she describes him as being free not only with his time, but with his information - an unusual kind of generosity, perhaps, in a field where information (phone numbers, story ideas, personal connections) is a precious commodity. And says Rudnick, he was "a terrific press agent."

His altruism was not confined to the arts. His interest in helping the elderly was reflected not only in his full-time job but in regular visits to senior citizens' homes, and extensive volunteer work with CARIE (Coalition of Advocates for the Rights of the Infirm Elderly). He organized benefits and forums on the subject of AIDS. And according to Randy Swartz, artistic director of Dance Affiliates, "he almost single handedly secured tickets for handicapped -people to performances around town. We called them 'Alan's People.'"

I never knew all this about Alan's volunteer work. What you heard from him were stories about other people, not about himself. (The only self-promotion I can remember were his Christmas cards, which usually featured a goofily endearing photo of Alan posing in a tux or wrapped around an inflatable beach toy.). He was like the man behind the curtain in his favorite movie - behind the scenes, working miracles that have nothing to do with magic and everything to do with good will.

There's no Tony Award for Publicist, and there's little recognition for volunteers whose good work is all behind the scenes. But there should be.

Because "the quiet guy in the background", as Randy Swartz says," did make a difference."

"It was not about the money or the glory or personal visibility. It was about what you might call the fabric of life."

People like Alan Yoffee deserve thanks for that.

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