Behind the Spotlight

RON BRIEN PRACTICES REAL ESTATE LAW OUT OF A COZY
clapboard building in downtown Greenwich. If you wandered into his office by mistake, you’d see nothing of real interest, nothing of—wait. Those black-and-white photographs on the wall. Isn’t that Milton Berle? Isn’t that Bob Hope? Isn’t that Lucille Ball? Isn’t that Frank Sinatra—the young Sinatra of the razor-sharp cheekbones and greased forelock? And there at the Kennedy Center, decades later, isn’t that Superman himself, Christopher Reeve?

Yes, yes. But who is the nattily dressed, pleasant-looking man with whom all these stars are pictured? He would be a total mystery if Ron weren’t here to enlighten us. It’s his father, Elijah “Lige” Brien, who was a sort of Picasso in the art of “motion picture exploitation,” as they used to call movie publicity. Brien was the promotional force behind hundreds of notable films in all genres, including Some Like It Hot (1959), Exodus (1960), The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Camelot (1967), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Woodstock (1970), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Dirty Harry (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Exorcist (1973), Barry Lyndon (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Superman (1978), Caddyshack (1980), The Right Stuff (1983), The Color Purple (1985) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988).

“He worked with almost everybody,” Ron Brien says. “Name a celebrity, and I could probably tell you the matching film.”

Sailing in such orbits, Brien’s life must have been rich in anecdote. Yet his public paper trail is remarkably thin. There is but one significant mention of Brien in the mainstream press, from the New York Times of January 12, 1964. The story concerns the newish phenomenon of product placement in the movies, taking as its chief example the comedy Who’s Minding the Store?, starring Jerry Lewis as a screwball sales clerk at the Tuttle Department Store. “In this store,” the Times writes, “there are no anonymous mattresses or some mythical Brand X mattresses, but Sealy mattresses. Not any liquor but Park & Tilford liquor, and Garcia fishing rods, Hoover vacuum cleaners, Tappan ranges and Planters peanuts. It was no accident that those brands were selected.”

The next sentence reads: “In the Paramount Building in Times Square there is a man named Lige Brien who arranges such things.”

The story goes on to mention product placement in three then-recent movies: Sinatra’s Come Blow Your Horn, Lewis’s The Nutty Professor, and Paul Newman’s starkly beautiful Hud, filmed in the Texas panhandle, in which there seems to be no product to place (ah, the Cadillac). Brien did them all. Curiously, he is not quoted in the story, leaving him with just a toe in the limelight and still largely a mystery. “He was very humble,” Ron explains. “He had no ego at all.”

HOW TO GET JOHN WAYNE ON YOUR SIDE
If Lige Brien knew any juicy inside stories of Hollywood debauchery (surely he did), he declined to pass them down. He was ideally discreet. One might lament that he left behind no tell-all when he died—in 1989 at the age of eighty—since he spent five decades in the movie business at the height of its glamour, first as an award-winning regional theater manager, or “showman,” then as a big studio promoter. But there is a surviving record of his life and times—a heap of musty old scrapbooks that Ron Brien keeps in White Plains, where he lives with his wife, Lynn, who also works in real estate in Greenwich. Though to Ron the scrapbooks are a kind of visual diary of his father’s work life, to the rest of us they would constitute a treasure trove of “golden age of cinema” memorabilia.

One recent evening Ron sat down and went through the scrapbooks. “Here’s the John Wayne letter,” he says. On handsome stationery embossed with the actor’s name, the letter dated July 7, 1960, says in part: “It might be of interest for you to know that you are the only one connected with that organization [United Artists, Brien’s then-employer] who has had the common courtesy to comment in any fashion concerning the ad.” Wayne was writing about the most personal project of his career, The Alamo—“more than an obsession,” his daughter once wrote—which he produced and directed in addition to playing the lead role of Davy Crockett. Wayne had made the film independently, though with help from United Artists, and it had been a grueling, years-long ordeal. His frustration shows through in the letter to Brien. Clearly he was irked by United Artists’ indifference to his efforts to publicize the film.

It was a mark of Lige Brien’s character that he’d been attentive to Wayne’s struggle when others had not. “My hearty thanks,” Wayne closes the letter. Brien would go on to work with Wayne (at Warner Bros. Pictures) on The Green Berets (1968) and The Cowboys (1972). Around the same time, Clint Eastwood took a shine to both Lige and his unusual name. In fact, Eastwood named a character after him, a bounty hunter, in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976):

Lige: “Shoot him now, Abe, shoot him now!”
Abe: “Shut up, Lige!”

Abe should have listened. He and Lige are shot dead a moment later.

“Everyone loved him,” Ron says of his father. “He worked with all the big stars, and got along with them all.” But Lige seemed to like comedians best: Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis and Morey Amsterdam, “the human joke machine,” were his closest actor friends. Ron turns a page, and there are his father and Bob Hope staring back at him. (Also in the picture is Lige’s close friend Charles Hacker, a top executive at Radio City Music Hall who lived in Greenwich until his death in 2015.)

“Bob Hope was no big deal for us,” Ron says. “My father was always with him. I remember going to Los Angeles years ago, it must’ve been the ’70s, and we went over to Bob Hope’s home in Toluca Lake and watched him film a commercial for a Japanese camera in his backyard.”

Lige Brien spent the last twenty-odd years of his career with Warner Bros., where, among other things, he organized the studio’s glitzy press premieres. A perk of being Lige Brien’s son was getting to go to these premieres—they were held in New York in those days—and meeting the stars. “He had the premiere of A Star Is Born [1976] at the Ziegfeld, and they had the party at the crystal room at Tavern on the Green,” Ron recalls. “I went to that, and I walked up to Barbra Streisand—she was wearing a tuxedo—and shook her hand and said congratulations. I mean, I was a kid. But I think that’s when I became a fan.”

Since his parents deemed him too young to see The Exorcist in 1973, Ron’s sister, Wendy, went to the premiere instead. “She sat behind Linda Blair, and she said Linda Blair laughed through the whole movie. She knew all the tricks.”

Some years later, in 1985, Ron did go to the party for The Color Purple at the Drake Hotel in Manhattan and met Oprah Winfrey. “It was funny, because at the time I wanted to meet Whoopi Goldberg. Who wanted to meet Oprah? She was a nobody, almost.”

Ron remarks that he met Madonna at the premiere of Who’s That Girl in 1987, but offers nothing more.

“And how was she?” he is prompted.

“Cold as a fish,” Ron says. “My father had the party at the Cadillac Bar in lower Manhattan. She stood upstairs, and I guess only select people could go up and meet her. I told my father I wanted to, so he let me walk up. She didn’t say a word back to me.”

Ron flips another page. “This was the Caddyshack thing”—a press junket and premiere in 1980 that required special care and planning. For one thing, the cast and writers (including Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, Harold Ramis and Chevy Chase, who said, “I don’t remember getting high during the actual shooting…”) were a freewheeling bunch who might say or do anything, and leave Lige to clean up the mess. Actually, he did have to clean up a mess, after one of the filmmakers ranted like a lunatic at Philadelphia Daily News critic Joe Baltake. The offense? Baltake was wearing a small pin that read, “Animals Have Rights, Too!” Perhaps the addled filmmaker thought Baltake was making a veiled criticism of the Bill Murray character’s attempts to kill a nuisance gopher. In any case, it fell to Lige to make the official apology.

But Ron remembers that loopy premiere weekend in New York as a total joy. Ted Knight, who played the pompous Judge Smails, arrived in a Rolls-Royce—on the hook of a tow truck. Chevy Chase emerged with a golf club in front of Loew’s State Theatre and took practice swings on Broadway. The next day, Bill Murray arrived for press interviews at Dangerfield’s (Rodney’s club) wearing a swimsuit and bearing a pizza. Cowriter Doug Kenney misbehaved all the while, going so far as to suggest the movie “sucked.” The reviews were indeed middling, but Caddyshack developed a passionate following and is today regarded as a comedy classic.

Pausing at a picture of himself with Chevy Chase, Ron says, “I think it was Joan Crawford who said to Bette Davis”—during the ego-fraught production of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)—“‘It doesn’t matter what the critics say. It only matters what the fans say.’”

ANOTHER KIND OF STUNTMAN
One of the earliest photographs in Brien’s scrapbooks dates from 1941, during the promotional season of a musical called Sun Valley Serenade. It shows Lige with a youngish, bespectacled man blowing into a trombone: Glenn Miller, then at the height of his fame.

The photo can be seen as a signpost for the rest of Lige’s career: Showmen who demonstrated pluck and creativity in promoting movies in their cities won national recognition within the film industry; indeed, the Hollywood studios depended on showmen to dream up stunts and displays for maximum public impact—a feature of the business that vanished long ago.

Lige Brien, born in Pittsburgh in 1909, managed the Steel City’s great movie houses—the Kenyon, the Belmar, the Enright—in their golden era, the thirties and forties. For They Died With Their Boots On (1941, the story of General George Armstrong Custer), Brien festooned The Belmar’s lobby with antique rifles, deer antlers and Native American artifacts. For the horror movie Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936, Britain; released in America in 1939), he had a miniature house of horrors set up in the lobby and a fifteen-foot skeleton on wires flying across the theater’s façade. For The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944), he enlisted schoolgirls to put promotional book covers on their textbooks and parade them around the city. For other films, he had fliers dropped from airplanes; newsboys hawking “extra” editions; jukeboxes around the city playing a film’s songs.

“I don’t know that he had a formula,” Ron says. “He had to kind of reinvent the wheel each time.”

A trade publication of the era noted, “When it comes to ‘going to town’ on an idea, that fellow Lige Brien of the Belmar Theater, Pittsburgh, comes pretty close to taking over the driver’s seat.”

The most important award a showman could win was the Quigley, presented in Hollywood by film luminaries such as David O. Selznick and Frank Capra and bestowed by Quigley Publications, which put out trade journals that everyone connected with the film industry read with Bible-like avidity. Brien, competing against thousands of showmen around the country, won the Quigley Award an unprecedented three times.

The studios noticed. Brien was first hired by one of the lesser studios, PRC Pictures, makers of B-movies like Strangler of the Swamp and The Devil Bat. He then graduated to the more prestigious Eagle-Lion (which had absorbed PRC) and went finally to United Artists—one of Hollywood’s Big Eight. It was United Artists that brought Brien, his wife, Evelyn, and their young family to New York in the early fifties. They settled in New Rochelle in 1954, and Ron was born in 1959.

After several fruitful years at United Artists, Lige went to 20th Century Fox, Paramount and Seven Arts; by the time Ron was old enough to accompany his father to work, Lige had moved to Warner Bros., where he would become a grand old man of movie publicity. “He commuted from New Rochelle; he would take the train to his office at 75 Rockefeller Plaza,” Ron remembers. “I would always go in and spend the day. We would get off the train in Grand Central and we would make a beeline to Zum Zum for French crullers, right in the Pan Am Building, as it was called back then.”

Ron loved show business himself, but he ended up getting seduced by his father’s second interest—real estate—which in fact is a Brien family passion of long standing. His grandmother, Nettie Brien, began buying residential property in Pittsburgh and then, with remarkable foresight, in Beverly Hills. “My aunt still owns a house that my grandmother bought on Rodeo Drive,” Ron says. Ironically, much of the Brien family moved to Los Angeles while Lige—the one in the movie business—was anchored in New York.

Ron turns through the pages—George Burns, Henry Fonda, Burt Reynolds, Bette Davis, Gene Hackman, Claudette Colbert. One day he hopes to donate some of these items to the Avon Theatre Film Center in Stamford. He stops at a letter that his father wrote and chuckles lightly. Like so much of the memorabilia in these scrapbooks, it hints at a tantalizing story that will remain largely untold. The letter, written in 1983, recalls his promotional efforts for Some Like It Hot, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. “Somehow my father came up with the idea of creating a Marilyn Monroe bra,” Ron says. “He pitched it, but I don’t think it went anywhere.”

What did it look like? Inquiring minds want to know.

On studying Brien’s letter, it seems that his pitch did go somewhere after all. Working with the Exquisite Form Bra Company, Lige Brien writes, he “obtained” a bra “which she wore in the film.” Ah. It must be that clingy black meshy number she dons so fetchingly, so daringly, on the train. The promotional idea involved reproducing and promoting the Marilyn Monroe bra far and wide, so that women all over America might, uh… Anyway, that part of the plan seems to have fizzled. No matter. Thank you, Lige Brien, for pushing the bounds, for going the extra mile, for envisioning the glorious possible. Your name may be obscure, but your work lives on.

 

 

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