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Risk, Reward, and Representation in Hollywood with Harry Abrams
Episode 711th December 2023 • Creative Innovators with Gigi Johnson • Maremel Institute
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In this conversation, we are joined by a long-time innovator and entrepreneur in talent management — Harry Abrams. At the venerable age of 88, Harry reflects on a career where passion eclipsed paychecks, taking a step into adventure from lawnmower manufacturing in Indiana and instead taking a gutsy $40/week step into the glitz and competitiveness of Hollywood talent agencies.

After saying no to the storied William Morris Agency and yes to the illustrious MCA, Harry's journey has been anything but ordinary. Abrams not only grew his company to over 150 employees but also prided himself on nurturing the next generation of industry leaders. Our conversation traverses his pursuit of new territories in technology and social media, as well as insights into business risks and creating your own competition. We'll explore how Abrams has not only been a talent agent and business leader, but also an author, an arts community supporter, and a link to creative arts in LA and New York.

Guest: Harry Abrams, Founder and Past President/Chief Executive Officer, Abrams Artists Agency

After graduating with a B.S. in Business Administration from UCLA, in 1957, he worked in Indiana for a company that sold lawnmowers. In 1958, he joined MCA Artists, which was then a talent agency. Mr. Abrams started at an entry-level position in the mailroom of MCA for forty dollars a week and rose quickly to become an administrative assistant in its television department. He was promoted to become an agent in the television department and remained at MCA until 1962, when the company was forced to divest itself of its talent agency division due to an anti-trust action against MCA's parent company. It was at this time that Mr. Abrams and Noel Rubaloff decided to start their own specialized talent agency named Abrams-Rubaloff & Associates in Los Angeles.  Intrigued by the rich theatrical environment of New York City, Abrams opened a branch of the agency on the East Coast in 1966. The success of Abrams-Rubaloff & Associates propelled him to establish Abrams Artists Agency, a full-service agency catering to motion pictures, television, literary works, theater productions, and commercials.

Through the years, Abrams discovered and nurtured countless talents, showcasing his keen eye for spotting promising actors and performers. Notable names who have benefitted from Abrams' expertise include Jennifer Lopez, Kerry Washington, Liam Neeson, Sterling K. Brown, and Katie Holmes, among many others.

After selling Abrams Artists Agency in 2018, Abrams co-wrote with Rod Thorn his memoir and business book, "Let’s Do Launch: A Hollywood Agent Dishes on How to Make Your Business and Career Take Off'.

Recognized as one of "The 500 Most Influential People in Los Angeles" in 2016 and 2017 by The Los Angeles Business Journal, Harry Abrams continues to actively contribute to the arts community, serving on the Board of Directors of prestigious organizations such as The Center Theatre Group and The Los Angeles Fraternity of Friends.

Links of Note:

Transcripts

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Harry, how old are you now? I'm 88.

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Eightyat I don't really feel that I'm 88. I

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don't act like I'm 88, but. How old were you when you

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retired? How old when I. When I retired? I retired

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five years ago. So I want to talk about several

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things here. You are one of my favorite creative entrepreneurs because

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you have, you have everything in one crazy

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career lifetime. You created your own business from

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nothing. You changed your own business repeatedly and kind

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of repartnered and rethought about what you were going to do.

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You had to think about your next generation leadership. You

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had to think about training people and what the heartbeat is of an

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entrepreneurial venture in the creative industries. You got to help other

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people and you got to help figure out what was happening

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next in changing sectors. All things I find really fascinating.

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I want to try to hit heartbeats on that because

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you've had to kind of shift gears many times. How

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old were you when you did your first entertainment

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doll? Well, I started out in a training program at

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MCA, a talent agency, which was then a talent

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agency. I came out of UCLA, went in the military for

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six months, came out of the military, looked for a job.

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I wanted to be in the entertainment industry. I'm not going to bore you

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with. The story about, and it's in the. Book as well, couldn't get a job

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in the midst of a recession. That country was. And

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people were being laid off right and left in the entertainment industry.

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Being at the business school at UCLA, I learned how to write

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a letter of inquiry, a letter looking for a job.

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And I wrote this letter to two agencies that

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then had training programs. One was MCA and the other was the William

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Morris Agency. I applied for position in both those

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places, and I was able to get interviews with them,

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with the personnel directors. Then I had to go through

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a series of interviews with the department heads. There were ten

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department heads, and I had to make myself available

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when they were available. And so it took about another few months,

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and you could be rejected anywhere along the way, and

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this is, by the way, to get into the training program at either of these

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places. And the pay was $40 a week. But I

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desperately wanted to get in the entertainment industry, not as an artist, not as

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a performer, but on the business side.

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And I went through the process, went through all the interviews

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and finished all the interviews, took about three months with each one of

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them. And I got a letter from each of the personnel directors

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saying, dear Harry, you've successfully passed our interview process.

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And I assumed that when I opened this letter, I would be

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offered a job. But they said, we're going to put you on a list

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of approved applicants, and when your name rises to

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the top of the list, don't call us, we'll call you.

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And I said, well, how long is that going to take? A week, two weeks,

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a month, six months, a year? We can't tell you,

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is what they said. Just don't call us. We'll call you.

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So I had to find a job at that point because I came from a

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very poor family. My father worked in a print shop, and my mother

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worked at Thompson, Ramo, Wooldrich,

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TRW. I must admit, I've never known what

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TRW stood for, so that's good to know. We come from a

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very poor family, and so we had no contacts in the talent

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agency or in the entertainment industry as a whole.

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When I fainted dead away at pre med at the hospital and

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went to UCLA, the counseling bureau, they came up with the idea

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that I had no interest in fields of science, but that I had a strong

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interest in entertainment and in business. And so that's what I decided to

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focus on. And so I wrote these letters, got an interview with these

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people, and my mother and father

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said, entertainment. What was entertainment

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then? Was it live theater, film? What year was this

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live theater? It was feature film. It was television. They were all

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three active areas of entertainment and

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musical performers, the recording industry and all that. The

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concerts. That's an area that I never got into that I didn't

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want to get into personal appearances in concerts

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anyway, so I. And my mother, father said, so get a job

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already, for God's sake.

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My uncle, he worked at Thrifty Drugstore, and

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Thrifty Drugstore had a chain of 80 stores up and down

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California. And he was in charge of housewares. He bought housewares

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for the company and distributed them. And one of the

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items that he bought were power lawnmowers.

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And he dealt with a company. A man by the name of

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Maury Loeber was his name. I remember his name vividly. And

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he owned a power Lawnmower production company in

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Richmond, Indiana, small farming town

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70 miles due east of Indianapolis on

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the Ohio border. Mr. Lober came into town, and

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my uncle introduced me to him. And Mr. Lober said,

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harry, would you. I'm going to offer you a job. You're looking for a position.

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I'd like you to come to work for me at the power Lawnmower Company in

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Richmond, Indiana. It was called the George W. Davis, G. W.

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Davis Lawnmower Company. I took the job. I had

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never been to that. I'd really not been out of Los Angeles

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at all, with the exception of my six months in the

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service, which was in San Antonio, Texas. I

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had always heard about the Midwest and how people were. Their

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values were really terrific, and wonderful people came out of the

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Midwest. So I took him up on his job offer was $120

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a week, a lot more than $40 a week.

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And I moved to Richmond, Indiana. Small

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town, maybe 15, 20,000 people, a farming

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town. And I went to work at this company, and I worked at this

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company doing everything and anything dealing

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with manufacturing and production and sales and

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distribution. And he had about 150 factory

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workers there. And there was a superintendent who ran the

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place. And I was kind of Mr. Lobers.

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He didn't have any children. He was married, but he didn't have any children. And

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he grew to take me in like his son. And I did

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everything and anything to do with production of lawnmowers. I was in charge of

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purchasing. I purchased all the raw goods that went into the

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lawnmowers. I dealt with all kinds of suppliers around the country.

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One day my mother calls me about 14 months a year, and two months

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into my stay in Richmond, Indiana. She says, I got

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a letter here from the William Morris Agency. So I said, we'll open it up.

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She opened it up and said, dear Harry, your name has risen to the top

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of the list, and you have 72 hours to

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accept the position to come into our training program. The pay is

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$40 a week. And during my. He said, you have

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72 hours to accept the job or not. If you don't take the job in

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72 hours, we're going to go on to the next person on the list. Well,

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during my interview process with the ten department

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heads, my perception of the caliber

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and the quality of the agents at MCA versus William

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Morris, I felt that the agents at MCA were far

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superior, were brighter, sharper, more aggressive, et

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cetera. And so I took a calculated risk,

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and I turned the offer down. But before I turned the

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offer down, I spoke to my mother and father, and they said,

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$125. You're making $125 to take a job

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for $40 a week? This is ridiculous. I called Mr.

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Glover to tell him he was in New York, I was going to be leaving.

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I was handing him my letter of resignation for two weeks

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notice, and he said, you haven't accepted the job yet, have you? And

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I said, well, why do you ask? He said, because

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I'm on the airplane the next day. Of flying in to meet with

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you. I'm going to try to persuade you to the contrary.

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So he came in and took me out to dinner the next night, and he

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said, you're going to take a job for $40 a

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week. You're making $125 a week. He then began to

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reevaluate just how bright I was, and he

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said, you know what? I'm going to double his salary. I'm going to make it

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$250 a. Week, which was a lot of money. At that time, which

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was a lot of money at that time, especially for a young person like

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myself. And I turned him down. I told him,

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Mr. Loba, my heart is in the entertainment industry. That's what I want to get

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into. So I've got to leave. And I left.

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Two weeks later. I moved to Los Angeles. I went to work in a training.

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Program at that NCAA that you ended up accepting. That

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one called about four months later, and your name is written to the

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top of the list. You have 24 hours to accept the position.

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I said, I don't need 24 hours, Mr. Zuck, when do I start?

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And I took that job for $40 a week.

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I left the job for $250 a week, and that's

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where I started. I started in the training program at MCA, which had a

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very sophisticated, well structured training program.

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Six guys worked in the mailroom. I came in as a number six guy,

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and you had to work your way up. And when they got up to

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the number one position, I'm going to pause. You a second and

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ask a few questions. One of them is you've

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three times talked about the people, the caliber of the

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people, and very specific of remembering names. I know you've

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working on your books. Some of those you remember possibly even more vividly.

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Has that been a recurring thread thereafter, that the quality

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of people has been a driving factor for

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you? No question about it. I really enjoy

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dealing with the quality of people, what kind of people they are,

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what their education has been, what their degree of success has been,

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what field that they're in. I'm always interested in people who

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have developed, have moved themselves

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along, have been motivated by success

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and advancement and earning more money.

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And so the quality of people has always been very

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important to me. The caliber and the quality of the people at

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MCA were far superior to the people at people can

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argue with me about that. That's my opinion, and, well, you got. To live with

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it afterwards as well, and spend a lot of time in this space. Let

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me then sort of take you through one sort of sidebar question, which is the

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getting started in entertainment? Sometimes it's who you know. You've

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definitely told the opposite story here. You've told a story of

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persistence. What skills did you find

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really helped you in your first five years? Human relations,

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getting along with people, being able to accept

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just about anyone for whatever they do. I

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enjoy talking to people. I enjoy seeing how people have

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molded their lives and their

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professional lives, their family lives. And I've always tried,

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I've admired people who've had those successes.

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And so I found myself being, getting

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closer with people who have done that. And it

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also instilled in me a desire to become

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successful as they had become. I guess that's the way I would

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answer that. Success is what success in

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achievement, of type of work that you did and the caliber and the level at

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which you did it. And success also in

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financial success as well. And also

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success in. I was in the talent agency business when

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I could be successful of finding an artist

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and helping move their career along

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to where they became a star. That to me

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was tremendous success and a great

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deal of achievement. So you

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left MCA to start what was the first

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of your own sort of pieces of a company. What triggered your

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departure? It wasn't that I left MCA. MCA

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left me. Lou Wasserman ran the business company at that

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time. And MCA, they bought Universal Pictures,

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Universal Studios, all of the property, all the soundstages,

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all of the library, everything that Universal owned. And

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so they were buying all of their talent

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at Universal from their talent agency for

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several months, maybe even a year or

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two. And the other agencies, like the William Morris Agency

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and ICM and other talent agencies were having trouble

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getting in the front door selling any talent to

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MCA. So, I mean, too, at Universal. So what

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happened is they felt that. They

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become a monopoly of sorts. So they filed a

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lawsuit against MCA saying that they were in

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violation of the Sherman Clayton Antitrust Act. They were

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a monopoly. And as a result, it took a long period

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of time. The wheels of justice grind very

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slowly, as they say. And it took two or three

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years for that lawsuit to make its way through whatever

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different levels of law that is in

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existence. And they finally got to

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Jack Kennedy was president at the time, Robert Kennedy

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was the attorney general, and it was him, his

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lawsuit against MCA. And finally they came to the

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conclusion the government did U. S. Government that they

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were in violation. MCA was in violation of the

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Sherman Clayton Antitrust Act. They were a monopoly.

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And they said to MCA, hex came down after

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two or three years. You either have to stay in the talent agency

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business, or you stay in motion picture and television production. You cannot

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be in both. And so it was a fairly easy decision for

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MCA, the parent company, to make at that time, because the gross dollar

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revenue for Universal, I mean, for

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MCA, was much smaller,

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80 some odd million dollars. Whereas

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I was going to say, though. The talent agency business hadn't yet grown to what

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it's become and the various scales that it's

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become. So at that point in time, what level of success had

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you risen to at this point in time? You had your own clients, you

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had your own expertise? You

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mean, at that point in time. When split from, by the

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way, the director from the government said to MCA, the parent

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company, you cannot just dismiss and terminate all of your

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employees, all your agents, you have to offer them all positions

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in production, motion picture and television production at

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Universal. And so all of the

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employees there were, I don't know, a couple thousand around the world, if

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that many. Everyone was offered a position, including myself,

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to go into motion picture or television production. And

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I'd say about 90% of the

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agents all went into motion television production.

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Yeah, they were immediate job with a salary, et

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cetera. But I had been working with this gentleman

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by the name of Noel Rubelov,

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moved out of the mailroom into that division or that department of the

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agency that dealt with commercials, radio and

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television commercials. It dealt with MCs,

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hosts of game shows, queer shows, audience participation

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shows, radio personalities. It was an area of the

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business that most talent agents didn't want to get into.

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Most talent agency wanted to be a motion pictures and television

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production or a theater production, much more glamorous.

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But I liked working with Ruboloff. He was eight years my

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senior, and I liked working with him in that

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area of the business at MCA. And I'd been there for about, I

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don't know, maybe four or five, six years roughly. At that point, I

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had decided I went to him. He was eight years my senior. As

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I say, I said, I think this is a great time for us to open

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up our own shop. And because all the clientele that we were

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representing were going to be without agents, they needed agency

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representation. So I said, I think we should

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not go into motion picture and television product and

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open our own shop. And that's what we did. We opened our

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own agency. It was called Abrams Rubeloffs and

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Associates. And even though he was my senior

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by eight years and had much more experience, when we

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went to open our bank account, City National bank, they said,

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what do you want to call your bank account? I popped up and I said,

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well, my last name is AB. We'll be first on every

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list. I think we should call it Abrams Ruboloff.

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And Ruboloff readily agreed to that, or didn't move fast

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enough anyway, so that's how it came to be known. And

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we started our business in Los Angeles. And I used to fly to New

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York to fly to Madison Avenue. I covered Madison Avenue. It

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was like a blanket dealing with all kinds of ad agencies,

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marketing our clientele. Radio and television commercials was our

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biggest source of revenue and income in those days, although

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we did do a healthy business in MCs and

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hosts game shows, quiz shows, audience participation

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shows. Bob Barker, for example, was one of our clients,

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people like Gary Owens and Jack Nars and

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Tom Kennedy. You won't recognize these names. Well, I

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will, but not all of our listeners. Well, yeah, not all of the listeners.

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And that specialization was special to

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us. There weren't any other agencies. Well, there were smaller

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agencies, one person, two person shops. When we went

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out on our own, we had three or four employees. And so

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we started building the company, and it was

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successful. And I was the one in Los Angeles

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who would travel to New York all the time

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to go up and down Madison Avenue, could care

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less about New York City. So you are someone who

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steps into risk. Risk makes you happy

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or you're comfortable with risk, or what makes it so that

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you're willing to step into a new situation.

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It's attractive to me because if I feel that I can, I manage a big

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achievement and go into something new and

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make it into something successful. So I didn't mind risk

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at all. I really enjoyed the competition.

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I enjoyed business as a whole. But I really was

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fascinated by business in the entertainment industry. But

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again, not, I didn't want to get into

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production that I felt was too much of a risk.

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But being that we had developed a terrific talent agency

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with outstanding clientele in a specialized

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area that most other talent

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agencies were not in. So I enjoyed the

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risk and the reward and, of course, the rewards.

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Of course, yes, there's no rewards without

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any risk. So in this saga, because the

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saga, I think, moves as well into it, becoming Abrams artist,

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what were the main struggles that you went through in having your own business?

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Well, we did have competition.

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William Morris Agency had a department or a division that did the same thing, that

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DM had a similar CAA, didn't

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have that department at that time. I

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found talent. I found developed artists.

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We became very well known. And eventually

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Rubiloff and I were together for about 1415 years.

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And at one point in our

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partnership, we broke up

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and I opened up Abrams artists. At that point, in other

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words, instead of being Abram Schmugaloff, and I continued to build, and

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I really enjoyed not only

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finding talent, performing talent artists,

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but I also enjoyed finding talented people. And

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I liked to train them and give them opportunities for

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growth and advancement like I had had

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myself. And so that was the

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biggest motivation for writing

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my book, was to provide some sort of where people

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would want to perhaps consider coming out with a

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school with a master's degree in business, or maybe having gone

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into business after, or gone into some form of employment

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after college, and finding either with an

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undergraduate or graduate degree and finding that they

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ward that through, they're happy with their career choice. So

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after three or four years, they began to look elsewhere.

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When they want to get in the entertainment industry, they didn't even think about

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the fact they assumed everything was in production. But the

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key part of the entertainment industry that I think that drove it, in my

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humble opinion, were the talent agencies.

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And so I wanted to train people to become talent

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agents and help people

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find career choices, career paths in entertainment,

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other than performing, other than as an artist.

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When we first met, now was a few years ago,

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and you, at the time, I remember, were really looking at new

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technologies and getting your agents

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involved in things like early internet, YouTube,

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early social media, social media, early

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influencer work. How did you figure which technologies were

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ready for you guys to lean into? Well, I think it kind of

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developed on its own, and social media

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became important. I myself, if not,

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I'm not in any of those forms of social

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media myself, personally. In those particular

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fields, influencers became very, very important.

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Influencers are the outgrowth of social media, and

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influencers are people that earn great sums of money, and

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they have representatives, agents,

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managers who manage them and help move their careers

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along. And I felt that that was an area that I wanted

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to dip my toe into. I dipped my

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toe in, and I began to look for

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people. I myself didn't do it. I hired someone

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who was a younger person than I, who was much more

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knowledgeable and conversant with social media than I was,

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and I hired him to run that department

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or division of the agency. It's interesting because not only

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do those influencers

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as influencers, they are very much in demand or

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can become very much in demand as a result of social media,

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but a number of them also were

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hosts, potential hosts, MCs,

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people of that nature. And so I felt it was

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very similar to what our clientele were

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all about. I spent time developing a

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division or a department of the agency, and that department or division

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of the agency grew to be the most productive

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of the entire. Most productive of the entire

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income or revenue of the agency was that department

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or that division. So I invite my mother and my father to

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come into my office one day and to sit there or stand

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there and watch me work and see what I did every day

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and how I dealt with people and not only our

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clientele, but the people that we had to sell our clientele to

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have meetings with people, our

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clients, who were very

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demanding. And at the end of about a week, my

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father said to me, both of them said, at the same time,

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Harry, you're actually practicing medicine every day of the week. You're dealing

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with crazy people.

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And so, yeah, my dad said, you can hang your shingle right outside

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your office door. Harry Abrams, MD being an

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agent, being a good psychologist and social psychologist, and

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understanding how everybody's interior nuts and bolts

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work. So I totally see that. When did you think you were

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successful? Well, when I thought it was

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successful when MCA broke up, it was very fortuitous

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that they broke up, that we were able to go out. I figured we had

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an area of the business we had very little competition in.

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And so I felt we were. I don't know how one

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measures success, but we were able to pay our bills

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and employ people and still have money left.

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Profit, always good. And have your own time, but your time

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is oftentimes your clients. So

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you retired later than a lot of people. How did

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you considering that this business was in many ways tied in

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with you, even though you hired great people and trained them to work for you,

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how was that process of moving the company to

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the next generation? And I know they're wonderful folks and they will hear

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this, but how did you go through the process of thinking about

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the next generation of the company? Well, first of all,

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we started out in a particular area, which was a very small

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area of the business. And the larger area of the

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business is when One moves into

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with performers. Because you ended up in almost every area of

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the business by the time that you got to be a multi city,

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multi space company, advertising, a commercial. End of our

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business became a very small end of our business,

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and we became a full fledged talent agency in,

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I mean, in New York initially, where I was only

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in New York to begin with, I used to fly out to Los Angeles and

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sell that market, our talent in LA. And

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eventually I felt we needed to have an office here. And

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I hired a couple of people from

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one of our competitors, the Gersh agency,

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had two guys, Scott Harris and Howard Goldberg,

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guys that I used to send my talent

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to from New Yorkers. We didn't have an office. I'd

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send them out there. And so they became an affiliate or

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corresponding talent agency for us. And so we

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were very close to them when they were at the Gersh office. And

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then I hired them away and we set up an office in

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LA under our title. It was

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called Abrams. And I put their names on the door,

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Abrams, Harris and Gold, because I was not

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there. Under screen actors regulations, rules and

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regulations, someone has to be name

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value in each of the offices. So I

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put their names on the door even though they had no

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financial or equity interest in the company. And what

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happened is we continued to grow and prosper. And first

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year, there were two young guys, much younger than I

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was. They didn't know how to run a business. So I would

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spend a week in LA and a week in New York and help them

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build the business in LA.

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But again, they had their names on the

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people, you know, respective artists

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would assume that they were at an equity, even though they did not.

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And what took place is continuing to grow and grow and

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grow. After about five years, the two

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fellows, Howard Goldberg and Scott

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Harris, felt that they didn't really need me any

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longer, so they went ahead and set up their own

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business. And under the name of, originally,

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Harrison Goldberg, until, unfortunately, Howard Goldberg

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passed away at an early age from AIDS,

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unfortunately. And so they changed the

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name. Instead of it being Harrison Goldberg, they changed

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it to innovative artists. And that's the name that

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they have shared, they have kept today, Scott Harris,

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who owns and runs that business today. So that was an example

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of hiring people that then grew into their own business. How

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did you grow your succession management? Eddie Brooms,

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artists who. Well, and I continued to

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grow. And adding more

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agents from our training program, adding more important

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clientele, developing them into important

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stars in their own right, we would develop them. Wasn't

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always me selling talent that we got

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from another agency. And the agency continued to grow.

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When I sold the business five years ago, now

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there were about 150 people working for the company between

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New York and LA, and in all kinds

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of different divisions or departments. The only

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area, including literary, including theater, motion

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pictures, actors, actresses. The only area that we did

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not get into was the area of music and concerts and personal

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appearances. And I really just

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enjoyed that growth. And we

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also began to sell. We developed a literary

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department as well. I wasn't running it myself. I

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hired literary agents and built

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a literary department to be very successful. And we would sell

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talent, writers and directors,

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producers, but also we would sell

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packages where we would represent the entire

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package of writer, director, producer,

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actors, actresses, et

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cetera. I'm going to keep

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nudging people to get the book because you tell lots of stories and there of

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people you moved into and helped along with their career.

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What might be a couple things that you're the most proud of

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from that work? Well, I've actually

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fostered, parented many,

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not many, but several successful talent agencies of their own

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today. So I'm very proud of that. Even though they became

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competitors, I grew trained agents

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within our company. They worked there three, four, five years,

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six, seven, eight years, ten years, and then they went out on their own

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and grew their own businesses. So I'm very proud of

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that. Even though they became competition, I was

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delighted that I had been helpful

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in teaching them, training them, providing

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them with a career path where they could earn themselves a

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good, make a good living. Is there anything we, of course, could talk for hours

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on this long, wonderful career you've had and the great journey you've had,

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what haven't we mentioned that might be a good thing to wrap us up here?

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I'm very proud of that. I have found

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a number of performers, artists, actors and

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actresses, name talent have built them from

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literally nothing up to becoming

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valuable entities in their own right.

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We may not represent them any longer

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because the large corporate agencies would come and we were

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kind of the people that built their careers, and then when they

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got to be big enough, large enough and bringing in enough of an

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income that a large corporate agency would come after them

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and steal them away from us. And it wasn't always

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the case. But I'm proud of the fact that there are

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several artists name artists today that

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I'm responsible for, even though I've been out of the business

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for five years. But I helped build their

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careers, and I'm very pleased with the fact that I played

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a hand, a major hand, in

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developing them into desirable, in

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demand artists who are paid great

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sums of. Money for their services and are

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nice people as well. They're very grateful for the fact

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that, I wouldn't say all of them are grateful.

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I think they're grateful for the fact that

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Abrams of law or Howard Abrams have played an important part

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in their livelihood and where they're at today.

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Well, you are at all sorts of interesting things now, including

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being involved here at Arts in Los Angeles and

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continuing to have a touch point of arts a bit in New York when you

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get out there, if people would like to find your work, we're going to

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put in the show notes, links to people to find your

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book. Harry, it's great talking to you. I always

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find joy in it, and it's been great to see this book to come

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fruition and find success. So it's

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wonderful. And if anybody wants to find the book, we'll have all the links in

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the show notes. Thank you very much for joining us on the show.

Speaker:

My pleasure. Thanks for asking me.