The dress, the ring, the registry and the rest

Once upon a time, Teresa Strasser was The Jewish Journal’s award-winning singles columnist. Then she met Daniel. Next week the two will wed. In the series below, Strasser charts her journey from “I will” to “I do.” And we’re sure they’ll live happily ever after . . .

Two months after I met Daniel, we sat on his bed late at night and I said, “If we ever get married, let’s just go to city hall like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Big weddings freak me out. I don’t like lots of people staring at me, I don’t like inconveniencing people because it’s ‘my special day,’ and I hate waste. The idea of spending $50,000 on a party is just no-can-do.”

He agreed on all fronts. We had a disgusting conversation about how we are truly soulmates. Recreating any part of that chat would be so cloying you would feel like you just snorted butter cream frosting off a wedding cake. Suffice to say, we were simpatico.

It was easy to talk big before we got engaged this past Valentine’s Day.

It turns out that parents, no matter how groovy and liberal (in my case), don’t love the idea of raising a daughter only to miss out on this rite of passage.

His parents lost their only daughter, Lynn, in a car accident 10 years ago. Could I rob them of this major milestone, after they missed out on so many by losing their child when she was only 30? Did I want to join his family with the clear communication that I’m a selfish badass too cool for a real wedding and, by the way, I’m stealing your son? I couldn’t say, “I don’t” to a communal “I do.”

We settled on a small ceremony, just 15 of us, at a casino chapel in Vegas. That feels right. Monroe and DiMaggio got divorced anyway.

With an actual wedding ceremony in the offing, I was going to have to wear something, and my anxiety about this was manifesting itself in a series of nightmares.

The one time I flipped through a bridal magazine, I saw an article called, “Ten Wedding Dresses Under $900.” Most of my cars have been under $900, and I don’t drive them for one day and convince myself my daughter will drive them again — for one day — in 30 years.

Brides persuade themselves, their tailors, their trainers and their pocketbooks that this must be the best they will ever look in their lives. This moment that is supposed to be about eternal union is more about capturing eternal beauty in a photo that’s going to be mounted in the living room so everyone can silently think, “Man, she used to be a lot thinner.”

What to wear was a small question compared to the larger quandary that was emerging: I wondered how we could include Lynn, Daniel’s sister, into our ceremony.

It’s not like anyone was going to not notice her absence, these big occasions being a time you most miss those who have passed. I was sure it was going to bring back memories of her wedding just a few years before she died. I struggled for a way to invite the sister-in-law I would never meet to her little brother’s wedding. I thought about the smashing of the glass (which they offer in Vegas for a few extra bucks, by the way) and how among myriad explanations for this tradition my favorite has always been that it’s important to remember sadness at the height of personal joy.

When I first started dating Daniel, I caught myself staring at framed pictures of his sister, looking regal and reserved, with Daniel’s eyes and nose. I knew they were very close, but Daniel, being similarly reserved, didn’t talk about her much.

This brings me back to the question of the gown.

Somehow, the idea of me wearing Lynn’s wedding dress came up in conversation. Daniel said his mother still had the gown, sitting in a box in her closet.

I didn’t want his family to be traumatized or freaked out by the idea, but when he ran it by them they were thrilled, and I felt so completely embraced. And that’s how it is that I agreed to wear a dress I had never seen, that was worn more than a decade ago.

When that giant package came in the mail, I wasn’t totally immune to bridal vanity. I said a silent prayer that I would look decent in the dress and that I would have no trouble squeezing into it. Daniel helped me step into his sister’s gown, a perfectly preserved ivory satin confection with a high neckline and two tasteful bows in back. It had dainty satin cuffs at the end of fragile mesh sleeves. Though she was taller, it fit almost perfectly with a pair of heels.

The trend in bridal gowns today is overtly sexy, conjuring images of someone standing behind a velvet rope rather than walking down an aisle.

From the pictures I’ve now seen, the conservative style suited Lynn perfectly, and it fits me somehow too. I might be the most out-of-style bride you will see this June wedding season, or maybe I’ll just look like a fashion renegade, or maybe I just don’t care, because my sister-in-law will be at my wedding in spirit, and satin and silk and bows.

Daniel and I don’t disagree on much, but he insists that wearing the dress was my idea. He’s wrong: I have a very clear memory of him asking me to wear her dress. We have joke fights about this all the time, but the truth is this: If it wasn’t his idea and it wasn’t mine, maybe it was hers.

The Bighearted Showbiz Dealmaker

Once, when Bernie Brillstein’s career as a Hollywood manager was already so well established that people tried to hustle him, rather than the other way around, Lorne Michaels sent Bernie a gift.

The present was a Langdon Clay photograph of Broadway near 42nd Street in New York, a location that held much significance for Brillstein. It was not the block he grew up on — as a child he lived in the El Dorado building at 90th and Central Park West. Nor was it the place where he saw his first show or signed his first client. Rather, it was the location that established the basis for his business ethos.

On this block, Brillstein stole a carton of balloons when he was 14. Then, at his father’s urging, Brillstein gave the balloons back. The incident made him appreciate the value of integrity over stealthy, dishonest victories. The lesson has served him well over 51 years in show business, as a manager and producer. Brillstein’s ethics and ability kept actor Chris Farley as a client even after Farley lost the promised title role in “The Cable Guy” to Jim Carrey. And it’s why puppeteer Jim Henson handed Brillstein a $7 million check with the promise of another $3 million and $500,000 a year for life to be his manager. In Hollywood, where navigating deception and ego is usually the job of a ruthless shark, Brillstein’s modus operandi of candor and caring made him worth a lot of money.

It also earned Brillstein the sort of respect that will bring him out of the dealmaking background and into the public eye this month when he receives the Visionary Award at the opening gala of the Israel Film Festival on Nov. 30.

“I was always told that Bernie was the epitome of honesty and straightforward business dealings, and that was a huge allure to me,” said comedian Martin Short, a Brillstein client. “You don’t last as long as Bernie has in the position that Bernie has without being fair and kind to people.”

In his publicity photos, the 75-year-old Brillstein, who will receive the Visionary Award at the opening-night gala of the 21st annual Israel Film Festival, appears etched in gravitas, with a Sean Connery-esque piercing gaze and well coiffed hair. In person, Brillstein comes off as avuncular and cuddly, like a grandfather who reads stories to his grandchildren by the fireplace.

The back mantelpiece of his spacious office is covered in framed photographs, like those of John Belushi and Gilda Radner. In a glass case is “Bernie Muppet” — a Brillstein-inspired puppet that Jim Henson made for him, complete with beard, the bushy eyebrows and ever-present phone at ear.

There’s no computer: “I’m not mechanical,” he explained.

He dresses casually: a blue V-necked sweater stretched over rolls of belly, black, thick-rimmed glasses and striped socks. Throughout most of his career Brillstein eschewed power dressing because his girth didn’t allow it. On his first day in show business, as a 24-year-old punk in the William Morris mailroom, he wore a suit because, as he wrote in a memoir, “Even a newcomer has to look as good as possible, which in my case, being so heavy, was never that good, or that possible.”

But as he put it in another book, “No one is ever scared of a fat man.” Which gave him a leg up and also the wisdom to exhort people to accept who they are and use it to their advantage.

From his early years, as a preteen prowling the top New York nightclubs, to his later years as a Hollywood mogul, Brillstein always looked for an edge. Like a Sammy Glick with heart, Brillstein was aggressive, hardworking, with a peripheral gaze that could identify opportunities to pounce on. His trajectory is almost clichéd, starting with that first job in the mailroom.

“I am a lot of things, but I am not tough,” said Brillstein in an interview. “I go through life with a smile. It is much easier for me.”

It’s a slightly disingenuous statement coming from a man who fights tooth and nail for his clients, walks out of deals he doesn’t like, and screams with the best of them when his clients’ interests are on the line.

“He is the kind of guy who can explode with someone on the phone, and at the same time, while you are in his office, turn and wink at you,” Short said.

But the necessities of business have always been secondary to his affection for performers and their craft.

“Without a question, the high point of our relationship is our relationship,” said actor Rob Lowe, a Brillstein client who spoke with The Journal from London, where he is appearing in a play. “There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t talk to him, and it is usually two or three or more times a day…. Bernie loves the show of business more than the business of show. He is passionate. He loves artists.”

Bernie Brillstein grew up as the prototypical striving Jew who dreamed of show business. Brillstein and his parents, Moe and Tillie, lived with his uncle, Jack Pearl, an NBC radio comedian. They had a Christmas tree and didn’t keep kosher, but Yiddish was spoken, and Moe Brillstein was passionate about Israel and the Millinery Center Synagogue, a temple he founded on Sixth Avenue between 38th and 39th streets, so that people in the garment district would be able to say Yizkor.

Moe and Tillie had a volatile marriage, full of shouting and arguments. Tillie was a depressive, who spent her life in bed, doped up on pills. Uncle Jack took 10-year-old Bernie under his wing, bringing him to East Side clubs and restaurants, like the Stork Club, and Toots Shor’s. Moe took Bernie to the West Side clubs, like the Copacabana and the Latin Quarter.

“At Toots Shors I met Joe DiMaggio,” Brillstein said. “I met great politicians. I met Frank Costello for God’s sake. New York — I saw it at its best. I really saw it for what it was. And if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

As a teenager, Brillstein already knew that if he slipped in through the kitchen, he could watch shows for free. If the maitre d’ happened to walk past, $5 would secure his viewing perch.

“When I was 16, I saw Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and that made me decide to go into show business,” Brillstein said. “They were fantastic. And I saw them 21 nights in a row at the Copacabana. I could do their act. I thought I would never see anything like that again — and I never have, really.”

During his stint in the Army, Brillstein told a lieutenant that he had been “producing shows all my life!” and secured a gig producing morale-boosting productions. It was after his soldiering that Brillstein got his mailroom job at William Morris, and quickly moved up.

“You politicize. You walk around. You’re charming. You do what you are supposed to do. You ingratiate yourself to some of the agents,” Brillstein said. “I ingratiated myself to the head of publicity because I knew that his assistant was leaving. He did, and I got the job.”

Brillstein became head of publicity, and later, an agent in the advertising department. He took his job seriously, refusing to treat commercials as inferior to television and movies, which was the prevailing view at William Morris. Although he was Jewish, he charmed the “white bread of white bread” female executives at the Madison Avenue advertising firms. He took them to the clubs he was so familiar with; they took him to museums. And they brought him business. When they needed to book a celebrity for their commercials, they had Brillstein do it so that he could get the commission.

The suits at William Morris started disliking Brillstein’s radical style. For one thing, he didn’t wear a suit. And it was unorthodox when he booked nonagency talent for gigs, even though he also made sure the agency got the commission. And he sold a TV show on his own. After 10 years, he quit.

“It was not the place for me,” he said. “It was not aggressive.”

He became a talent manager, signing young comedians. He moved out to California in 1967 to start infiltrating the television business. When he couldn’t sign the big stars, he concentrated on writers, directors and producers.

“Bernie helped create the role of manager in Hollywood,” said William Morris CEO Jim Wiatt. “He is old school, making it work in a contemporary environment.”

An early labor of love was the career of Jim Henson, who’d been a client at William Morris. Three months after Brillstein left, Henson joined him. Brillstein negotiated the deal with Henson and the Children’s Television Workshop, which resulted in “Sesame Street.” He also persuaded Henson to license his puppet characters (which brought in millions in income). And Brillstein persevered in pitching “The Muppet Show,” even after the networks told him that a frog couldn’t host in prime time.

At The Brillstein Company, his stable eventually included “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels, Norm Crosby, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chris Farley and Phil Hartman.

“I figured that if I represented five comedians, what the first one couldn’t do, maybe No. 4 could,” he wrote in ” Where Did I Go Right?: You’re No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead” (Warner, 2001) “But on the most basic level, my reason for having multiple clients is that I simply don’t trust show business.”

His calmness as a septuagenarian Hollywood survivor belies his early insecurities. He worried perpetually about losing his income, even when he made enough to own a Beverly Hills mansion and to travel on the Concorde once a week to catch “The Muppet Show” in London. One day when he couldn’t get through to Jim Henson on the phone, he had a panic attack and passed out on a chair near the pool of his London hotel.

As Brillstein’s career was soaring, his personal life was dipping and diving. He divorced his first wife, Marilyn, six months after their first child, Leigh, was born, in the late 1950s. His started dating his second wife, Laura, while she was still married to her first husband. Once they married and moved to California, things turned sour. According to Brillstein, Laura “behaved abominably” to his daughter, Leigh, and she also didn’t know how to handle his clients. His next marriage, to Debbie, lasted 20 years. They had two children together and also reared two children from Debbie’s first marriage. Debbie, he said, finally left him for a man she met on the Internet.

“I’m amazed it lasted that long, since I was usually so buried in business that I didn’t give my private life a fair shake,” he wrote.

Now Brillstein is married to Carrie, whom he describes as “fantastic.”

His business also brought periodic heartbreak. Belushi and Farley, who were clients as well as friends, died of drug overdoses. Radner succumbed to ovarian cancer; Henson to bacterial pneumonia.

“I was overwhelmed with the finality of it all,” he wrote. “It was like burying my own children.”

Brillstein’s current gig is founding partner at Brillstein-Grey Entertainment, which he formed with Brad Grey in 1992. It represents, among others, Brad Pitt and Adam Sandler, and produces TV shows, including “The Sopranos.”

Brillstein, who also wrote the recently released “It’s All Lies, and That’s the Truth” (Gotham Books), still manages 16 clients personally — including Michaels, Lowe and Short. And he’s producing the television show, “Heist,” for NBC. For the most part, the difficult times are over for Brillstein. He can relish the skills of his clients and the challenges of his craft as dealmaker and manager without the anxiety that once plagued him.

“People don’t expect me to do the shlepping,” he said. “I can be creative and have fun.”


Ozzy’s Father-in-Law Bails Out Synagogue

Rock legend Ozzy Osbourne’s father-in-law has intervened in the Higher Crumpsall/Higher Broughton Synagogue row with the Synagogue Council to settle the shul’s debt with a burial board.

Manchester-born Don Arden (formerly Harry Levy), whose sister Eileen Somers is administrator of the synagogue, was so grieved to hear of the shul’s problems that this week he transferred funds of £3,695 (almost $6,033) to cover the shortfall, plus a significant donation.

Arden — now 77 and living in Los Angeles, where he bought Howard Hughes’ former home — was a member of Higher Crumpsall’s choir and was bar mitzvahed there. His daughter, Sharon, is married to Osbourne and Arden himself is often seen on MTV’s highly rated Osbournes’ family saga.

Arden himself is a legendary name in the music business. Having left school, Arden began his show business career at 13 as a singer and stand-up comic in Manchester. In the 1960s, he began booking American rockers for European tours. Then he started to manage major ’60s acts like The Move and The Small Faces, before reaching a commercial pinnacle in the ’70s as manager of ELO and of singer Lynsey de Paul. He also founded his own Jet record label.

Arden worked as an entertainer on the British variety circuit. He impersonated famous tenors, like Caruso, and movie gangsters such as Edward G. Robinson and George Raft. On weekends, Yiddish-speaking Arden wowed Jewish audiences with his Al Jolson routine. In 1954, he became a showbiz agent and started organizing Hebrew folk song contests, then putting together his own shows. He signed up American rock ‘n’ roller Gene Vincent in 1960 and, for several years, brought American rockers, including Vincent, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, to England. — The Manchester Jewish Telegraph