Syd Silverman, longtime Variety publisher, dies at 85

Syd Silverman, the last in a line of family members who steered the Hollywood trade publications Variety and Daily Variety from the days of vaudeville to the era of mega-budget cinema, has died at 85.

Silverman, whose grandfather founded Variety on a $2,500 loan in 1905, died Aug. 27 in Boca Raton, Fla. His death was the result of a “sudden illness,” family members said.

Silverman was owner and publisher of the Variety publications for more than three decades, a period of astonishing change in the industry and a time of increasing competition for the stories and advertising dollars spun off by Hollywood.

He sold the publications to Cahners Publishing in 1987 but remained under contract with Variety for another five years. Crain’s New York Business estimated the deal was worth $60 million. Variety Inc. is now owned by Penske Media Group.

From the very beginning when his grandfather, Sime Silverman, launched Variety to cover theater and vaudeville in New York City, the trade publication was must reading for anyone remotely close to the entertainment industry. Its Hollywood counterpart, Daily Variety, was launched in 1933.

The elder Silverman loved theater and understood there was a culture there that could be harnessed for readers across America, former Variety correspondent Peter Besas wrote in “Inside Variety: The Story of the Bible of Show Business,” a memoir of the publication’s glory days. The publication even spun off its own insiderish brand of slang — such as “boffo,” for anything big or great, and “ankle,” for leaving a job.

The publication operated out of a cluttered and dingy office on 46th Street, and correspondents were paid pocket change for reviews and scoops. Yet, Besas wrote, there was a shared love affair with the work that seemed to easily override the low pay, long hours and cramped workspace.

Just weeks after launching Daily Variety in Hollywood (the Hollywood Reporter beat him to the punch by a full three years), the founding publisher died at the Ambassador Hotel during a business trip to Los Angeles in 1933. His son, Sidne , took over but died in 1950, leaving the publications in the hands of Syd Silverman, then only 18. A legal guardian oversaw the business for several years.

After graduating from Princeton with a degree in political science and serving two years in the Army, Silverman settled in at the publisher’s desk, a bit more Ivy League and buttoned-down than his colleagues.

But in the years ahead, he carefully navigated the publications through a rapidly evolving world — television as a serious platform, basic cable, pay-for-view, the VCR, the emerging independent film culture. And he ran the publications with an eye toward maximizing the content and reining in costs.

By the mid-’80s, the publication was jamming in as many as 400 stories per issue, leaning on a staff of only 17 and a team of paid-by-the-article stringers. To save space, and the coast of hiring photographers, Silverman refused to run photos.

“Pictures are tremendous space eaters,” Silverman told Forbes in a 1984 interview. “Any time you see a picture in Variety, you know it’s an ad.”

Silverman was regarded with fondness by his reporting staff. “I think because we leave people alone,” he explained to the Times in 1987. “We don’t tell them what to write. It’s a reporter’s paper.”

It might also have been because, unlike his father and grandfather, his attention wasn’t completely absorbed by the entertainment world. He told Forbes that in a given year he easily went to more car races than movies or theater productions. After he retired, he became a furious collector of historic racing cars.

On Variety’s 100th anniversary, Silverman hosted a birthday party at Sardi’s, the venerable celebrity haunt in New York’s theater district. Only those who had worked at the trade publication prior to 1987 were invited.

Silverman is survived by his wife, Dr. Joan Hoffman; four children, Michael, Mark, Matthew and Marie Silverman Marich; and eight grandchildren. His first wife, Jan McNally Silverman, died in 1997.

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