Treating Irving Fein

We don’t usually pay huge amounts of attention to show biz agents here (William Morris is one who comes to mind), but I think you’ll see why Irving Fein (1911-2012) merits an exception.

Fein was a Brooklyn native who became interested in show biz as a kid attending Catskills summer camps. He graduated early from Erasmus High, then attended the Universities of Baltimore and Wisconsin, and finally, Brooklyn Law School. He went on to work as a publicist for Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures, and MGM in the ’30s. His biggest coup in that department was nicknaming Lana Turner “The Sweater Girl”.

Everything changed for Fein in 1947 when he became p.r./advertising director for Jack Benny’s radio program, making it the #1 show in the nation. This led to him becoming Benny’s manager and producer, a position he held until the comedian’s death (with the exception of a few months in 1956 when he was made a vice president at CBS). In addition to Benny’s weekly TV series and specials, Fein oversaw all of the shows made by Benny’s production company, which included The Marge and Gower Champion Show, The Giselle Maxwell Show, the detective show Checkmate, Holiday Lodge with Wayne and Shuster, and Ichabod and Me with George Chandler and Robert Sterling. After Benny died, Fein published the book Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography (1976).

Over 60 years years old at the time of Benny’s passing — you might think it was an appropriate time to retire. But Fein had only just taken over the management chores for someone else — George Burns. It’s well known that Burns’ career had languished somewhat for about a decade after the retirement and death of his wife and comedy partner Gracie Allen. It was Fein who engineered his late career rise. Both men must have been shocked and amused by how long the experience lasted. Fein managed Burns and co-produced his film and TV projects for 22 years, until Burns’ death at the century mark. Fein was to outlive Burns by 16 years, passing away himself at age 101.

If you are a true glutton for show biz lore, I recommend this 3.5 hour interview Fein gave to the Television Academy Foundation.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.