“My job is public relations, prostitution and politics.”
So quipped theatrical press agent Irene Gandy when asked how she views the career she has built over the past 50 years. Throughout that time, she has become known as much for her colorful, fur-laden wardrobe as for her prolific work building press campaigns for Broadway shows, including Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” and several of David Mamet’s plays.
The League of Professional Theatre Women celebrated Gandy’s career, which has included 35 years working out of the office at Jeffrey Richards Associates, earlier this month with a public interview to be preserved as part of their oral history project.
The 76-year-old “Broadway legend,” as she is described on the staff webpage at Jeffrey Richards, has been a press agent on close to 50 Broadway shows, according to the Internet Broadway Database. Gandy also co-produced “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” (2014) and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical — a role she took on to more effectively promote those shows.
“If I’m a producer, I can bring more because that word ‘producer’ sounds better than ‘press agent,’” Gandy said. “It’s like going in the express lane to get what I need.”
Her first publicity job was with the Negro Ensemble Company, a theater company founded to showcase work by and about black people. She joined shortly after its 1967 inception when Fred Garrett, one of the company’s original administrators and Gandy’s friend from high school, reached out looking for a press agent.
“Nobody of color wanted to be a press agent; they wanted to be actresses,” Gandy said. “So I said, ‘Well, I’ll go for it,’ because I wasn’t doing anything. I didn’t think I was going to get the job.”
Her work, which included garnering radio and TV coverage for the company’s shows and overseeing advertising strategies, gave her the accreditation needed to join the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. Gandy remains the only black female press agent with an ATPAM union membership.
“ATPAM’s membership, although small (nearly 700 active and retired Press Agents, Company Managers and House Managers) has many people of color in our Manager chapter,” ATPAM Secretary-Treasurer Rina Saltzman wrote in an email. “While Irene is currently the only black female press agent…we strive to encourage young people to pursue careers as ATPAM press agents and managers.”
Gandy’s experience has not been without incident — for example, she recalls being denied access to a box office, where press agents would typically go to check a show’s ticket sales, while on the road with the national tour of “Purlie” in the early 1970s — but overall, she speaks positively of her career.
And though she is the only black female agent in the union, Gandy said she has found a community with other black women in the industry, including house manager Carolyn Jones and actor/director Phylicia Rashad.
When asked about other relationships that stand out, Gandy gave a litany that encompassed the likes of Kerry Washington, with whom she most recently worked on “American Son,” and Mamet, whom she called a “favorite” friend and colleague. She first worked with him on the first revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross” in 2005 and would go on to join its 2012 revival (both produced by Richards) as well as the Broadway productions of four more of his plays.
“I like his plays, I like the simplicity of them, and he’s just one of the most honest people that I’ve met,” Gandy said.
Mamet said the same of her, attributing her success on “Glengarry” to her “personable” nature toward journalists and outlets.
“She’s very honest and honorable, and so she has access to everyone,” Mamet said. “She tells them the truth and they find it refreshing.”
That personality trait has been a key component of Gandy’s career from the beginning, says fellow press agent Maria Somma, who met Gandy when both women worked for press agent Max Eisen in the 1970s. At that time, Gandy stood out as a pioneer in a new kind of publicity: directly reaching out to community organizations and churches, especially in smaller towns hosting touring productions, to spread the word about a show. Gandy would also reach out to small news outlets in order to reach audiences who sought to read about her productions in their local news.
“You’ve got critics and reporters from the legitimate media, and then you’ve got these college newspapers, and they would get the same treatment as a New York Times reporter,” Somma said. “She always said, ‘Never ignore anybody.’”
Gandy has carried this strategy over to her current community outreach work on Broadway shows, with the goal of reaching diverse theatergoers.
“Theater and the arts, they’ve always been elusive,” she said. “They’ve always been highbrow, and they have made the arts, like the opera and the dance, for a certain amount. It’s only supposed to be for a certain amount of people, for a certain class of people. But that’s not true. I think that people will go to what they want to go to.”
Her relationships keep her coming back to work no matter how many hiatuses she takes — “I retire more than Cher,” Gandy said — and even those “hiatuses” have included launching The Irene Gandy Fur Collection, hosting a cabaret show at Bond 45 and serving on the boards of City College Center for the Arts, Harlem Week and New Heritage Theatre Group.
The press agent’s role has changed along with the needs of the industry, Gandy said, but the investment in people has not — and neither have her three Ps.
“When I started, I think the role of the press agent was like a governess because you do everything and you get a chance to have all the perks, but it’s not yours,” she said. “We did the marketing, we did the advertising. Now, it’s great; we don’t have to do all of that, so it has changed. But I think the heart of caring about your client and your producers and those things have not changed.”