Emanuel Sacks modestly said that he was "strictly a no-talent guy." He kept himself out of the public eye when he built the careers of big-name performers as a vice president at Columbia Records and, later, of RCA Victor and NBC. Despite his staying out of the limelight, Sacks was a very strong presence at both companies and in the lives of everyone who knew him. When he died at age 56 in 1958, a remarkable array of stars performed on a television memorial tribute.

Sacks was instrumental in introducing long-playing records and stereo, and he produced some important early Broadway show albums. Because he did his work behind the scenes and used his talent to promote the careers of others, his name is largely unknown to today's public.

Manie (pronounced "Manny") Sacks was born in 1902. This, by the way, is the correct spelling of the family name. It was misspelled "Sachs" in a Sinatra biography and on one Columbia record jacket. He worked briefly as a clothing salesman for his dad, who owned several stores, but left to go into the entertainment business. Manie had an ear for music and knew how to pick material for singers. Even more important was his talent for befriending people, his helpfulness and sympathetic understanding.
Columnist Earl Wilson called him "the saint of show business." Sacks' nephew, Herman Rush, wrote that Manie gave encouragement and confidence to performers. Consider these examples involving four celebrities:

When the young Sacks was working for a talent agency, he was assigned to meet Jack Benny as the star's boat landed in New York City. As Manie grabbed Benny's luggage, got him through customs and into a limo, the star assumed Sacks was a porter, and Benny thrust some tip money into his hand. Later on, they became friends and Sacks threw a surprise birthday party for Benny on a cross-country train. "I've never seen anyone like this in my life. He's so sweet and generous," said Jack.

A few years later, when Sacks worked at Columbia Records, president William Paley asked if he had any ideas for increasing CBS's radio ratings. Manie called Jack Benny and convinced the comedian to transfer his top-rated show from NBC to CBS. Not only that, Benny recommended that his friends George Burns and Edgar Bergen also switch to CBS, and these programs soon made it the top-rated network.

Manie met Harry James, a trumpet player in Benny Goodman's band in the 1930s. Manie was as kind to James as others might be towards big stars. James played up-tempo swing instrumentals. When he formed his own band, Manie signed him for his label, Columbia, and talked James into making a total change in image by adding a string section and playing ballads with schmaltzy trumpet solos. This led to James becoming a romantic movie star and meeting the glamorous Betty Grable. When Harry married Grable, he asked Manie to be best man, and the couple picked Manie to be godfather of their first child.

Manie helped Frank Sinatra get out of a restrictive contract with bandleader Tommy Dorsey in 1942. In return, Frank started his solo career with Sacks' record company. Later, Sacks stood by Sinatra when the singer had family problems and, in 1950, Sacks turned off the gas burners when Frank attempted suicide. When Sinatra married Ava Gardner, Manie made all the arrangements, and the wedding was at the home of Manie's brother in Philadelphia. Sinatra said: "There's a little bit of Manie in everything good that has ever happened to me...Whenever I was in trouble and needed help, I yelled for Manie."

Eddie Fisher was a production singer at the Copacabana night club when Sacks heard him. Manie let Fisher sleep on his couch, encouraged Eddie, and eventually Fisher became a recording and TV star. "Manie was, I think, everybody's father, all the performers in show business -- he was a father to every one of them," said Fisher.

*

At the time Fisher was becoming a star, this writer was in Junior High School. I first heard about Sacks when I was 13 years old and my parents sent me to Saturday dance classes at the Oak Lane Review Club near the northern border of Philadelphia, where we lived. Arthur Murray instructors taught girls and boys all the dance steps, and, more importantly, how to behave when you are at a social event: how to ask a girl to dance, how to escort her to a table to get a snack, how to maintain a conversation.
Among others at those dances, I met a girl named Adrienne Sacks, and she became my favorite dance partner. We slow-danced to records by Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Doris Day and Buddy Clark, and she would tell me that she knew those singers personally.

Many guys would have said to themselves: "Oh, yeah? Tell me another," but I appreciated hearing her stories. Adrienne explained that her uncle was the head of Columbia Records, and those singers were his friends. Manie never married, never had any children, and he was very close with his niece and nephew. Adrienne later was flower girl at the Frank Sinatra-Ava Gardner wedding, which took place in her family's home. Sometimes Adrienne and I danced to Sinatra's latest record, "I've Got a Crush On You." I considered it to be our song. At the end of that school year, our paths parted. We never saw each other again until a couple of years ago.

*

Manie grew up in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia and then in the nearby neighborhood called Germantown. A family friendship got Manie a job working for Ike and Leon Levy, owners of radio station WCAU in Philadelphia. When Manie left WCAU to become an agent for the Music Corporation of America in 1936, his co-workers gave him a testimonial dinner and presented him with a poem which read, in part:

New York's Broadway, Main Stem, Oh yeah, so what?
Don't forget you left behind a lot
of friends, Manie. So in closing we would like to say:
So long, good luck. Congratulations MCA,
You've grabbed a good guy.

The MCA job was in New York City, but Manie never bought a house there. Instead, he lived in hotels while returning to his family's home in Philadelphia on weekends. There he usually escorted his widowed mother to services at the family's synagogue in their old neighborhood. Later Manie was elected president of the shul. He followed the congregation's custom of wearing formal attire on the pulpit during the High Holy Days, and Manie later got to wear the same striped trouser, cutaway coat and high silk hat when he attended Grace Kelly's wedding in Monaco.

At MCA, Manie booked appearances for celebrities and dealt with their professional and personal problems. Then, in 1940, he became vice president in charge of pop music artists for Columbia Records. Sacks picked the songs, the singers, the bandleaders and arrangers. When World War II started, Manie was 39, too old to go into the armed forces. He built careers for Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Harry James and Doris Day, and he matched these artists with sentimental ballads about separation that have not been equaled in any wartime before or since.

A major event during Sacks' vice-presidency was Columbia's introduction of long-playing microgroove recordings. The first release, in July of 1948, was "The Voice of Frank Sinatra" from Sacks' pop division, and Beethoven's Violin Concerto with Nathan Milstein from Goddard Lieberson's classical Masterworks division.
Six months later Sacks produced the original cast album of Kiss Me, Kate, and Sacks was the man who talked Rodgers & Hammerstein into using Columbia to record their South Pacific in 1949, after the earlier R&H hit shows had been done for Decca. Lieberson produced the South Pacific album for his Columbia Masterworks label in April, and Lieberson started the custom of having the producer's name printed on record jackets. Sacks productions went un-billed. The original Kiss Me Kate LPs do not show a producer's credit, but the CD pressings do have Manie's name.

Because of his modest personality, and because Sacks' work centered on promoting other people's fame, Manie did not build his own power base. Lieberson, on the other hand, cultivated power. Goddard's nickname was God, and, according to a former colleague, he sometimes acted as if that was his name and his title. He was talented, and he had taste, and he also liked to be the center of attention.

Early in 1950, Sacks felt himself being forced out of Columbia as the record company president, Ted Wallerstein, gave Lieberson greater authority. When NBC and RCA heard that Manie was unhappy they quickly put together an offer in February of 1950 and hired him as vice president of the whole shebang of NBC radio & TV and RCA Victor. Dinah Shore quickly switched from Columbia to stay with Manie. She told friends that she always thinks "of Manie sitting here helping me pick out a song, a dress, or a name for the baby."

RCA president David Sarnoff said that Sacks was "an extraordinary man...everyone trusts him. Despite all his tenderness, all his sentiment, all his love, all his affection -- just get into a trade with him and try to negotiate with him. You'll find him to be a tough bargainer." Manie was given an office right next to Sarnoff's, sharing the executive suite.

At Columbia, Sacks had participated in the advent of long-playing records; now at RCA he was involved in the start of stereo. In October 1953 Leopold Stokowski made the first "binaural" recordings for RCA, and by 1955 the company was producing stereo tapes and LPs, leading the industry in that area.

Sacks got RCA Victor to increase its spending for the recording rights to Broadway shows. Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam opened soon after Sacks' switch to RCA, but it was the biggest miscalculation of Manie's career. RCA got the rights to everything in the production except its star, Ethel Merman, who was an exclusive Decca artist. Sacks used the Broadway cast, conductor and arrangements but substituted Dinah Shore in the lead role, and she simply did not have the Merm's brassy edge.

Sacks was much more successful with Harold Rome's Wish You Were Here in 1952 and Fanny in 1954, starring Ezio Pinza and Bill Tabbert of South Pacific fame plus young Florence Henderson. Sacks also got his company to telecast Richard Rodgers' newest work, "Victory at Sea" and record the score. After that, Rodgers & Hammerstein abandoned Columbia and signed with RCA Victor for their next two shows, Me and Juliet in 1953 and Pipe Dream in 1955, and Rodgers recorded an album for RCA Victor in 1957 where he accompanied Mary Martin at the piano on a dozen of his songs.

It was Sacks who got Perry Como to record "No Other Love," which Rodgers wrote for "Victory at Sea" and then inserted into Me and Juliet. Thus Sacks used a pop record to promote both the "Victory at Sea" and the Me and Juliet LPs. Como said at Manie's funeral: "Of all the songs I ever sang for Manie, `No Other Love' particularly meant a great deal to me."

Sacks recorded the original cast album of Peter Pan and arranged for the show to be telecast on NBC. Directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, Peter Pan opened on Broadway in October 1954 and was struggling at the box office. The cost of televising it would be high. Sacks convinced the board at NBC to okay it anyway, and the broadcast of March 7, 1955 became one of television's finest achievements. Mary Martin, Cyril Ritchard and the rest of the cast came together for another, separate televised performance of it on January 9, 1956. (Yet a third version was telecast in 1960, after Sacks' death.)

NBC also aired the Sammy Cahn-Jimmy Van Husen musical version of Our Town in 1955 with Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint and Frank Sinatra singing "Love and Marriage." Frederic March, Claire Trevor and Geraldine Fitzgerald starred in an adaptation of Dodsworth, the play by Sidney Howard which had in turn been adapted from the 1929 novel by Sinclair Lewis. Also, Claire Bloom appeared in Romeo and Juliet for NBC-TV. Fred Coe directed these, and Pat Weaver supervised, but it was Sacks who was responsible for getting them aired.

On Sacks' initiative, RCA put money into Jule Styne's Hazel Flagg, and Manie built the show's ballad, "How Do You Speak to An Angel?," into a pop hit for Eddie Fisher. But the show flopped, and RCA lost its investment. Manie's next Broadway recommendation was for RCA to bankroll My Fair Lady. David and Robert Sarnoff, gun-shy because of their Hazel Flagg loss, turned down Manie, and Columbia made the deal instead, which turned out to be one of the most profitable in Broadway history. If the Sarnoffs had taken Manie's advice, their company would have made millions.

Manie kept in touch with current trends in popular taste. Disc jockey Ed Hurst remembers that Sacks would attend his Philadelphia studio for Saturday broadcasts of Juke Box Jury to see what the kids thought of new records. "Manie was a real gentleman," says Hurst; "He was so smooth that he could brush you off and make it sound like he made you an offer."

When I visited Sacks and Robert Sarnoff in their offices in 1956 I saw that Bob concentrated on corporate expansion, while Manie was the prime mover in TV and music projects. After the success of Peter Pan and Our Town, Sacks asked Rodgers & Hammerstein to write an original family musical for TV. R&H picked Cinderella as the subject.
But in the summer of 1956 the CBS network came up with a counter-offer that included the services of Julie Andrews, who was then starring in the CBS-financed My Fair Lady on Broadway. Sacks and NBC lost the project. About this time Sacks was becoming noticeably ill with the leukemia which would kill him two years later. One wonders if his hospitalization and loss of energy prevented him from saving the Cinderella telecast for NBC.

Frank Sinatra left Columbia Records in 1952, but he was not hired by Manie's company. RCA passed on employing the singer who was then thought to be washed up. Sacks' old talent agency, MCA, also dropped Sinatra as a client the same year. Sinatra signed with Capitol, and for awhile he was angry with Sacks. When someone told Sinatra that Manie had just taken a boat to Europe, Frank snapped: "I hope it sinks."

But Sinatra resumed his affection for Manie, and when Frank decided that he didn't want to continue at Capitol Records when his contract expired in 1957, Sacks offered him a deal with RCA Victor, but instead Frank formed his own company, Reprise. When Manie was hospitalized, Sinatra flew to Philadelphia to be with him. Years later, Sinatra told a family member: "At my time of life I look back, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the people who were true friends. Manie and his brother Lester were two of those. They never tried to exploit me."

Manie was warm and charming. He constantly received phone calls from show people asking for help, advice, consolation and he handled all of these pleas with enthusiasm. Manie would socialize with stars into the wee hours of the morning, but he didn't drink much hard liquor. His favorite drink was a chocolate ice cream soda. He was known as a generous tipper at New York restaurants including Lindy's, Frankie and Johnnie's, Dinty Moore's and Toots Shor's -- landmarks of that era in Manhattan. Manie also hired a cook and butler and entertained at his hotel-apartment.

Manie traveled the world for his company, meeting with creative people, performers, sponsors and broadcasters, but one important thing did not change. Almost every Friday afternoon one of his secretaries would arrange transportation for him from Hollywood or Rome, or on the train from New York, back to Philadelphia, and almost every Saturday morning he'd take his mother to synagogue services -- just as he did his whole adult life.

Manie was a generous man, and celebrities who needed last-minute tickets to Broadway shows would call him. When Oklahoma! was at its peak of popularity in 1943, a star's wife asked Manie to get her four tickets for that night's performance and Manie promised that they'd be in her name at the box office. But neither the producers nor ticket brokers could get him anything, so Manie went to the St. James Theater and walked up and down the line to see if anyone would sell their tickets. He finally was able to buy four for $400 -- at a time when the top ticket price was $4.40 each -- so he could give them to this lady.

Slender, with a longish face, Manie resembled Sinatra a bit. At least close enough that Frank was able to play a joke once at Philadelphia's Earle Theater. He had Manie sign autographs for fans, using Frank's name, while he (Frank) made an early getaway.

One of the best Sacks stories I ever heard is about the time when Manie was alone in his suite at a Manhattan hotel, heard a bellboy outside his door say that he had a bucket with ice and a bottle of ginger ale that Sacks ordered. Manie had just gotten out of the shower, so he called out to the bellboy: "Just leave it there." Sacks finished drying himself and then opened his door to pick up the tray. This created a draft which blew the door shut behind him and there was Manie, naked, in the hall of the hotel, without his key. He ran to the fire escape but it was cold. Eventually Manie got enough nerve to ring for an elevator and ask the startled elevator operator (a boy) to please go to the front desk and get a duplicate key so he could get back into his room.

Sacks never married, though he dated many attractive women, including actress Jane Wyman. Manie was normally healthy and even played football when he was a student at Pennsylvania Military Academy. He learned that he had leukemia when he was 52 years old but didn't tell anyone other than his family, and Sinatra. Manie lived with it for over three years, getting progressively weaker and needing periods of hospitalization. Only three days before his death, he sent a letter to friend and newspaper publisher Esther Klein saying he was eager to return to work "after my long siege."

Sid Caesar signed off one of his TV shows saying "Get well, Manie." He loved Sacks because "Manie wanted to know just what made me tick; what I wanted and why I wanted it." Comic Jack E. Leonard said: "He was never too busy to see you. He was always concerned about his friends. He was one of the kindest men I ever met in my life." When Manie died in 1958, Jack Paar said: "There's no one left at NBC to talk to."

Manie Sacks liked to stay in the background, so there are hardly any published quotations of him. But at an awards dinner in 1956 he said this about his profession:

"People outside of show business have one of two conceptions about this special world. To some it is a kingdom of glamor and beauty and to others it is a madhouse of cutthroat competition. The fact is that show business is no one of these. It is simply another field of human endeavor -- another profession where selfishness and unselfishness, truth and falsehood, accomplishments and fakery have the same opportunity to manifest themselves."

[END] 




Key Subjects: 
Manie Sacks, RCA, Frank Sinatra, Harry James, Ethel Merman, My Fair Lady, Dinah Shore, MCA, Peter Pan, Columbia Records
Writer: 
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Date: 
May 2006
Subtitle: 
The Musical and Personal Touch of Manie Sacks