Friday, October 24, 2008

John Madden, Former Drama Desk President, Dies at 76

This was announced last month but I just received a long obit on Mr. Madden and wanted to share the contents with everyone. Imagine a time when theatre coverage still mattered! Mr. Madden is not to be confused with the sportscaster, by the way.


John Madden, longtime administrative assistant to legendary Variety editor-in-chief Abel Green and a legit theatre reporter for the Weekly, died Sept. 10 at Memorial Regional South Hospital in Hollywood, Florida.

His death was caused by complications of a stroke suffered Sept. 25, 2007. He was 76.

One of the longest-serving staffers at Variety’s New York headquarters, Madden joined the Weekly in 1954, and left the paper in 1992, four years following its sale by the Silverman family.

John initially made his mark as Abel Green’s indispensable assistant and right hand man. Former ad director Morton Bryer (himself a 37-year Variety veteran) recalls that by the time he joined the paper in September 1957, "John was already plugging away for Abel."

In an editorial office comprised of intelligent but sometimes dyspeptic personalities, Madden stood out. "He was always kindly, polite and willing to help a fellow mugg. I never heard a harsh word with the guy, and always liked him," Bryer recalls.

Madden sat for many years at a desk situated directly beneath the sharply elevated dais at the northernmost end of the long, rectangular editorial office. Looming above and behind him at their respective desks were Variety publisher Syd Silverman and Green - Madden's immediate boss, mentor and, as John often said, his father figure.

(Bryer recalls a bizarre incident that occurred in the 46th Street office in the mid-Eighties. An over-zealous construction crew demolishing a building next door launched a wrecking ball that mistakenly slammed into the westward wall of the Variety headquarters office. Bricks went flying, some landing dangerously near Madden's desk beneath the elevated dais. Bryer recollects that Madden simply ignored the fracas, and imperturbably continued to type a story on his trusty Royal manual.)

A solidly-built man of gentle manner, Madden was most often the first person encountered by outsiders to the 46th Street office en route to an audience with the editor-in-chief.

From the very first, Green - a keen judge of talent - appreciated Madden's lively mind, his broad knowledge of theatre, film and music as well as his general show-biz savvy and grasp of detail.

John quickly was elevated from "office boy" gofer status and given more challenging assignments. The editor-in-chief soon turned to John to (instantly) attach names to the many faces greeting Green each day (and night), often of important show business personalities not kindly disposed to having their names either mangled or mis-remembered.

It was Madden who often supplied the boss on-the-spot title identification of some obscure film, play or musical number or the name of some semi-forgotten stage personality.

In addition to his adept handling of various administrative duties, John also proved useful in smoothing relations on Green's behalf with disgruntled editors in the office or visiting national and international correspondents. A subtle diplomat with charm to spare, Madden's smile and gracious manner defused many a potentially contentious intra-office encounter involving Green.

At Green's insistence, Madden gradually branched out as a reporter covering opera, ballet, music and night club acts (Variety covered each area regularly for as long as the Silvermans owned the paper).

By the early 1970s, he was working under the tutelage of the Weekly's longtime legit editor, Hobe Morrison, covering off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. (Although no longer directly reporting to Green, Madden still served the editor-in-chief in various capacities until Green's death in May of 1973.)

Following Morrison’s death, Madden reported to his successor as legit editor, Richard Hummler.

A talented singer in his own right, Madden possessed a strong tenor voice of wide range. A demonstration recording still exists of Madden and several Broadway professionals performing a musical version of the Oliver Goldsmith comedy, "She Stoops To Conquer." The project, alas, never materialized onstage. Nonetheless, the recording clearly demonstrates Madden vocally holding his own against much more experienced Broadway singers.

He was an insightful reviewer of stage productions of all sorts. His enthusiastic interest led him to accept the vice presidency of The Drama Desk, a 59-year-old New York City-based organization of theatre reporters, editors and critics. In addition to sponsoring panels on various arts topics, The Drama Desk has since 1955 sponsored influential awards celebrating off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway and not-for-profit theatre.

Succeeding Alvin Klein of The New York Times, John became the 15th president of The Drama Desk in late 1982, and served in that capacity for the next three years.

John Edward Madden was born in New York City on Oct. 14, 1931. His mother, Faye, was a Jewish émigré from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was a hatter from Massachusetts. When Faye married her Irish Catholic husband, she agreed to rear any children as Roman Catholics.

Thus, John and his younger brother, George, were raised as Catholics. Throughout his adult life, John relished both his ethnic backgrounds despite the economic rigors of his early childhood. (One of his all-time favorite films was Elia Kazan's 1945 title, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," about the hardships of tenement life in early 20th century.)

After graduation from high school in the Bronx, Madden began his career in show business thanks to a well-connected maternal uncle who arranged for a position in the accounting department at the New York offices of 20th Century Fox. While at Fox, Madden studied acting in his off hours at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and took voice lessons.

He soon made the acquaintance of a young Fox colleague who had been offered a position at Variety as Abel Green's office boy. For reasons long forgotten, the colleague turned down the offer. It was suggested that Madden, then in his early 20s, consider applying for the job. He did, and began working for Green soon thereafter.

Madden quickly developed a close friendship with Norma Nannini, Green's long-serving personal secretary. Through the years she remained one of his closeSt confidantes. During their times at Variety and after, the two communicated several times daily until her death on August 10, 2006.

After leaving Variety in 1992, Madden retired. Besides managing his business properties, Madden traveled extensively - often in the company of friend and former mugg, Joe Morella - to Mexico, North Africa and Europe, keeping up with his large circle of friends via the famous "Johnny Madden postcards." (It was not uncommon for Madden to dispatch as many as 50 postcards from whatever far-flung spot he was visiting.)

Among those who knew him well, Madden always had a well-earned reputation as a care-giver. It was John who looked after his late father for over two decades. It was John who nursed his longtime Variety associate and fellow mugg, Bob Frederick, through a fatal siege of leukemia. Madden also cared for his late landlord and friend, Donald Gordon, through a series of illnesses.

Madden moved to Miami Beach in 2000, and six years later to Hollywood, Fla. It was in the East Coast Hollywood that Madden realized his lifelong dream of owning a single family house with a white picket fence.

Madden is survived by his longtime friends and companions, Robert and Gerry Rosa; his sister-in-law, Marilyn Madden (his younger brother pre-deceased him); and his two nieces, Karen Madden Popp and Wendy Madden Caldwell.

A memorial service will be held in New York City at an unspecified future date. Condolences, Mass cards, etc. should be sent to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Rosa, 5216 Van Buren Street, Hollywood, Florida 33021.

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