*Meet Irene Gandy, the theatrical press agent who broke ground more than 40 years ago, and continues to celebrate Broadway and its practitioners. Her friends and colleagues say that Broadway’s Pearl Mesta was born with a gilded pen in her hand; elaborate shades concealing her soft brown eyes; a flamboyant hat atop her choice of hair which goes from black to platinum blonde and all other colors in between; oversize earrings; bejeweled neck art; and Louis Vuitton bags.
Since 1986 Gandy has worked as a press representative for press agent and producer Jeffrey Richards, one of Broadway’s most successful producers. She refers to Richards and his producing partner Jerry Frankel as “the last of the gentlemen producers.” Her love for the theater is in her DNA. “What I most love about theatre,” she admits “are the relationships with the stage community. Not just actors, playwrights and producers, but people behind the scenes — stagehands, box office personnel, journalists.”
While there are plenty of faces of color to be seen on the Broadway stage, that number pales behind- the-scenes. And when it comes to Black publicists working on Broadway, that number pales even more. It’s reduced to one. That’s Gandy who holds the crown of being the only Black publicist on Broadway and one of the most prominent Black women to ever work on Broadway in any capacity.
In honor of Gandy’s 65th birthday, her friends at Sardi’s gave her the ultimate accolade at a festive party — a caricature of her very own. Often, you can find her sitting under her engaging drawing at Sardi’s; as this is a rare honor to be immortalized on the fame walls of this revered eatery and ever rarer for a non-Broadway performer.
The pioneering African American publicist with over 4 decades in the Broadway community began her illustrious career in 1968 as a publicist with Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks’ Negro Ensemble Company (NEC).
She fondly recalls being asked by a friend to interview for a press agent position with the Negro Ensemble Company sponsored by Robert Hooks. “I wasn’t supposed to get the job but I did, and I have not been without a press job in the theater since.”
Gandy remembers, “One of my neighbors was hired as a company manager for NEC and he suggested that I apply for a position as a press agent. The only thing I knew about press agents was Mae West’s line, ‘My press agent kidnapped me,’ from that movie Go West Young Man. Feeling that she had nothing to lose, Gandy showed up for her interview. The rest is history.
As the first press agent for the critically acclaimed NEC, Gandy has earned her place in African American theatre history. But she also led Larry Leon Hamlin’s National Black Theatre Festival through its first decades, arranging for coverage in newspapers from The New York Times to London’s Herald Tribune.
Gandy’s narrative involves as much luck and happenstance as it does hard work and integrity. She learned her work ethic from her parents, who moved north from Virginia in the 1930s to make a better life for their family. “My mother and father worked on the Phipps estate in Old Westbury on Long Island. They started as live-in servants, but eventually were able to save enough money to build their own home.”
She was born in Westbury and moved to New York City in 1960 to study journalism at New York University. “I wanted to write Nancy Drew novels,” she recounts, “but I soon realized that they had already been written!”
She recalls that her East Village neighborhood was alive with artistic and revolutionary excitement. “I heard all the great musicians like Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus at the Five Spot Nightclub.” In literary circles, the Umbra Writer’s Workshop was introducing the works of writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Ishmael Reed, and Quincy Troupe, among others.
Martin Duberman’s docu-play In White America, starring Moses Gunn, was packing audiences into a tiny Greenwich Village theatre. A production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks was featuring such artists as James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Ethel Ayler, Godrey Cambridge, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Maya Angelou.
Amidst all this cultural ferment, a young playwright Douglas Turner Ward wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times calling for the formation of an African American theatre company. The article led to a series of meetings, and in 1967 the Negro Ensemble Company was officially born with a multi-year grant from the Ford Foundation.
“I care about coverage and I know how to weed out the weeds, in terms of people. I never want my eyes clouded by egotistical cataracts, if you know what I mean. I have turned down jobs with high profile people because they’re not nice people and I want to work with people who are good at their jobs but are also good people,” she said.
“I’ve been asked to work in government, politics and even in one White House administration years ago, but I like working in the theater. You have more control and I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning. But I always try to remember that what I do is not who I am.”
Gandy, 68, has been a Broadway and Off-Broadway press agent for 42 years. She was the first and is still the only female African American press representative in the exclusive Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. She is an iconic New York theatre fixture, immediately identifiable by her large and colorful hats and her oversize sunglasses.
She has worked for over 100 plays. Her many credits include Speed the Plow, I’m Not Rappaport, Spring Awakening, August: Osage County, Eubie and David Mamet’s Race, as well as this season’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and A Life in the Theatre, Chinglish and now Porgy and Bess.
While attending the pristine New York University she “fell in love with Greenwich Village,” where she took acting classes and, after meeting someone at a party, was cast as an extra in a movie, “A Man Called Adam,” with Sammy Davis, Jr. “I had taken one class and got a job,” she says with a laugh. “I figured this acting thing can’t be so hard.”
In 1968 her downstairs neighbor, who wrote children’s plays, asked her to fill in as an Owl. “I ran into this guy I had graduated from high school with, who was with Douglas Turner Ward’s Negro Ensemble Company. They were looking for a press agent. Everyone they had interviewed was white. They wanted someone Black. He asked if I would go for an interview. I knew nothing about being a press agent. I never thought I would get the job.”
She spoke with Howard Atlee, who was the company’s chief press representative. “I wound up interviewing him about what a press agent did. I got the job.” Soon after, Atlee told her to take a press release directly to Seymour Peck, then the head of the New York Times’ Sunday Arts and Leisure section.
“I was always a fashionable dresser. I showed up in my dark brown suede hot pants with pink pockets, my applejack hat with pink trimming, a pink belt and go-go boots. The guard at the paper wanted me to leave the press release, but I insisted on handing it to Sy personally. I waited, and Sy came out. He was very generous. He introduced me to everyone in the department.”
Her professional relationship with the Jeffrey Richards Associates has been as hectic as it has been rewarding. “Working for Jeffrey Richards has allowed me to be me because it’s allowed me to get to a place in my career where I can be the only African American in a room, and someone who is not African American can make a comment about a predominantly African American show that is not accurate and I have the freedom to say so. I’ve earned that.”
After 42 years, she says, she sometimes thinks it’s enough. “But then something new and exciting happens.” The latest something is Porgy and Bess where she wears the hat of publicist and associate producer. Gandy resides in NYC’s hip Greenwich Village community with her artist daughter Mira Gandy.
Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.