Interview – Max Preeo
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Max Preeo, famous creator of Show Music Magazine, which in my opinion was the greatest thing to ever happen for show music fans. Welcome to haineshisway.com and our Unseemly Interview.
Max Preeo: Happy to be here, Bruce, and thank you. Coming from someone who has had his own impact on show music fans, that’s a nice compliment.
BK: So, let’s take the Way Back Machine, and find out a bit about your past, sordid or otherwise. For example, where are you from, where you went to school, that sort of thing?
MP: Sorry to say there’s not much “sordid” to report. But my life isn’t over yet….
I was born, raised and went through high school in Clarinda, IA, a little town of about 7,000 in the southwest corner of the state. Clarinda boasts being the birthplace of Glenn Miller and Marilyn Maxwell. Miller, Maxwell and Max, not a bad average for such a small place, huh?
BK: Tell us how you first got interested in musicals. Was it at an early age? Was it through recordings?
MP: Being a small town, in those pre-TV days our only entertainment was radio and movies. I saw all the ones that played our local theater, which — being the ’40s — of course got a lot of musicals. I have vague memories of having seen some — Betty Hutton swinging from a curtain and falling to the stage in “Incendiary Blonde,” Judy and Fred with blacked-out teeth and in hobo costumes in “Easter Parade,” and others, but I was a movie fan, not only of musicals, although I looked forward to those most.
It was Ed Sullivan’s TV variety show that turned me on to stage musicals, though. In those days, Ed regularly presented excerpts from the big Broadway shows. One was “The Pajama Game,” whose numbers “struck the chord.” Of course “Hey There” was the big song on the Hit Parade, but I really liked “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “Steam Heat.”
Not long after that Sullivan show, Columbia started its Record Club, offering a “free” LP for joining and “The Pajama Game” was among the selections. I was surprised to learn there was an entire collection of songs from the show — our tiny local record store didn’t carry many albums — so that was my choice in joining the club. To the chagrin of my parents — who liked the popular music of the day but weren’t fans of musicals — I played that LP to death. So it was the Columbia Record Club that made me aware of cast albums, with “The Pajama Game” quickly followed by “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” But I was still in school and record buying was limited to whatever I could save from my allowance, so there weren’t a lot of LP purchases. $3.98 was a lot to come up with then, and cast albums were a dollar more than pop albums.
It was learning about all the albums I couldn’t afford that led me to leaving Clarinda for Omaha (our nearest city) and going to work right out of high school, so I could buy as many LPs as possible out of each week’s paycheck. What a shock when I found out about Omaha’s record stores and all they offered!! That’s where my collecting obsession got its foothold.
BK: What was the first musical you saw and what kind of an impact did it make on you?
MP: Not long after I moved to Omaha, the touring company of “My Fair Lady” did too. I knew about the show, it was impossible to ignore its success, and I had memorized the cast album. But nothing prepared me for the magic I experienced seeing that musical on stage, with its nigh-on perfect book and score and its gorgeous sets and costumes. It was the best introduction one could have to live musical theatre. Shortly after that, “The Music Man” played Omaha, as did “L’il Abner,” a concert staging of “Candide,” and “Flower Drum Song” — so I had a crash course in the variety of late ’50s musical theatre.
BK: Okay, so there you are, Max Preeo, bon vivant, ready to take on the world. What kind of work did you do prior to the magazine?
MP: In Omaha, I worked as a clerk for The Woodman of the World insurance company. Then there was four years in the Navy as a Personelman, basically a blue-collar office job, so I was never on board a ship — two years at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, then two on Staff Duty at CINCPACFLEET Hawaii. After that, back home to Clarinda while I tried to decide what to do next, where I was assistant office manager for a local car dealership for a couple of years. By then I knew I didn’t want to stay in a small town, but couldn’t decide where to go. An aunt and uncle had moved to Las Vegas and loved it, so they suggested trying it and if I wasn’t happy I could move on. I did, got a job as a Night Auditor at the Frontier Hotel, moved up to the accounting office (and day work!!) after a couple of months, and was there 20 years! (Still incredible to think I spent all that time there!) I left the Frontier shortly after the Howard Hughes Corporation sold the hotel, in 1988.
BK: Before we get to Show Music, tell us the five best musicals you’ve ever seen, and name the greatest male and female star turns you’ve ever seen.
MP: I’m glad you said “best,” not “greatest.” I hate playing the “Top Five/Ten/Whatever” game, but for me the five “best” musicals I’ve seen are — in order — the post-Broadway “Follies” in Los Angeles with almost all the original cast (John McMartin had left the show when I saw it); “Gypsy,” both the Lansbury and Daly revivals (is that two?); the original “Chicago” with Gwen and Chita (again, in Los Angeles) — those who think they’ve seen this show because of the revival, haven’t; “A Little Night Music” in its London revival with Judi Dench; and “My Fair Lady,” because it was the first.
“Greatest male and female star turns”? Oooooh, a toughie, because I’ve been lucky enough to have seen some terrific performers through the years. However, I’ll start by saying my greatest disappointment is never having seen Ethel Merman in anything, although I did see Mary Martin, touring in the late ’50s “An Evening with…,” in which she performed highlights from her stage successes.
I saw Robert Preston in the pre-Broadway “Mack and Mabel,” and he defined stage charisma, but I would say the “greatest” male star turn was Yul Brynner, both in “Home, Sweet Homer” and the ’70s revival of “The King and I.” He had such magnetic presence one simply couldn’t see anyone — or anything — on stage but him. And there was simply no doubt Brynner considered himself a star, whether anyone else did or not!
“Female star turn” is a very crowded list, with Gwen, Chita, Angela, Tyne, Mary, Judi, Carol Channing (in “Show Girl”), Katharine Hepburn (“CoCo”), Lauren Bacall (“Applause” and “Woman of the Year”), and too many others to mention. But, without doubt, the greatest female star turn I have seen (I’m taking the easy way out here) was Judy Garland, in her post-Carnegie Hall appearance at Chicago’s Civic Opera House in 1961. The legendary in concert album only hints at what seeing and experiencing Garland live was like. I have never felt an audience respond so to any performer since, and never expect to, nor have I been so overwhelmed by a performer who absolutely held her audience in her hand that night.
BK: So, Max Preeo, there you are, lover of musicals – how did the idea for Show Music get born?
MP: It was musical theatre historian Rex Bunnett’s fault. In the late ’70s, in England, Rex began publishing a little magazine called “Overtures,” the first devoted to musical theatre, with each issue containing a listing of current and upcoming cast album releases. It was a God-send not to have to haunt the record stores in those long ago pre-internet days to find out what was new, and to know in advance what was coming.
I was devastated when Rex abandoned his magazine because of family health problems, and there was no longer a source of information on the records. So, after a few months of waiting to see if anyone would step up to fill the gap, I decided it was up to me, because as a collector I did keep track of as much as possible and felt the information I found would be helpful to others.
BK: What year was it, how many pages were those first small issues and how did you get the magazine out there.
MP: It was September, 1981. The first issue was a five-page photocopied newsletter, typed on an IBM Selectric (not that many will remember what that was, but it was one of the best electric typewriters of the day), sent to the small circle of collectors — only about 25 — that I corresponded with. There was a coupon to send back with $1 for the next issue, and, to my amazement, suddenly I had more than double the number of requests for the “next” issue than I had sent out of the first one. It snowballed from there, with each bi-monthly newsletter — still photocopied — generating new subscribers.
BK: What was your readership?
MP: At this point it was entirely those who collected cast albums, because that was the focus of the newsletter, to let them know what was new. Not only major label releases, but obscure private label ones like Peter Udell and Gary Geld’s cast recording of their “Angel” score.
BK: How did it begin to grow and catch on?
MP: It was almost entirely by word-of-mouth, although Playbill’s Louis Botto and The New York Times’ Frank Rich mentioned Show Music (Rich on his radio program), which brought more subscribers.
BK: How many years in was the readership sufficient to consider making it a slicker and longer publication?
MP: It never was, actually, because it never made money. But it wasn’t i