Fred Weintraub is not merely an eyewitness to the history of American pop culture. As we discover in his wholly winning memoir, “Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me: From the Man Behind a Half-Century of Music, Movies and Martial Arts” (Brooktree Canyon Press: $28.95), he was a featured player.
Weintraub’s considerable reputation in show business is based on his work as a club owner, talent manager, and producer, although he started out selling toys and baby strollers in the family business, later served as a “whorehouse piano player” and once entertained the notion of becoming a rabbi. But the title he savors is “showman” — “I don’t crave the limelight, but love to put on shows with those that do.” Over a long career that began when he opened a nightclub in Havana in the 1950s, his roster of celebrities has ranged from Woody Allen and Bill Cosby to Frankie Valli and Neil Diamond to Jane Fonda, Dustin Hoffman and Jackie Chan and countless other famous names.
He has earned the right to drop those names, and he is not shy about doing so. But Weintraub’s book, co-written with David Fields, is at its best when he reveals what he knows about how the entertainment industry really works. “I’ve pretty much seen and done it all,” he writes, and it is not a hollow boast. “Or at least as much as any nice, Jewish, Ritalin-deprived, Depression baby could ever hope to see and do.”
Thus, for example, he points out that the title of “producer” is essentially meaningless nowadays, a term that is bestowed on “pool boys, psychics and next wives.” But a real producer, according to Weintraub, is “a juggler, magician, and puppeteer all rolled into one — keeping twenty balls in the air,” he writes, “and making miracles happen every day.” And he explains what he means by revealing what went on behind the scenes on the set of some very famous and successful movies ranging from “Enter the Dragon” to “Woodstock.”
“[R]emember Woody Allen at the beginning?” Weintraub pleaded in an effort to sell Warner Bros. on a project that one executive dismissed as “a documentary about water-logged hippies,” that is, the now-classic “Woodstock.” “A disaster. But I saw something in him. Didn’t my hunch pay off?” Characteristically, Weintraub credits himself with more than a gift for capturing a crucial and memorable moment in pop history. “I was a bigger hero than Neil Armstrong,” he writes of his coup. “All he did was walk on the moon. I saved Warner Bros.”
Weintraub, in fact, was often at the right time and place, and he acknowledges the role of serendipity in his successful career. When he opened The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, for instance, Weintraub and his partner were reduced to scraping the walls to prepare them for a fresh coat of paint. When they accidentally uncovered the 150-year-old brick wall beneath the plaster, a cultural icon was created.
“Pete Seeger, Randy Newman, Bill Cosby, Arlo Guthrie and more than thirty other music and comedy albums would be recorded live in front of that wall over the years,” he recalls. “And the image of one microphone in front of a red brick wall would become synonymous with stand-up comedy.”
I would readily compare “Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me” with William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade” as a superb example of the how-I-did-it Hollywood memoir, which may be the highest praise I can bestow upon the book. I doubt that any showman coming along today can aspire to a career as diverse, rollicking and accomplished as Weintraub’s has been, but “Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me” will excite the imaginations and stoke the ambitions of its readers.
By the way, I briefly talked with Weintraub about his book shortly before it was published, and he rewarded me with a mention in the list of “advisors” that appears in the acknowledgments. But the credit for his smart, funny and illuminating memoir — just like the credit for his remarkable career — belongs to him alone.
Fred Weintraub will give a talk and sign copies of “Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me” at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, on Tuesday, Jan. 24,, at 7p.m.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.