ALL IN A DECADE’S WORK
From Avalon to Zadora, Arlene Herson talks a good show
By MARC N. PEYSER
When she joined Manhattan Cable five years ago, the Rumson resident had been on the air locally with her show “Getting to Know You with Arlene Herson” for eight years, interviewed scores of New Jersey notables and those passing through wracked up several local CAPE awards for the best talk/interview show on cable.
In almost no time she took an equally big bite out of New York. This year show won an award for the best talk show on Paragon Cable and snared interviews with guests including Malcolm Forbes, Suzanne Somers, Danny DeVito, Pearl Bailey and others. She says fans stop her more than they do in Rumson.
Two of her biggest fans were Mrs. Richard Rogers and Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein. But while they loved the show, the women objected to Herson’s choice of title and theme music. Herson knew that Rodgers and Hammerstein estates held the copywrite on “Getting to Know You” but when she picked the title 10 years ago, she didn’t think anyone would notice.
“I never had any idea I would go outside of Monmouth County,” she says.
After some negotiating, Herson decided she could not afford to rent the name. She put her stationary, her business cards and her logo in her basement and changed the show’s title to “The Arlene Herson Show.” Even she admits the name fits perfectly.
Ten years after her television debut, Arlene Herson is still virtually a one-woman show. She produces, writes and researches the episodes, sells advertising time, pursues guests and sends them all thank-you notes. For her 10th anniversary party Sunday at Shadowbrook in Shrewsbury, she picked the restaurant, menu, band and guest list.
“The only thing my secretary has done is address the envelopes,” says Herson, wincing at how she knows that will sound but going with the sentiment nonetheless. “It would normally take 10 people to do what I do. I’m a perfectionist. I want everything 100 percent.
Herson says she wants help putting together her half-hour show, but don’t believe it. She has been saying that for years. And besides, the show works too well with her playing all the roles.
“It’s gone far beyond my expectations, but now my expectations keep getting bigger,” says Herson, a tall woman with sparkling blue eyes, a permanent suntan and an indefatigable smile.
Ten years ago, the expectations were simple: to “get to know” prominent New Jerseyans and those passing through via Atlantic City, the Garden State Arts Center and Club Bene in Sayreville. She started on Storer Cable in Eatontown, paying the station $50 a week for the time and selling ads to pay her way.
Herson had zero television experience. She had worked for the public relations firms of Tex McCrary and William Safire - to whom she later became engaged and unengaged – as well as on political campaigns and for a Middletown newspaper.
Her first guest was her husband, Milton, who owned a string of movie theatres and who is now the head of mergers and acquisitions for the Loews Corporation.
But she quickly learned the key to success for an interviewer: ask for things. When she saw that she could handle the show on Storer Cable, Herson called the cable company in Ocean County, set up a meeting and got on the schedule. Her show also appears on Tempo Television nationwide and throughout New Jersey on the Cable Television Network.
Herson is not shy about getting interviews, either. A few months ago, she wanted to interview financier Malcolm Forbes, so she called him. His secretary informed Herson that Forbes was a busy man who does not do cable and who had never heard of her.
Herson responded by reeling off a list of her interviews and sending a tape of her show, including a segment with “lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” host Robin Leach that presented him calmly, civilly – somewhat different than how he appears on his show. Forbes liked what he saw, and Herson got a two-part interview. She says Forbes ordered extra tapes of the interview for his family.
Herson credits her on-air success to knowing what to ask and when. She spends hours researching guests, reading everything from library books to tabloids, which she keeps in a pile in a corner of her photograph-laden office in her Rumson home.
The preparation pays off. Jose Ferrer said on the air that Herson knew more about his life than he did. Pearl Bailey liked her so much she sends frequent notes signed, “With love from your sister, Pearl.” Pia Zadora introduced her to Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and boxing promoter Don King.
“She really does her research and digs into individuals’ backgrounds. It’s not a fluff-type thing all the time. The key to her success is that she prepares herself well,” says Bob McEvilly, production manager of Storer Cable in Eatontown.
Not every interview has been perfect. When Herson asked an erstwhile sit-com star what she does in her Atlantic City act, the woman hissed, “I sing” – and said almost nothing else for the rest of the show . Another old-time television star and New York celebrity could hardly remember anything and stumbled along for 30 minutes. But Herson brings them all flowers, and she sends them all thank-you notes.
Tomorrow’s anniversary party is a thank-you of sorts as well. She invited 300 or so-people who contributed to the show during its first 10 years, from sponsors to cameraman to early guests from Monmouth County.
Although it is by no means a farewell party, Herson is not sure there will be a second-decade party. She says the time constraints of doing an on-location show are enormous, even if she hires help.
Lately, Herson has been turning her attention to an early love: politics. She was at state Republican headquarters on election day. She also went to New Orleans for the national convention. V.I.P. passes from her old friend Safire helped her make preliminary contact with Dan Rather and Helen Hayes. One her way home, she hitched a ride with Postmaster General Preston Robert Tisch in his private airplane. Of course, she also interviewed him.
“I love politics. If I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I would probably be running for political office,” she says.