Broadway Press Agent Bob Ullman Passes Away at 97

By: Aug. 08, 2019
Broadway Press Agent Bob Ullman Passes Away at 97

Robert ("Bob") Ullman, the legendary theatre press agent, whose career included Ethel Merman and Mary Martin: Together on Broadway, A Chorus Line (from workshop to Public Theater to Broadway), Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in The Visit, Lauren Bacall in Cactus Flower, The Dining Room, Driving Miss Daisy, Sunday in the Park with George, and over 150 additional Broadway and off-Broadway plays and musicals, died on July 31, 2019 in Bayshore, Long Island, New York. He was 97. The cause of death was cardiac arrest. Bob's death was announced by Rev. Joshua Ellis, a long-time Ullman friend, a former Broadway press agent, and now, an Interspiritual minister.

Bob was renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of theatre history as well as his precise and theatrical sense of humor. As recently as a week before he died, Bob told friends, "I'm just waiting for my exit line."

He was frequently called upon by students, scholars, and colleagues for hilarious detailed anecdotes, dates, theatres, casts, and creative teams. Press agents working today have noted that "Before there was Google, there was Bob Ullman." Bob would tell friends, "I have a great memory, thank goodness, and I've been going to the theatre since my parents took me to see Ethel Merman starring in Take A Chance in 1932 when I was 10. I saw it all and I remember it all!" Then he would add, "As a publicist I worked on a lot of hits and a lot of turkeys, including two of David Merrick's biggest musical flops, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Mata Hari." For good measure, he would add a Stephen Sondheim lyric, "I'm still here!"

The array of stars and theatre greats with whom Bob worked is voluminous. In addition to those mentioned above, Bob's stars included Tallulah Bankhead, Luise Rainer, James Dean, Dame Edith Evans, Geraldine Page, Phil Silvers, Bert Lahr, Rosemary Harris, James Earl Jones, Sam Waterston, Colleen Dewhurst, Ossie Davis, Hildegarde, Meryl Streep, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Jack Lemmon, Louis Jourdan, Patti LuPone, Morgan Freeman, Eartha Kitt, Maggie Smith, Cab Calloway, Christopher Plummer, Tommy Steele, Kim Hunter, Constance Bennett, Beatrice Lillie, Peter Ustinov, Helen Hayes, Burl Ives, Margaret Rutherford, Maureen Stapleton, Mary Tyler Moore, Zero Mostel, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Sanford Meisner, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Arlene Francis, Bobby Short, Mabel Mercer, Dame Sybil Thorndike, and Estelle Parsons. Many became Bob's friends.

Bob had a unique relationship with Walter Kerr, the legendary New York Times theatre critic, now honored with a Broadway theatre in his name. In addition to their press agent/theatre critic relationship, Bob was the publicist for two Broadway shows that Walter Kerr directed, and in one case, co-wrote. The play was King of Hearts, written by Kerr's wife Jean Kerr and Eleanor Brooks, directed by Walter Kerr. The musical was Goldilocks starring Elaine Stritch, which Mr. Kerr directed and co-wrote the book and lyrics.

In the 1970s Bob changed focus, devoting his time and energy to concentrate mainly on new works. He was the in-house press agent for Joseph Papp's theatres at Astor Place and in Central Park, and Playwrights Horizons, when both theatres were producing new plays and musicals at a very high artistic level.

At The Public Theater Bob publicized Michael Bennett's A Chorus Line from its developmental workshops, to its sold-out run at the Public, to the first five years of its record-breaking, award-winning (including the Pulitzer Prize) Broadway run. Another Pulitzer winner that he represented at the Public was Jason Miller's That Championship Season.

Bob's other Public Theater shows, produced by Joseph Papp, included for colored Girls who have considered suicide..., Landscape of the Body, Miss Margarida's Way, Marco Polo Sings a Solo, I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, A Prayer for My Daughter, Curse of the Starving Class, Runaways, Wings, Drinks Before Dinner, and the Delacorte's all-star revival ofThe Pirates of Penzance.

Bob's shows at Playwrights Horizons, produced by André Bishop, were equally triumphant: March of the Falsettos, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You/The Actor's Nightmare, America Kicks Up Its Heels, Isn't It Romantic?, Romance Language, and numerous Young Playwrights Festivals. A joy of his life was working with "young" (his word) playwrights, composers and lyricists. Playwrights Horizons supplied that with Christopher Durang, William Finn, Wendy Wasserstein, Peter Parnell, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, John Guare, and many others.

While Bob was at The Public Theater, he also publicized major tributes to theatre greats, produced by Anna Sosenko for the Museum of the City of New York. In addition to Ethel Merman and Mary Martin, mentioned above, the tributes included George Abbott, Jule Styne, Joshua Logan, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Knowing Bob was one of the only ways to buy tickets to these now-legendary blockbuster events.

Manhattan Theatre Club honored Bob on Broadway by co-naming its Samuel J. Friedman Theatre lobby in his honor: "The Shirley Herz and Bob Ullman Lobby." Bob's family calls it "The Bobby Lobby." Bob and Shirley were fellow theatrical press agents and at one time business partners, "His and Herz."

Bob Ullman (near left) made sure that his life was not 100% theatre. First and foremost was the love of his life for 63 years, Milton ("Mike") Freeman (far left). On their first date they saw the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952. In 2012 they officially wed in a ceremony officiated by their friend, Rev. Joshua Ellis (middle), mentioned earlier. Together, Bob and Mike ran two successful Long Island antique shops, "Collectibles" in Bridgehampton followed by "The 1780 House Antiques" in Water Mill. The latter closed in 2008. Mike passed away in 2015.

Robert Ullman was born on July 20, 1922 in Washington Heights, New York City, to William and Nettie (nee Eisler) Ullman. William manufactured men's topcoats. Nettie was famous for her cooking and baking, which played into Bob's theatrical career. The family moved to West End Avenue in the 1930s.

The love of all things theatrical was a family affair. When his parents saw a Broadway show they would put the ticket stubs and Playbills at the foot of Bob's bed so that he could see them when he awakened in the morning. They took him to his first Broadway show, Ethel Merman in Take A Chance, when he was 10, and after seeing that, there was no stopping him. The family took in new musicals by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Dietz and Schwartz, Jerome Kern, and Rodgers and Hart. "The top orchestra price was $3.30, plays were even lower," Bob frequently said.

Bob often asked his mother, Nettie, to bake the Eastern European treat, rugelach, for his famous friends. He once asked her what was in the icebox; he wanted to give Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne a homemade gift when he worked with them on The Visit at the newly christened Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on West 46th Street. They received her homemade stuffed cabbage and rugelach. A 1965 New York Times feature about it included her recipe (for rugelach).

Summing up his career, Bob recalled, "I worked Off-Broadway before it was called Off-Broadway and a lot of years after it got a name. I did summer stock, winter stock, I worked in producers' offices, anything to stay involved with the theatre. I worked for three great mentors, press agents Bill Doll, Samuel J. Friedman, and Harvey Sabinson. I saw the greatest plays and musicals of the 20thcentury with their original casts. Let me put it this way: I worked with the best. I saw the best. I leave the rest."

("Bob") Ullman is survived by his niece, Bonnie Blake Drucker, and nephew, Billy Blake, who are children of his late sister, Jean Ullman Blake; and by nieces Susan Ullman and Lucy Ullman Bain, and nephew Bill Ullman, who are children of his late brother, Dr. Montague Ullman. He is also survived by three first cousins, Dulcy Singer, Rita Singer and Katie Ullman. His nieces and nephews recall Bob taking them to many Broadway shows in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Bob lost his theatre-loving nephew, Gary Blake, Bonnie and Bill's brother, in March of this year.

There will be a celebration of Bob Ullman in the fall; venue, date and time to be announced. Should friends desire, contributions may be sent to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Bob famously had a short attention span and a very fast mind. He would think this obituary is too long. One can hear him say, "Get the hook!" So, it is time to stop.