Red carpet takes on Oscar sheen

In 1988, PMK made its Broadway debut publicizing the musical “Carrie.” Although no one could blame PMK for that notorious five-perf flop, the top-drawer PR firm threw in the legit towel the following year after its sophomore effort in the theater, “Mandy Patinkin in Concert: Dress Casual,” which ran 57 more perfs than the tuner bloodbath.

In the ensuing years, PMK grew to include the initials HBH, but basically stuck to what its publicists knew best — film and TV — and left the lower-paying gigs to the theater professionals.

Until last season.

Ready for a change, the Tony Awards Prods. dropped its publicist of 18 years, Keith Sherman Associates, and hired PMK/HBH for a reportedly handsome Hollywood sum of $100,000 to handle the press for the show. (Reps from PMK/HBH and TAP, which is a joint venture of the American Theater Wing and the League of American Theaters & Producers, did not comment for this article.) Obviously, the Tony people were expecting some real movieland bang for their buck, hoping to bolster the CBS telecast’s declining viewership and profile. Did they get their money’s worth?

It depends whom you ask. Let’s start with the new, expanded red carpet on Tony night outside Radio City Music Hall on West 50th Street.

“It was disgusting, like the Oscars!” says one legit agent who had nominated clients there.

“It was exciting, like the Oscars!” says one legit publicist who also had nommed clients.

Interviews with red-carpet historians reveal the PMK/HBH-led effort actually produced about 40% more reporters, 20% more TV outlets and a whopping 100% increase in photographers. At least, they called themselves photographers.

“Most of them were paparazzi scum,” says one actor.

Adding to the crush was West 50th itself, which will never resemble the wide-open spaces around the Kodak Theater when Hollywood Boulevard is closed for the Oscars. And while the L.A. sun can be intense in March, the weather there never approaches 90% humidity, as it did Tony night in Gotham. Performers who showed up at 6:30 p.m. to do the red carpet found themselves only halfway through the line an hour later. Finally, at 7:40 p.m., calls went out for stranded celebs to abandon E! and NY1 and get their butts backstage for the show’s big opening number.

PMK/HBH can be congratulated for getting the TV Guide Channel to cover these red-carpet antics for the first time. And who knows? Maybe the CBS telecast’s tiny uptick in viewership came from channel switchers, jazzed by what they’d witnessed on cable. More likely, the increase was the result of the Tonys not competing with the NBA playoffs this year.

Across the street, there were more innovations in the Rainbow Room, where the press had assembled to cover the awards show. Since cellphones are notoriously unreliable 65 floors up, Sprint had sponsored telephone service to reporters in 2004. This year, phone service (also necessary for email delivery of articles) cost $400 a pop. Not that Sprint wasn’t generous. For the first time ever, the company sponsored a room for Entertainment Tonight so its polished interviewers could talk to celebs away from the hurlyburly of the journalistic hoi polloi.

What did the Tony Awards get in return from “ET”?

A check of the show’s Web site the next day revealed the following coverage: big photo of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, “Inside the MTV Movie Awards,” a poll on Lindsay Lohan‘s best movie, features on Nicole Kidman and Peggy Lipton and, way over on the right, under “newslistings,” a bullet that read: “Billy Crystal Takes Center Stage,” which, if you clicked on it, revealed the comic had made fun of Cruise and Holmes at … the Tonys!

In the end, the Tonys will never be the Oscars, and trying to make them so only highlights the essential smallness of the theater world. Movies debut on 3,000 screens across the country in a weekend. Broadway, on the other hand, consists of 39 theaters. In New York. Do the math.

As for trying to bring Broadway into the national consciousness, TAP ought to start worrying about local coverage. Atop Rockefeller Center, PMK/HBH had reserved a front-row-center seat in the pressroom for the New York Daily News. It remained empty for the night. Since Pat O’Hare retired as a full-timer there last year, the Gotham daily didn’t bother to send a print reporter to the 2005 Tony press conference.

Tony snafus

  • The heat at the Tonys extended beyond the red carpet to an unusually hot, damp Radio City Music Hall. Performers backstage were told Aretha Franklin didn’t want the AC blasting before she performed her “Somewhere” screech-fest with Hugh Jackman.

  • To the casual observer, it might seem artistic director Lynne Meadow had been slighted at the Tonys when the show’s producers cut off her acceptance speech for the “Doubt” win. Other observers had a different take: The telecast allows one producer speech per award, and since Carole Shorenstein Hays is lead producer on the John Patrick Shanley play, Meadow had been caught stealing the spotlight.

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