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Remembering Syd Silverman, Who Guided Variety Through Decades of Innovation

Syd Silverman, Variety’s former owner-publisher, who died Aug. 27 in Boca Raton, Fla., steered Variety through crucial moments in the development of the paper — and in the entire entertainment industry.

Variety was begun in 1905 by Sime Silverman, Syd’s grandfather. Syd Silverman inherited the paper in 1950 and ran it until 1987. During those decades, showbiz faced some of its most radical innovations, including the television boom, basic cable, pay TV, satellites and home-recording devices like the VCR. There was also the rise of independent film and the revolution of digital technology.

At each step, Silverman insisted that Variety (and its sister publication in Hollywood, Daily Variety) be ahead of the curve in its coverage of each innovation.

Syd and Jan Silverman on their wedding day in June 1954
Courtesy of the Silverman Family

In retrospect, his decisions seem inevitable. But in 1950, television was a new phenomenon, and many in the industry were skeptical of its long-lasting impact; nearly everything on TV was done live and never repeated.

And on Sept. 24, 1980, four years before the game-changing Betamax decision of the Supreme Court, a Variety article predicted that the new home recorders would revolutionize the public’s viewing habits: “People will no longer watch simply what is on — they will watch what they want to view when they want to view it, sometimes free of any commercial messages whatsoever.”

The article proved prescient, but it ran without a byline. In those days, there were no star reporters; Variety was the star.

Silverman was living up to a long tradition. Variety is generally acknowledged as running the first-ever movie review, in 1907. Movies were new, and Variety deemed them interesting and worth exploring. The first movies were six or seven minutes long.

The paper didn’t only write about the changes in the industry but also the numbers. Variety pioneered the publication of TV ratings as well as box office grosses; with the latter, the studios resisted, saying they were private information, but the reporters got around that by calling theater owners around the country to find results.

Clockwise from top: Syd with his second wife Joan; as a boy with his grandmother; racing in Connecticut
Courtesy of the Silverman Family

Elizabeth Guider was a longtime Variety staffer. This week, she recalled her early days as an overseas correspondent. In 1985 she visited the Variety office, with the noise of typewriters and the smell of tobacco in the newsroom. Guider described Silverman as “a singularly well-dressed, even courtly and seemingly bemused-by-it-all gentleman.” He escorted her into his office for a chat; he was so charming and worldly that she gave up her initial goal of asking for a raise, feeling it would be vulgar. Only later did she realize that Silverman was not only charming but also a savvy businessman who knew exactly what he was doing.

Under his tenure, Daily Variety was pretty separate from the weekly. They exchanged reviews and some stories, but Silverman was happy to give free rein to Thomas Pryor, who was editor of Daily Variety from 1959 to 1988.

Syd Silverman was the third person in his family to run the paper. Grandfather Sime ran it until his death in 1933; Syd’s father, Sidne, was the owner-publisher until he died in 1950. When Syd inherited it, he was 18; his legal guardian, Harold Erichs, oversaw the business until 1956.

Silverman was a smart and forward-looking presence, even in the early days. After the publication had been a tradition in the family for 82 years, Silverman organized its sale to Cahners Publishing, a subsidiary of Reed International, in 1987. It was the first time that the publication was run by a company outside the Silverman family. In 2012, Penske Media Corporation became only the third owner of Variety in its long history.

Silverman was 85 when he died of a sudden illness. He is survived by his second wife, Dr. Joan Hoffman; his four children, Marie, Michael, Mark and Matthew; and eight grandchildren. His first wife, Jan McNally Silverman, died in 1997.

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