Theater Legend Honored with Prestigious Award
By Fern Gillespie
Theatre legend Irene Gandy has attended the Tony Awards on Broadway for almost 50 years. As the only Black female press agent member of ATPAM (Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers), she would be backstage working the press for her iconic clients like Lena Horne, James Earl Jones, and Al Pacino. She’s even hit the Tony Awards stage to pick up an award as a producer of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill starring Audra MacDonald. This year, it’s different. She will be onstage receiving the prestigious Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre.
Gandy began her career in 1968 as a publicist with Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks for the acclaimed Negro Ensemble Company. The NEC had a union publicist, Howard Atlee, but there were no Black publicists on Broadway and they wanted a trainee. “I knew I was not going to get the job. I’m an old movie buff and the only thing I knew was Mae West talking about her press agent,” she recalled. “I wound up interviewing Howard and that’s how I got into publicity.”
It’s About Relationships
When Atlee told her to go to sleezy Times Square and deliver her first press release to the New York Times’ famed theatre critic Seymour Peck, she dressed in her legendary fashionista style. “I was in the New York Times lobby wearing brown suede hot pants, brown suede boots, pink pockets, and a pink Apple Jack hat.” She would not leave until she met Peck. “When he saw me, Sy said ‘Who are you holding up my deadline?’ And I said ‘Who are you keeping me waiting an hour and a half?’ That began my relationship with him. We were kissing and hugging after that.”
For Gandy, successful press relations is about oldschool relationship building. “The thing is, I know everybody. I know their mothers. I know their dogs. I talk to the press people all the time—not only when I’m working on a show,” she explained. “I respect the press people. We have coffee during off-season. We talk all the time. I’ve known most of the press people since they started and I keep that relationship.”
This includes being a frontline advocate for the Black press. “I’m very respectful of the Black press. Always. When we have press days and media days, I make sure the Black press is included,” she stressed. “I call celebrities’ press agents and tell them they should be involved with Harlem Week. They have to do the Amsterdam News. I let my voice be known.”
Not to Namedrop, but…
Over her 50-year career, Gandy’s wit, wisdom, style and storytelling have impacted over 100 Broadway shows including August: Osage County, Glengarry Glen Ross, Radio Golf, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Lena Horne: The Lady and her Music, and The Wiz. She has been a go-to publicist for legendary playwrights David Mamet and August Wilson. She promoted Samuel Jackson and Denzel Washington during the early stages of their careers. In addition to her work in theater, she worked as associate director of Special Markets for CBS Records, with such artists as Earth, Wind and Fire; The Jacksons; and Labelle. As vice president of Jeffrey Richards Associates, her recent productions include The Great Society, China Doll, Fiddler on the Roof, American Son, and You Can’t Take It With You. American Son star Kerry Washington demanded that Gandy head her community affairs outreach. In 2008, she became the first female press agent to be immortalized with a Sardi’s caricature. A fashionista known for her furs, in 2015 she launched a signature collection featured in Vogue magazine and will debut a Lady Irene Fur line in 2022.
Gandy Gives Back
Although Broadway shut down during COVID, Gandy, a stroke survivor, rallied press, friends, and celebrities to give back. “During the pandemic there were food insecurities. I got my celebrity friends to donate thousands of dollars’ worth of food,” she said. “We partnered with Silicon Harlem so they could put laptops in families that had multiple kids, and laptops into the hands of seniors. We partnered with Harlem School of Nursing so families could see their elders.”
“Irene has donated a lot of time giving back to the community,” said Voza Rivers, her co-producer of the national tour of Sarafina. Both Gandy and Rivers are on the board of Harlem Week and New Heritage Theatre. “She shares her success with young people and people in the community,” said Rivers.
Gandy’s many honors in recognition of her impact include the National Action Network’s “Woman of Excellence Award; Vanguard Award from Black to Broadway Productions, Pioneer Award for BLACK PRIDE NYC, NAACP-LGBQT David Weaver Prize for Excellence in the Arts, and Café Mocha’s “Salute Her” Media Legend Award. Irene’s induction into the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center as part of The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History Project on Film and Tape Archive is a lasting, public recognition of her work.
The Tony Honors for Excellence in the Theatre is also honoring Woodie King and veteran stage manager Beverly Jenkins. All three have Broadway and Black theater credentials. Currently, Gandy and Rivers are advising Ricardo Khan at Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey. Interestingly, this year’s Broadway line-up of new plays—seven in total—are all written by Black playwrights. “Black theater companies have always—and without any revenues— are still bringing quality productions to communities,” said Gandy.
And Family, too.
While Irene was working Harlem Week, her daughter, artist Mira Gandy, was representing her on a special journey to Ghana. She escorted Viola Fletcher, 107, known as “Mother Fletcher”; and her brother, Hughes van Ellis, 100, known as “Uncle Red”; survivors of the 1921 Black Wall Street massacre in Tulsa Oklahoma. The Ghanaian government invited the Fletcher family to experience the Motherland.
Mira, a University of Southern California grad and a visual artist, examines issues related to women, identity, and race. A community cultural activist, she is the founder of the Gandy Art House, which provides creative and healing arts projects for youth, families, and the LGBTQ+ community. Mira has helped her mother in the arts since childhood.
“My daughter is my success,” said Gandy. “Mira is my
excellence in life.”