Behind The Scene: The Show’s The Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock

Dean Budnick on November 11, 2019
Behind The Scene: The Show’s The Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock

Photograph by © Amalie R. Rothschild

What was so appealing to us is that this is a somewhat untold chapter in the history of rock-and-roll,” director Molly Bernstein says of her new documentary, The Show’s the Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock. The film tracks the story of legendary booking agent Frank Barsalona, who helped create the modern rock touring industry while working with artists such as The Who, Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Tom Petty and Van Halen. In the process, he established relationships with a number of young promoters, including Don Law, Ron Delsener, Larry Magid and Arny Granat, who became industry icons in their own right. Philip Dolin, who directed the film with Bernstein, adds, “I don’t think any of these guys had any notion of this being a career at all. Many of them loved music, started in college and just booked a show.”

What led you to this story?

BERNSTEIN: It came through a manager named Winston Simone who is a longtime veteran of the music industry. He was the manager of Ricky Jay, sleight-of-hand artist and magician extraordinaire, who passed away in November [2018]. We were making a film about Ricky [Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay], and that film took about 12 years to complete.

So we got to know Winston very well, and he knew most of these promoters and felt that they were really the last of the great showmen in some ways. He brought it to us when we finished the Ricky film and said, “This would make a great story.”

DOLIN: He pitched the idea that there was this network of people in every territory that created the concert business and who all were put in place by this super-agent named Frank Barsalona. It was really interesting ‘cause I’m actually from Cleveland; so when the Belkin brothers [Jules and Mike] were named, it suddenly clicked for me. I hadn’t thought of the Belkin brothers in decades but, when I heard the name, it clicked for me that they were the ones in that town promoting every show, every weekend, for the entire period.

These guys loved putting on shows. And they just went with the flow of the time. They did one and then they did another, and then it just built into this thing that went from the small clubs up to sold-out stadiums, which is kind of the arc of our story.

Your entry point to this story was Frank Barsalona. Can you introduce him to someone who might be unfamiliar with his career?

DOLIN: Frank is of major importance, but I think very few people know who he is. Frank Barsalona is a guy from Staten Island who was a yodeler in his teenage years. His father, who was a bus driver, loved country music, and Frank would drive the bus with his father and listen to music.

The story goes that he became an agent so he could book himself as a yodeler, which is really funny. But he was the quintessential young person in the music industry at the time when people thought rock-and-roll was a passing fad. He was at a broader talent agency, GMC, and so they handed it over to him and he booked The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, which is amazing. Then he met his soon to be wife, June, who was a rock-and-roll journalist from England who had done the first interview with The Beatles. So Frank was able to meet a lot of the British Invasion acts through June, and then he started his own agency called Premier Talent.

I suppose the main part of the story is that he realized he couldn’t rely on the oldschool promoters for various reasons. They didn’t care about the music; they would rip the artists off. He had to find young, hungry guys to work with in each territory. So a lot of times, he found kids. They were in their early 20s. Maybe they had never put on a show before. Maybe they had done one show and he heard about them and met them. That’s how he put together this network throughout the country. And once a promoter and Frank had a relationship, it was very difficult for somebody else to come into that town, because they weren’t going to get those acts.

He was incredibly charming, loved music and figured out how to make it work—how to put together a tour. It was through this network that the concert tour was invented and, along with it, the whole ethos of the rock star being on the road. That’s something that was created by Frank and these guys.

Our film is named after something that he wrote called “The Show’s the Thing,” meaning that’s what it’s about. People don’t come to a show to hear a record; they come to see this unbelievable performance. And you have to deliver that performance. He would say things that we would consider very matter-of-fact today, for instance, “Don’t turn your back on the audience.” He’s telling this to the young band members. “Play a couple songs. Don’t say anything until you play a couple great songs.”

These early promoters put their stamp on a show and it meant something. Up in Boston, if the ticket said, “A Don Law Production,” then it felt like a significant event, particularly after he’d established himself.

DOLIN: Absolutely. Jon Bon Jovi makes the point in the film that if you’re in New York, every week, it’s “Ron Delsener Presents.”

BERNSTEIN: They really did have a certain territorial position in finding talent and promoting it. And so their taste really did matter in a way. They were very hands-on, but they were also very passionate about it, and that’s infectious.

They can be understated but I think, as business people, they were pretty focused and ambitious. They were behind the scenes and that’s a certain kind of personality. Bob Geldof talked about how, in a band, there’s a lead-guitar personality and a bass-guitar personality and there’s a certain personality of a drummer, and he said the same is true with the promoters. Even though they’re all different, they’re cut from the same cloth. They’re gamblers, they’re risk takers and they’re showmen, in a way.

It’s important to remember that the promoters also had their own money on the line. It was a small business that each of them was running. And there was a lot of risk involved, so I think they did have to have good taste.

DOLIN: They’re always trying to grow the audience and the venue and figure out ways to sell more tickets. There’s a couple fun stories in the film about Elton John playing to 400 people in Boston for Don Law and them losing a ton of money. But they loved the music, so they stayed with that artist and, as the artist grew, they remained loyal to their promoter. That was a big thing that we learned about—this loyalty thing. So you have somebody like Elton John working with Don Law and Mike Belkin. It was fascinating to us because one of the themes of our film is that it’s the same promoters that were in each town for 40 years. There’s a line in the film where somebody says that, in their career, they dealt with 40 presidents of Columbia Records, but just one promoter in Boston, one in Philly, etc.

Jon Bon Jovi mentions Ron Delsener, who remains an active presence as a promoter and makes a few entertaining appearances in your film.

DOLIN: When we had the premiere of the film at the DOC NYC Festival last November, Ron was in the audience as were some other promoters. And they all came up onstage and Ron grabbed the microphone and said, “I’ve got a Doobie Brothers show tonight at the Beacon so I can’t stay long.” And he said a few things and then he just left.

BERNSTEIN: And it was so funny because we knew that it was true, because our composer on the film, Michael Leonhart, was actually playing trumpet with The Doobie Brothers that night at the Beacon so he couldn’t come to the screening. It was just so funny; Ron’s working all the time.

DOLIN: If you’re a musician working in New York, then you’re gonna see Ron Delsener backstage all the time. He’s a character, but he lives and breathes the show and the performance and putting on the show. We met him and got to know him a little bit. Then, he allowed us to follow him for a day, and we went out to Jones Beach for a Dave Matthews show. And Jones Beach is Ronnie’s venue. He was the one that helped get that built. So he’s God-like there. Everyone says hello to him and he has a special green room where we hung out and it’s just so much fun. When we were talking to people at Jones Beach, asking if we could come in with a crew and follow Ronnie, they would say, “I would do anything for Ron Delsener. Of course you can come. I love Ron.”

We had this funny experience at a restaurant where he eats, Antonucci Cafe, on the Upper East Side: Before going to Jones Beach, he changed his mind and suddenly decided he wanted to have lunch at Antonucci’s instead of at the beach, so we just followed him in with our cameras and crew. And the sea parted: The waitresses said, “Of course.” The owners said, “Welcome Ron,” and we just filmed him in the middle of the restaurant in the middle of the day. No one said, “You can’t be in here with a film crew.”

BERNSTEIN: We didn’t have prior permission and that doesn’t happen; it’s unheard of in New York. Ron is kind of like a moving circus. Wherever he goes, he’s always the center and he’s outrageous.

At one point, while you’re in Antonucci’s, the camera pans up to a painting…

DOLIN: There’s a huge painting in this Italian restaurant of the canals in Venice and, if you look closely, the gondolier is Ron Delsener. BERNSTEIN: It’s really great. [Laughs]