Charlie Cinnamon leaves office for last time
I remember waiting at the old Miami Beach Theater of Performing Arts for the curtain to rise on one big Broadway musical production or another. Angela Lansbury in "Gypsy." Carol Channing back in "Hello, Dolly!" Concerts by Julie Andrews and Liza Minnelli.
But the name inside every Playbill that always caught my attention: Charles Cinnamon, the house public relations executive.
What an interesting name, I thought. And to a North Miami Beach teenager in the '70s who grew up listening to original cast albums and pondering a career in journalism, what an interesting job.
Sometime after I became a Miami Herald reporter in 1985, I met Charlie. I don't remember exactly how, but today I can't recall a time he wasn't in my life. We saw countless performances together, but also shared birthday celebrations, holidays and personal dramas.
Charlie worked nonstop through the decades representing big shows and big-name celebrities (most famously Elizabeth Taylor in the early '80s), until he suffered a massive stroke in fall 2016. He died at home in Coconut Grove on Nov. 3, 2016 — two days before his 95th birthday (an age he fiercely fought to keep secret).
He is survived by a legion of close friends, family and professional colleagues who still mourn his passing. On Monday, June 18, they will celebrate his long life and storied career with a suitably glamorous (one of his favorite adjectives), invitation-only, red-carpet opening of a museum exhibit titled "Charlie Cinnamon: Legendary Press Agent."
"Charlie was a person who had dreams. A lot of that stuff is documented there," said Miami celebrity photographer Manny Hernandez, who knew him more than 25 years, documented the last years of his life in photos and video, and helped choose Charlie's personal effects included in the three-month public exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in South Beach.
"I could talk to Charlie about absolutely anything," Hernandez said. "A lot of people could tell you that, if they had any issues or anything. Charlie could be a confidante. Our age difference was 50-plus years, but he was such a child at heart that we could have a conversation and laugh about anything or gossip about anything."
Among the rich memorabilia to be on display: the old Royal typewriter on which Charlie pounded out thousands of press releases; personal photos of the press agent with some of the 20th century's most famous movie and theater stars; unproduced teleplays Charlie wrote, likely in the 1950s or '60s; and his prized "Elizabeth Taylor cufflinks," which she gave him (made from a pair of her earrings) in the early '80s as a gift after they toured the world in "The Little Foxes."
"What’s going to be great about doing this exhibit, for the run of the three months, people are going to bump into each other in that museum and they’re all going to have Charlie stories. And they’re going to learn Charlie stories. Who doesn’t have a Charlie story in this town?" said Broadway producer-director Richard Jay-Alexander, who also helped organize the museum tribute.
From 1953 until his death, Charlie was known as the dean of old-fashioned South Florida press agents. His first job here: publicizing the old Empress Hotel at 43rd Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Then, he got a job at the old Coconut Grove Playhouse, where in 1962 he met producer Zev Buffman.
"It was friendship at first sight, love at first sight," said Buffman, the beginning of "a marriage not to be broken for 26 consecutive years."
Buffman and Charlie worked together with stars of the day including Eva Gabor, Jack Carter, Dan Daily and Tallulah Bankhead.
Among Charlie's favorite celebrity anecdotes: the time he walked into Bankhead's dressing room and she hiked her dress over her head to show him her colostomy bag, and the day aging movie star Ann Sothern arrived for a short engagement with six steamer trunks. "Doesn't everyone in stock travel this way?" she told Charlie.
In 1971, Buffman and Charlie left the Grove Playhouse and moved to the Beach, where the city renovated and converted the old municipal auditorium (where Jackie Gleason taped his 1960s TV variety show) into a Broadway-style theater. The Miami Beach Theater of Performing Arts (now called the Fillmore) opened in 1976 with a big production of Jerry Herman's "Mack and Mabel" starring Lucie Arnaz.
Charlie organized a spectacular opening night complete with red carpets, klieg lights, antique cars — and a public appearance of Arnaz's divorced parents, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
The day Charlie died, Lucie Arnaz posted on Facebook: "Oh, my goodness. This brought a tear to my eyes. I loved Charlie Cinnamon! He was the REAL DEAL. A class act. There are very few like him left in our business. In ANY business. I am so glad he got to leave after the going got gone."
After Charlie and Buffman parted ways, Charlie opened his own company and set up shop upstairs at 927 Lincoln Rd. He worked — and held court at the downstairs restaurants — for nearly 25 years. Shortly before his death, he closed his office and began working out of his house in the Grove.
Wherever he set up shop, Charlie always decorated the walls with portraits of him and the great Broadway stars he worked with, including Chita Rivera, Ethel Merman and Eartha Kitt.
"The memories are endless, not to mention the endless opening nights of touring shows and having Charlie at the table to greet you with your tickets, hugging," said Jay-Alexander, who was a young production assistant for a touring company of "Porgy and Bess," when he met Charlie in 1977. "It was like Charlie throwing a private party. That’s what it was like. His relationships with the press were genuine. It wasn’t just business. He’d have lunch with these people, he would have dinner with these people. He cultivated these relationships. It was called PR. Public Relations. And nobody — nobody — was better at it than Charlie Cinnamon. Nobody."
Charlie was born in the Bronx, New York, the youngest of seven children, according to his eldest nephew, Stanley Cinnamon, who loaned the museum his uncle's belongings.
"Uncle Charlie could always laugh and have a good time," said Cinnamon, who was 18 years younger than Charlie. "We’d go to a seder — my grandfather was very Orthodox — Uncle Charlie was living at home then and he always got yelled at. He was in his late 20s. He was always Goodtime Uncle Charlie."
One of Cinnamon's earliest memories is of Charlie dressed in an Army uniform during World War II. After the war, Charlie went to college at New York University, where he got a degree in journalism, his nephew said.
Without explanation in the early '50s, Charlie left his very close, very religious family and moved to Miami Beach.
"I’m guessing why he moved. You can guess why, too," Stanley said.
From the exhibit news release: "In the mid-1950s, Cinnamon was married to a woman named Anita Edelstein, an advertising executive who lived in New York, and they divorced after two years. This is one of the previously unknown surprises that the museum team discovered during the creation of this exhibition because Cinnamon was gay."
At least some members of Charlie's family wouldn't have cared, according to Stanley and his wife, Elaine.
"He never discussed it with Elaine or me," Stanley said. "Elaine’s son is gay. Uncle Charlie knew he was gay. We talked to Uncle Charlie about him being gay. ... But he never said that he was gay. I didn’t give a sh--."
Charlie, did, however share his personal life with a wide circle of confidants in South Florida.
"He lived a verboten part of his life. It wasn’t a secret, because anyone who knew Charlie knew who he was. But it wasn’t discussed," Jay-Alexander said. "He protected people’s reputations. He took care of people’s lives. He advised them on decisions. It wasn’t like troubleshooting, like it is now — where you hire people to put a spin on things. Charlie actually cared. And his life was private. What’s great about that time — everybody held everybody else’s secret."
About eight months before Charlie's death, the Miami Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce sought to honor him at its annual dinner with a "Civic Achievement Award." Charlie briefly considered, then declined the offer. "I just can't," he told me.
"It was no one’s business," said one of his closest friends, Lee Brian Schrager, founder and director of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and a senior vice president for Southern Glazer's Wine and Spirits. "It was an important part of who he was. He never denied it. He was the earliest supporter of HIV [prevention] with Health Crisis Network (now Care Resource) and all the work that we did. First to write a check out, the first to support it. But it was no one’s business."
Said Schrager: "It never mattered to Charlie what people thought of him. He lived his life, he was proud of being Jewish, he was proud of being gay. He wasn’t marching in parades, but he certainly didn’t hide it."
Charlie and Schrager met about 1984, at a Miami opening night cast party for the big Broadway hit, "La Cage Aux Folles."
"I just remember kind of watching him, how he moved around, flitted around. Greeted everyone. He was the ultimate host. He was a much more discreet Truman Capote. He was the ultimate host who had to make everyone feel important, whether you were a big name talent or a waiter or a busboy at a restaurant.
"Everyone thinks they were Charlie’s closest friend. I know that I was. I’m sure there are multiple people who feel the same and good for them. He was able to make everyone feel important. If you were in that network of people who called him on the way to work or on the way home or on the weekend, you were special."
Schrager even credits Charlie with helping to brand him: "I remember having lunch with him, the first time we had lunch. And I remember we were in conversation. He said to me, “What’s your middle name?’ I said Brian. He goes, ‘From now on, you’ll be Lee Brian Schrager, not Lee Schrager.’ And you know what? From that day I was Lee Brian Schrager. I don’t introduce myself as Lee Brian Schrager, but anytime it’s written, I always use my middle name. Because of Charlie. To this day."
Charlie managed his own career by never letting on how old he was.
"In order to remain relevant, his age had to be irrelevant," said friend Frank Ricigliano, who for 12 years styled Charlie's hair every 10 days or so.
"I knew him very, very well. I almost felt he told me things he would only tell his hairdresser," Ricigliano said. "He talked about his life and his dog (a boarder collie named Coalie) and his friends. ... He talked about how busy he always was. He talked about — a lot — how he’d like to slow down, but he really wouldn’t know how to slow down."
Charlie is remembered not just for promoting big Broadway shows, but also for founding the Coconut Grove Art Festival (which actually began as a publicity stunt for a 1963 Grove Playhouse production of "Irma la Douce") and helping launch Miami City Ballet.
"Charlie was there every step of the way, guiding me, talking with me, encouraging me, supporting me," said Toby Lerner Ansin, who founded the ballet in 1985. "You wouldn’t have Miami City Ballet today without Charlie Cinnamon. He arranged all the initial PR, how it was introduced to (late dance critic) Laurie Horn and the Miami Herald. On and on and on. He’s been part of all my children’s lives. They all loved him. He came to all their events. He was their Uncle Charlie, too."
Ansin, who gave him his beloved Coalie, said Charlie became part of her well-known family.
"We’d go on trips and he kept ahead of everybody. We took him on a lot of family trips and he always made private time with everybody. If we were on a cruise, he’d always want to have private time with my son (WSVN Vice President James Ansin), and a private time with my daughter (Miami Theater Center founder Stephanie Ansin), and a private time with my brother (concert pianist Bennett Lerner). Whoever was there. He just loved people and people responded to that."
Ansin said she has many of Charlie's early press releases. "And I have a list of adjectives that Charlie always used that would get somebody’s attention. The one I remember most was when Debbie Reynolds was here doing ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ and he wrote, ‘The rootin’ tootin’ shootin’ Debbie ...’ That's not how most people would start a press release, would they? They used to print them pretty much verbatim."
What's most unusual about Charlie's professional relationship with South Florida reporters and critics: their mutual respect (and sometimes love) for each other.
The journalist who worked most closely with Charlie: Christine Dolen, the Herald's theater critic for 36 years.
"He was, I would say, my key public relations contact from 1979 onward. Naturally, if you work with someone again and again and again, particularly if the person is great like Charlie was, you become friendly. We always maintained professional boundaries, but we respected and cared about each other. Such a professional friendship is very unusual."
Said Dolen: "Charlie’s enthusiasm about the art form he represented never diminished. He was always thinking of inventive ways and angles to suggest how to get coverage."
But the last few years of Charlie's life proved frustrating to him, as traditional newsrooms cut back theater coverage in the wake of social media.
"He got more and more discouraged toward the end of his long career because of the changing nature of the media business, the shifts in focus and the fact that certain stories that might have been a no-brainer in the past were turned down."
Retired Herald columnist Joan Fleischman first met Charlie in the mid '70s, when she worked at the old Miami Beach Sun Reporter. They became lifelong friends.
Joan and I — and others lucky enough to be in Charlie's world — spent time with him at his Grove cottage in the days before he died.
"Charlie was a reporter’s dream. That is why so many of his professional relationships transformed into friendships," she said. "Charlie’s flawless reputation was well deserved: He was never dishonest or disingenuous. His word was his bond. He could be trusted. Charlie Cinnamon, press agent extraordinaire, delivered what he promised."
If you go
- What: Charlie Cinnamon: Legendary Press Agent
- Where: Jewish Museum of Florida - FIU in South Beach, 301 Washington Ave.
- When: Tuesday through September. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays and holidays.
- Admission and information: $6 adults; $5 seniors and students; $12 families; free for museum members, FIU students, faculty and staff. Call 786-972-3176 or visit jmof.fiu.edu.