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Shelly Gross, Music Fairs Entrepreneur

June 25, 2009
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He was the last of the local "Three Amigos" who helped turn a tent into a tentpole for a nationwide theatrical enterprise.

And when Shelly Gross died June 19 at the age of 88, there was little doubt he would be joining the late Lee Guber and Frank Ford -- Philly boys who jointly put Music Fairs on the map some 50 years ago with their flagship in Valley Forge -- in planning a celestial schedule of entertainment.

In a career that spanned 50 years -- and juggled theatrical and literary pursuits -- the entrepreneur/author had accomplishments that reflected interests in the arts that started early at Central High School and as a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

Of course, the world could have had another attorney, but when Gross left Harvard Law School after a short stint -- followed by a longer engagement as an officer in the South Pacific with the Navy -- he turned his attention to broadcast journalism. He carried his master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University to a job interview -- and a job -- at WFPG in Atlantic City, N.J., before parlaying his popularity into a broadcast gig at WFIL in hometown Philadelphia.

It was there, 55 years ago, that the pioneer was named TV Guide Announcer of the Year; just four years ago, he was saluted as Person of the Year by the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia.

In 1955, Gross helped make area theatrical history, joining Guber and Ford in opening the Valley Forge Music Fair, a circus tent with a carnival of musicals during the summer, usually established Broadway hits with veteran and often legendary names as stars.

Valley Forge was the first of a chain of such theaters, with Gross and colleagues crossing the Delaware and elsewhere, establishing the next site in Long Island, N.Y.

The three men were always on the lookout for new talent, and wound up giving some of the industry's biggest stars their start under cover of a canvas tent. Liza Minnelli was one such performer, whose mother, Judy Garland, had given one of her final performances at Valley Forge.

Indeed, so many stars blossomed in the Music Fairs environment, it's only fair to say that it was more than a comfy forum, it was downright personal: Many of the entertainers became Gross' good buddies, including Frank Sinatra, Don Rickles, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bruce Springsteen.

What Better Than Broadway?

But the greatest show on earth for a theatrical producer was not under the big tops around the country -- canvas eventually replaced with concrete structures for all-year-round use -- but Broadway, where Gross/Guber built an enviable track record. Carol Channing knew a girl's best friend was diamonds, but she also found a gem of a producer in the two men for her role in "Lorelei." And Yul Brynner took his kingly stance in a revival of "The King and I" under the aegis of Guber and Gross and ... etc., etc.

In later years -- decades after bringing tours of classics to theaters nationwide -- Gross retired to Palm Beach, Fla., but he wasn't exactly the retiring kind. He continued to play kingmaker, as adviser and fundraiser for the prestigious Palm Beach DramaWorks.

But he also had kept his hand in the arts as a writer. "Producing has always been my love, of course, but I find myself attracted to writing, giving me another source to express myself," he told me after the 1978 publication of the espionage venture, Havana X, for which he made the national talk-show rounds.

Yes, his productions often ran for years, but, perhaps, Gross was most proud of the long run he had in marriage: He and wife Joan Seidel Gross -- parents of three sons and grandparents of four children -- had celebrated their 63rd anniversary just last month.

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