Howard Atlee ’50 was a Broadway press agent before the age of email and text messaging—at a time when press releases were composed on typewriters and physically delivered to each of New York’s daily newspapers, where Atlee and other publicists formed relationships with arts reporters and editors.
“We’d say, ‘We have to go out and hit the trail,’” Atlee said. “We started at the [New York] Times. The Times always had to go first.”
“We had seven newspapers back then,” in New York City in the 1960s, he said.
Atlee, who received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Emerson in 2000, recently decided to give back to his alma mater by donating a host of historical memorabilia from Broadway that he collected over six decades.
Atlee presented the College with a handwritten letter from Alec Baldwin; photos of performers Maurice Hines, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Buster Keaton, and John Gielgud; about 1,000 original production materials from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that include images, correspondences, and press releases; photos from the Negro Ensemble Company from 1968 to 1969, including Samuel L. Jackson and S. Epatha Merkerson; and the first draft of Act I of Samm-Art Williams’s Bojangles.
The theater memorabilia, which is being stored in the Emerson Archives, was valued by respected appraiser Richard Stoddard at nearly $18,000.
Atlee said one of his biggest accomplishments as a press agent was leading the Times to write a favorable article in 1966 about the Negro Ensemble, a then-little-known theater group for black performers during the civil rights era, which led to it receiving $1.25 million from the Ford Foundation.
“I had such a fondness for promoting them and doing the right thing,” said Atlee, who represented the group for about 25 years.
“I had such a fondness for promoting them and doing the right thing.”
A professional actor in the years before his start as a publicist, Atlee said, “the thrill of my life is in the theater, not just as a press agent.”
However, he calls the latter role “a romantic job” that allowed him to build fond relationships with reporters.
“There’s nobody more interesting to sit down and have dinner with than a journalist,” he said.
Atlee said he chose to donate the memorabilia to help Emerson’s active Performing Arts community.
“It’s too valuable to disregard,” said Atlee, who lost many personal items in a fire at his New Jersey home in 1997. “I once had every copy of Theatre World…It all went in the fire. I cannot let this go to waste.”
Now living in Maryland, the retired Atlee is mourning the recent loss of his wife of 36 years, Barbara, but keeps their animal-loving passion alive by regularly serving as a judge at dog shows.
“I like being around people. I like show business. I like being a part of it in some form,” he said.
Atlee’s been a judge five times at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden. The couple once owned 15 dachshunds.