By Linda Deckard
Wherever Tom Powell was, he was having fun and everyone around him was having fun.
That’s the universal memory of Tom Powell, editor of Amusement Business magazine for 34 years, chronicling the live entertainment industry with his unique, personal touch. Newbies in the industry gravitated to him to learn about venues, parks, fairs and carnivals. He began his career at AB, as it became known, in 1972, following an earlier, successful career as a sports writer.
Now, instead of interviewing athletes and following stats, he was meeting managers and workers at venues, parks, fairs and carnivals. Their fondest memories of TP as he became known from his weekly column, TP on AB, are his love of living, his joviality, his laugh and his fearsome memory.
I joined the industry trade paper in 1976, working for Tom until 2001, so his story is personal to me, especially the part that touches on IAVM, where he had a huge impact.
Tony Tavares, who made industry history as president of SMG and later president of sports teams like the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, remembers the fun. “There was never a time I can recall that Tom wasn’t upbeat and happy, and so was everyone around him – it was infectious. No one was capable of being Debbie Downer when Tom was around.”
Laughter kept him alive, and writing about the industry he loved kept him going until his death Jan. 21 in Nashville at the age of 86. Until the end, he was writing his weekly column, called “On the Earie,” for the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, penning stories much like he did for his Amusement Business column, “TP on AB.”
Cliff Wallace, currently executive advisor to the Shenyang (China) New World Expo, former IAVM president and former venue manager stateside, will never forget AB Editor Tom Powell’s visit to the Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans, for his first Super Bowl in 1981. Wallace was just four months on the job and knew Tom well enough to invite him to stay at his house since there were no rooms available in New Orleans when Tom got the okay to attend the game, along with his “amigos,” AB’s “aging salesman” Ray Pilszak and AB Publisher Howard Lander.
“I literally used to have two bank-file boxes full of Amusement Businesses. I sent them all to the University of Texas industry archives except for just a few. The two I grabbed this morning were Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, 1981. He wrote about coming to his first Super Bowl in New Orleans. He said some things in those columns that were unique and said a lot about Tom. Tom could put more people’s name per inch in a column that anybody. You’d read through his column and you’d know about so many people you respected and loved being around, and people who were making an impact on the industry. That was educational.
“In the Jan. 31 issue he said he would enjoy coming to the Superdome and the box seats, where he hoped to ‘renew acquaintances with top Hyatt officials, including Cliff Wallace, Denzil and David Skinner, Neal Gunn and all our good friends. The venerable Denzil is, of course, older than all of us. It seems only appropriate that an educational trip to Bourbon Street will be in order.’ He could say things like that, the ‘venerable Denzil,’ it was extremely funny, but also denoted the degree of respect he had for people. Denzil had been there and I took his place. He liked everybody.”
He wrote one of his longest columns after the Super Bowl — two and a half page lengths, column width in a tabloid. He mentioned more people than seemed humanly possible, Wallace remembered, and everything about it was educational and amusing.
“He brought in everything and talked about the fact we put the big bow on the Superdome that year to honor the 53 hostages being held in Iran. That was a front-page picture in AB and he talked about that. He had this way of bringing things out being done in the industry that had meaning.”
The same story could be told for the park, fair and carnival industries. Photos of people in the industry were a classic touch from TP. All AB reporters carried cameras and we printed a lot of photos. The late great Bob Reid used to cut out photos of new managers that ran in AB and put them in a notebook which he took to IAVM meetings. He represented Sesame Street Live at the time and he would find a table at the convention, sitting near a main aisle, and watch for those people to pass by so he could nab them to book the show. Reid also used to count the names Powell mentioned in TP on AB throughout the year, looking for who got the most nods, reporting back to Tom for the year-end issue, usually that it was Bill Alter or Johnny Hobbs. It was as important to the industry as the attendance numbers we obsess over today.
At IAVM conventions, AB hosted a hospitality suite and sponsored a softball or basketball game, both of which featured Powell. Walter Heeney, who was publisher of AB when Powell was hired, chose him for his personality and ability to make friends as much as he did for his writing ability, which was monumental. Tom turned AB into a family trade paper, unlike any other. He was equally generous to the spouses as well as the GMs, and to the newcomers.
He knew everyone and introduced them to each other. When Tim O’Brien, also an AB managing editor, penned Tom’s biography, “TP on AB,” in 2004, he dubbed him a “celebrity journalist.”
“TP doesn’t take a backseat to anyone when it comes to telling a great story or working a room,” O’Brien wrote.
Tavares was a mere lad when he first attended IAVM, a young GM who had just taken his first job at the Providence (RI) Civic Center. He knew very few people in the industry, but among them was Earl Duryea of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Duryea was also very close to Tom Powell.
“When I first was introduced to Tom, he said, ‘Oh yeah, Earl Duryea told me about you. He told me you were one of the bright up-and-comers in the business.’ He knew about me before I walked in the AB suite for the first time. I was a young nobody at that time,” Tavares remembers. “He was an unbelievably gracious host to everybody there at the after-hours suite. Those are my great recollections.”
Hijinks were acceptable back then. Tavares recalls the time he and another friend and venue manager, Rick Bjorklund, were out having some cocktails before going to the AB suite. Walking into the hotel, they see two hookers in the lobby. “And, of course, Rick says something to them, and they say, ‘what room are you in?’ So we gave them the AB Suite number, thinking there’s no way they’re coming up. There were a lot of guys in the suite, a lot with their wives, and all of a sudden there’s a knock at the door and these two hookers come in and they ask where are those two boys we saw in the lobby? People were aghast. And Tom immediately looks over at Bjorklund and they just burst out laughing.”
Tom was a journalist first, and a very good one. Asked about his interview style, Tavares said his approach was always well informed because he was well connected. “It’s a relationship business – that’s what he taught you, right? Tom always had tremendous relationships. He would know things that only absolute insiders would know. When he called you, he was always extremely well-informed. You couldn’t possibly blow smoke at him. You knew he had to know the answer to the question he was asking you from someone else already.”
“Still, during the interview, you couldn’t get through an interview with him without laughing. My fondest memories of Tom – always laughing, always upbeat and always being well-informed.”
Wallace thinks of Powell as a person who had an extraordinary love for people in general. “He truly valued friendships and he had a passion for laughter.
“We talk about our industry as being fraternal. Tom is a person who made it more fraternal. It used to be that my secretaries knew when Amusement Business came in, it was on top of the mail stack. The reason I valued reading AB so much, and as I’ve always taught staff – don’t run this building without being well informed about the people and the venues in this industry. Tom was one of the best sources for that. The first thing I always did was turn to his column.”
He was not so much an interviewer as he was an intent listener. “He adored the industry to the extent he wanted to hear what was going on. He was selective about what he wrote, but even if it was corny humor, you learned a lot. Tom, to me, was not an interviewer. He was a listener.
“Susan [Cliff’s wife] loved him, because he recognized the spouses. He made a big deal out of recognizing spouses and putting their pictures in AB.”
That’s because he understood they, too, are in the business, as demanding as it is. That’s a lesson Tom taught all of his reporters. This is a people business, whether the brick and mortar is an arena or a roller coaster, it’s about the people.
“One of the greatest compliments I ever got from him was right after we walked into the Superdome for that first Super Bowl,” Wallace said. “He told me, ‘Cliff, this building is immaculate.’ I had only been there a few months and one of my goals, especially for that first Super Bowl, was that that building be as clean as it had ever been. He recognized it and he recognized it right off. And I thought this guy has been to more buildings than any of us. It was a big, big thing for him to tell us that.”
Susan Wallace’s main memory of the AB Suite was that when checking into the hotel, one made sure they were not on the same floor as the suite. Not if you wanted to get any sleep. It was loud and long into the night, a place to visit but not sleep near.
I remember the first AB Suite was at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach in the late 70s. A new concept, our publisher hatched the money-saving idea of booking the room for sleeping as well as entertaining. He approached his two reporters, Marilyn Johnson and myself, to book that room, wonder of wonders, a suite with our own rooms. We wisely declined. So Powell and Lander took the bullet. Legend has it that as the card game was still underway and it was nearing 4 a.m., the two were both on the same page, looking to be the first to go to bed so the other had to host till the end. Lander won the first round.
People valued Tom Powell and his representation of the industry, and he nurtured new talent.
Barbara (Mother) Hubbard will never forget “Thomas Joseph ‘Tom’ Powell my friend, from our first meeting back in the fun days of our crazy business in the entertainment world! He was honest, helpful and caring. I always looked forward to our talks and appreciated the time he gave to my students,” she said, referring to the students and interns she raised in the business from Pan Am Center, Las Cruces, NM, and ACTS (American Collegiate Talent Showcase).
It has to be said Tom was legendary, as well, for his love of Scotch. Venue managers, park owners, fair managers and carnival owners across the nation and the world, had a bottle on hand whenever he was visiting.
Susan Wallace loves to tell the story about that Super Bowl visit, when Tom stayed at the Wallace household just as they were moving in themselves. Boxes were stacked everywhere. She barely found the sheets to make the beds. Tom walks in and, on first glance, marches to the bar and starts unpacking the boxes nearby – in search of a bottle of Scotch.
All those photos and myriads of stories, it was sort of an early version of Facebook. It was a way to develop the community. Tom Powell, as an old-school journalist, had the instincts of an entrepreneur. It’s never been done in a trade paper the way he did it. I don’t know how he figured it out, but he passed it along.
Of the many reporters and editors who passed through AB’s front door, many are still in the industry, having learned to love it under his tutelage. I founded Venues Today to continue the tradition when AB ceased covering venues in favor of parks and carnivals and fairs. Ray Waddell moved to Billboard and is now president of Oak View Group Media and Conferences, which includes Venues Now. Don Muret moved to Sports Business Journal and is now with Venues Now. Melinda Newman moved to Billboard after taking over my desk at AB when I moved to Los Angeles. She is back with Billboard as an editor now. James Zoltak, also an AB alum, has just joined Venues Now and is back in the fold that Tom shepherded all those years.
It’s contagious and it just gets in your blood. He was also supportive, telling me and, I’m sure, the others, they could report anywhere for anyone, that they were the best. He led well, he laughed loud and he loved.
Tom Cantone, who is now high up in the organization with Mohegan Sun Hotels and Casinos, remembers his early days at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., where he met TP from AB.
“Tom cared. He took time to meet you and get to know you. It was the personal touch. You felt he was part of the family.
“As a young executive, I looked to him as the expert. It felt like you had a ringside seat to an expert and an icon. When he would write something about you, you had made it. He knew everyone. He was respected by everyone. That was the endorsement for a young guy like me.”
Tom was born in Scranton, Pa., on July 18, 1933, and graduated from the University of Scranton.
Early on, knowing Tom, I discovered the brotherhood that is Pennsylvania. Wherever he traveled, it seemed he found a fellow Scrantonian.
And he loved the carnival industry as much as all other aspects of live entertainment. He loved it so much he found his soulmate, Christine Reid, his widow, who operated a carnival food trailer. During their courtship, Tom would often be found working in that concession on Rod Link Shows. You can bet Rod Link got a lot of ink in AB, and Tom won his bride.
Tom was preceded in death by his parents Tom and Alice, his brother Bobby, and his first wife and mother of his children, Rosamond. He is survived by Christine, and his children, Julia Mulherin and her husband Paul, Alice Stanley, Thomas and his husband Paul Hill, Kevin and his wife Anne Marie, his five grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and cherished nephew and nieces.
Tom was a sportswriter for the Tennessean from 1958 to 1972. He was the race announcer at the Nashville Speedway in the 1960s and 1970s. Tom was editor of Amusement Business from 1972 to 2006. Since 2007, Tom has written a weekly column for the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA).
He was the recipient of IAVM’s Joe Anzivino Distinguished Allied Member Award, and the board of director’s special award from International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), and was inducted into the International Independent Showmen’s Association (IISA) Hall of Fame and the Showmen’s League of America Hall of Honor.
The funeral service was held Saturday, Jan. 25, in Nashville. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the International Independent Showmen’s Association (IISA) Scholarship Fund in Tom Powell’s name.
IISA Scholarship Fund
6915 Riverview Drive
Riverview, FL 33578
As Tom would say at the end of each of his columns, “Have all great days, and God Bless”.
Linda Deckard is publisher of a blog full of industry stories called www.basedontruth.com, and working on a book about Barbara (Mother) Hubbard. She is former founder/publisher of VenuesToday, rebranded VenuesNow, and began covering the industry with Amusement Business, a Blllboard publication.