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Leisure: Less Staring, More Listening

5 minute read

Time was when almost anyone who had shot an aardvark or stared at a commissar or eaten 327 doughnuts in 83 minutes could pick up extra cash lecturing to women’s clubs. Real celebrities were hardly required to lecture; they just had to turn up and let themselves be stared at.

Things are different on the lecture circuit these days. Too many people have seen too many celebrities on TV to be impressed with the mere sight of them. Says Publisher Bennett Cerf, a veteran lecternist, “You’ve got to have something to say.”

Gracious Living Can Be Fun. Topflight lecturers this year include such heavy-duty thinkers as Editor Norman Cousins (“Education and Our Foreign Policy”), Author Vance Packard (“The Changing Character of the American People”), ex-FBI Agent Herbert Philbrick (“Zero Hour for America”). There is still room for the woman’s angle with such as Gossipist Hedda Hopper on Hollywood, and Etiquette Expert Amy Vanderbilt (“Gracious Living Can Be Fun”). And it seems there will always be John Mason Brown, the dean of them all, who has been dispensing wit and wisdom for 36 years, is currently attacking what he calls the “spiritual fallout” in writing. “The purpose of writing,” he orates, “is to hold a mirror to nature, and too much today is written from small mirrors in vanity cases,” while the popular purveyors of the dirty word “appear to have trouble remembering whether they are writing on a page or on a wall.”

The nationwide bureaus—Leigh, Keedick and Columbia—charge from $100 to $1,500 per lecturer, from which they take 30%-40% (out of his remainder the speaker is expected to pay his own expenses). In the top bracket are Funnymen Cerf and Walter Slezak, as well as Pundits Stewart Alsop and C. Northcote Parkinson. “Price is based mainly on the name, personality and availability of a celebrity—and of course on his tax bracket,” says Robert Keedick of the Keedick Lecture Bureau. “On the other hand, someone who has a message to sell, like Billy Graham, will gofor a lot less.”

The audiences who sit at the lecturers’ feet are still mostly women, but they are no longer the fluttery gushers the late Helen Hokinson lampooned 15 years ago. “Younger women with good educations are turning out,” says John Mason Brown, “and the college audiences are infinitely more interested.”

Town & Gown. Playing an increasing role as cultural centers in their communities, colleges are sponsoring lectures open to town as well as gown, and now account for at least 50% of the business handled by the three nationwide lecture bureaus. At Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., last week, Vermont’s ex-Governor Sherman Adams, a veteran of six years of power and pillory as Eisenhower’s “Assistant President.” gave his appraisal of the pressures on a U.S. President: “Great decisions are not the result of popular mandate, but of presidential judgment. It is the President’s duty to stand up to the pressures on him.”

The other major influence on lecturers and lectured has been the rise of what are known as Town Halls. With fees for name speakers averaging about $750, a sizable hall is needed, and it has become the practice for organizations such as church groups and Junior Leagues to hire an auditorium and enlist patrons for a lecture series. The Town Hall movement got under way eight years ago in Birmingham, Mich., a town near Detroit, where it proved so popular that there are now 15 or 20 in the Detroit area alone. They are proliferating across the country (two Town Halls recently opened simultaneously in Pittsburgh alone). Lectures take place in the morning, followed by a luncheon for the lion of the day and a limited number of ladies. “The lunch.” says Keedick, “is the kind of thing you just have to be seen at.”

All-Purpose Pundit. One of the most popular lions these days is Dr. Albert Burke, whose television program, A Way of Thinking, is syndicated to some 60 stations. Two years ago he started lecturing at a $100 fee, now commands as much as $1,000, has had audiences as large as 10,000. All-Purpose Pundit Burke, who is billed as a “scientist, economist and world affairs authority,” was onetime director of graduate studies in conservation at Yale. He does his best to stir up people’s minds on anything and everything from the American Indian to the nature of Communism, using staccato sentences punctuated by pregnant pauses and jabbing questions such as. “Just what does all this mean to you?” To complaints that his impassioned delivery is not objective enough, Burke replied recently: “I am concerned about objectivity in people. They are the people who hide from things around them. The greatest injustices I know have been created in the name of objectivity!”

New York Times Correspondent Harrison Salisbury, who lectures mostly on Russia, is impressed with the overall improvement in U.S. audiences. “When I started lecturing in 1956, after coming back from Russia,” he says, “the level of questions was primitive in the extreme. Now they’re penetrating.” Says Poet Ogden Nash: “It’s fun to find out that the hinterlands are not the hinterlands.”

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