Pittsburgh, PA
May 19, 2019
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
Local News
Guest Books for Classified Obituaries
Genealogy Info
Guest Book Spotlight



Home >  Local News >  Obituaries Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
Obituary: Leonard Litman / One of the brightest bulbs in area entertainment, night life

Friday, August 02, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Editor

Leonard Litman, 88, one of the most influential and colorful figures of the 20th-century Pittsburgh entertainment scene, died Tuesday of Alzheimer's disease.

Best known as owner-producer of Lenny Litman's Copa, the high profile nightclub that flourished here between 1948 and 1959, the man almost everyone called Lenny spent most of his life producing, promoting or writing about show biz. As local correspondent for Variety, he kept Pittsburgh on the national entertainment map, and he even made a brief foray into professional sports.

"He was a Damon Runyon character," said his longtime friend Jason Shapiro, who co-promoted concerts with him. "He was up all night and slept most of the day. He was totally involved in show business."

"Lenny was a friend to entertainers," said trumpeter Danny Conn. "Between the Copa and the Encore, I think he brought every major act to Pittsburgh, from Miles Davis to Billie Holiday."

Mr. Litman shared his own professional summary in 1985 with the Post-Gazette Dossier, saying, "I had the most success promoting rock shows and the roller derby. The biggest bombs were the Pittsburgh Rens and Charles Laughton."

Born Norman Leonard Litman on May 15, 1914, in North Braddock, the son of immigrants from Eastern Europe, he began his career in 1931 covering high school sports for the Braddock Daily News Herald, The Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph.

After graduating from Braddock High School in 1932, he went on to Shenandoah College and the University of Richmond before graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1937.

A story he wrote about cowboy entertainer Hoot Gibson led to a long, sometimes uproarious relationship as Gibson's press agent, promoter, trouble-shooter and pal. It took him to Hollywood, where he worked as press agent and promoter for boxers, several small circuses and a donkeyball troupe. Mr. Litman was signed to a boxing contract himself, but returned his $1,000 retainer when he was knocked out in the first round of his first fight.

In the midst of all this, he put in one year at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, then produced the Hoot Gibson Rodeo and Thrill Circus. It folded after playing Homestead and North Braddock. Mr. Litman's brother Archie paid off the cowboys and Indians and Gibson's hotel bill at Webster Hall.

His show business career was interrupted in 1941, when Mr. Litman enlisted in the Navy, serving until 1945. He returned to Pittsburgh and with the help of his brothers Archie and Eugene bought Mercur's Music Bar. From 1945 to 1948, Mercur's presented the most important jazz in Pittsburgh. Among the performers were Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Ethel Waters, Reid Jaynes, George Shearing, Mary Lou Williams and Walt Harper.

But it was the Copa, at 818 Liberty Ave., just down from the Nixon Theater, and right across from its competitor, the Carousel, that became the acme of Pittsburgh's night life.

Mr. Litman and his brothers bought the old Villa Madrid in 1948 and turned it into the Copa. Almost by accident, it opened with Frankie Laine, a big recording star, but not known as a nightclub act. He did huge business, so Mr. Litman took a chance on Vic Damone and then Ella Fitzgerald. Their success convinced him to follow the pop charts, a policy new to night clubs.

He also had an eye for unknowns, and he was nicknamed "Options" for signing newcomers to contracts that gave him the right to bring them back repeatedly at low rates after they became famous.

The Copa sat 287, but could squeeze in a lot more when the fire marshal wasn't looking. There were three shows a night, Monday through Saturday.

Among the Copa's headliners: Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Callaway, Mel Torme, Conway Twitty, Patti Page, Andy Williams, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman, Henny Youngman, Pearl Bailey, Johnnie Ray, Rudy Vallee, Artie Shaw, Bela Lugosi, Marty Allen, Lili St. Cyr, Buck & Bubbles, Bill Haley's Comets, Al Hibbler and Miles Davis.

Mr. Litman wouldn't book Lenny Bruce, because he thought Bruce's act was too dirty (although Bruce's mother, comic Sally Marr, played the club). He did help Bruce get other local work, though, when he was stuck in Pittsburgh during his wife's convalescence from a car accident.

He wasn't infallible. He passed on Elvis, back when Presley still was affordable.

At midnight on New Year's Eve, 1959, the Copa closed its doors forever. The times they were a-changing. Acts that previously had played for $1,000 a week were now getting fees in five figures, and Mr. Litman's options were running out.

Over the years, he also shared ownership of a half-dozen more clubs and lounges.

"When I met him, it was in the late 1950s, and he was at the pinnacle of his career," said 83-year-old drummer William Condeluci. "It's funny now, but I remember one day he had a fist fight with a drummer named Billy Marracano at the old musicians union on Penn Avenue. I don't believe any punches that landed were of any consequence."

In 1960, Mr. Litman and his brothers tried to get a Pittsburgh franchise in the National Basketball Association. Rebuffed, they applied to Abe Saperstein's fledgling American Basketball League, where the three-point line was born. They named their team the Rens after the Pittsburgh Renaissance. Their chief asset was Connie Hawkins, who was a skinny, wide-eyed 19-year-old when Mr. Litman signed him in 1961.

Hawkins had been implicated in a point-shaving scandal a year earlier, as a freshman at Iowa State University, and returned in disgrace to his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Although he has always insisted he was innocent, he had been barred from college athletics and the NBA.

Mr. Litman showed up at Hawkins' home unannounced but armed with a contract and came back to Pittsburgh with Hawkins, a 6-foot-9-inch forward with the peripheral vision of an eagle and hands the size of serving plates. The Hawk immediately became one of the short-lived league's dominant players. Some ABL club-owners protested that his signing violated league rules because his college class had not yet graduated and because of his alleged role in rigging games.

But Saperstein ruled Hawkins eligible. Hawkins went on to star in the American Basketball Association and then, after the ban on him was overturned in court, in the NBA.

Hawkins was one of the few Pittsburghers who didn't call him Lenny. He called him Dad.

Hawkins said yesterday from Phoenix, where he now works in the front office of the NBA's Suns, "Lenny [and his family] took me under their wings." "I've gone to all their funerals and bar mitzvahs. I'm family."

Mr. Litman had started promoting concert attractions in the 1950s. After the Copa closed, he started using every available space to present new talent in concert: West View Park (The Rolling Stones); Syria Mosque (Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, The Band, The Kingston Trio, Mort Sahl); Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall (Newport Jazz Festival); Carnegie Music Hall (Brenda Lee); Civic Arena (Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr.); Loews Penn Theater (Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, Ann Corio in "This Is Burlesque"). He continued to produce concerts through the 1970s.

"All through that period we were doing different things," Shapiro recalled. "We brought the Bolshoi Ballet to the Civic Arena and the event was black-tie, first class."

With the national tour of "Hello, Dolly!" starring Carol Channing at the Stanley, Shapiro said, "we played a full month and it was the biggest hit to come to Pittsburgh."

Working with various other partners, he also produced concerts in a number of other cities, from Cleveland westward to St. Louis and as far afield as Albuquerque, N.M.

Shows Inc., which he started with Hy Kotofsky in 1958, built Valley Cable TV Co. in Turtle Creek, the first cable company in Allegheny County. Mr. Litman sold his share of the company in 1978.

Although his journalistic experience helped him as a promoter and publicist, the reverse was also true. Mr. Litman developed a high-profile career as a show biz reporter. He was the Pittsburgh correspondent for Billboard Magazine from 1948 until 1960. Then Harold V. Cohen, columnist and critic for the Post-Gazette, picked Mr. Litman to succeed him as the correspondent for Variety, where for 30 years he covered the Pittsburgh entertainment scene, reviewing everyone from Ben Vereen to Philip Glass.

His taste was eclectic. Although he loved the music of Chet Baker and Miles Davis, he also appreciated and reviewed Glass' abstract modern music. His daughter, Rebecca Litman, remembers going to a "Saturday Night Live" taping where Glass was featured and meeting comedian Dennis Miller, who told her that her father had authored his first review in Variety.

"I've known him for more than 40 years," said 74-year-old trombonist Harold Betters. "He helped contribute to the careers of probably every artist of my generation, both local and national. When an artist came to Pittsburgh, Lenny was the man making it happen."

From 1970 to 1984, Mr. Litman wrote a night life column for The Pittsburgh Press, giving support to smaller clubs and new talent. He was passionate about the entertainment scene which he had helped build and proud that he never wrote a mean word about anyone in his column.

He is survived by his wife of 55 years, Rosslyn Leiber Litman, his daughter and his brother Eugene. A son, David, died in 1993.

A private funeral service is scheduled at Ralph Schuger Chapel at 1 this afternoon. Interment will follow at Ahavath Achim Cemetery in Forest Hills.

The Post-Gazette's Nate Guidry contributed to this report.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections