Behind Blue Eyes

Herman Rush and the legacy of Sinatra

By Ivor Davis—Photos by Joe Sohm


hen I first met 81-year-old Herman Rush I expected a wheezing old geezer with a mile long tedious series of showbiz anecdotes. Not nearly!

Instead I got a feisty character plucked straight out of Budd Schulberg’s classic 1940s Hollywood novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” He sits in his office surrounded by an amazing collection of Sinatra memorabilia and warmly recounts his experiences with the music legend as well as time spent hobnobbing with most of the greats of the entertainment world.

Rush is a true polymath: a movie mogul; a producer; a home builder (in Oxnard Shores); an exporter of  English taxicabs; a passionate collector; and a confidante, over several decades, of politicians and icons of Hollywood.

He has homes in Beverly Hills and a magnificent citrus ranch in the Ojai Valley, and he has managed to pack more into his 80 years than most men could do in a dozen lifetimes. He’s the kind of guy who will never get to his own funeral—he’ll be too busy to show up. Even his wife of 60 years, Joan, his childhood sweetheart, continues to be awed by his boundless energy.

Twenty-five years ago Rush decided he needed a weekend escape for his family, and to retain his own sanity in the frenzied world in which he had chosen to make a living. While attending a Hollywood wrap party for a TV series, he discovered  Ojai. And soon after, he found his 70-acre paradise, his very own Shangri-la.

It is here that he unwinds (although unwinding isn’t one of his priorities). His son Jim runs the family’s citrus ranch, and the spread also houses his unique collection of memorabilia: his Sinatra recordings, movies, photos (including one of a callow, young Herman in bowtie with Ol’ Blue Eyes), and assorted items you’d expect to find at the Smithsonian.

Rush has covered the waterfront. He is the former chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola telecommunications; he produced movies and television specials, as well as The Montel Williams Show. Along the way, as a top agent and producer, he was involved in a wide assortment of hit shows, starring Perry Como, Jackie Gleason, and Tom Jones, as well as comedies and dramas like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants, That Was the Week That Was, and All in the Family, which was based on the hit British series Till Death Us Do Part.

Not long ago he wrote a book called “Never Bored,” about his adventures in show business, and he insists it was aptly titled. “I’ve never been bored,” he says. “And I as long as I live I don’t intend to ever be bored.”

Ventana magazine stopped by one recent afternoon to talk to the energetic octogenarian about his charmed life.

VENTANA: When did you start collecting Sinatra?

HERMAN RUSH: In the forties, when I was 14. My uncle, Manie Sacks, was a record agent and he’d send me discs of Sinatra music they recorded, some released, some not. Then over the years he sent me lots of articles and pictures.

VEN: Was your uncle close to Sinatra?

HR: He was an integral part of Sinatra’s life. Frank called him his “rabbi.” Even when Sinatra went to Capital Records and Manie to Columbia they stayed friends. When my uncle was dying, Sinatra left a picture in mid-shooting to visit him. Then he was a pallbearer.

VEN: Did you keep in touch with Sinatra?

HR: When I was in college he used to pay me to plug his records in Philly, Washington, and Baltimore. That was when we first had a photo taken together.

VEN: Was Sinatra’s reputation as a firebrand accurate?

HR: I can’t deny he may have had a temper, but I only saw the good side of him. Whenever he saw me through the years he always associated me with my uncle, and it was a mutual respect. Did he want to be in control? Probably. In his business you have to have an ego. He was a star, and you have to have arrogance to be successful in that business.

VEN: Did you ever see that arrogance?

HR: No. In l975 I sold the idea of 21 stars saluting America from 21 national parks or monuments to ABC for a bicentennial TV special: Ray Charles in the Grand Canyon doing “God Bless America,” Sinatra on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial crooning “The House I Live In.” ABC gave me the green light on Sinatra’s name alone. So I flew to Lake Tahoe where Frank, who was a huge star, was appearing and told him we could only pay him $2,500, the same fee as all the others.

VEN: Did he ask for more?

HR: His lawyer did—half a million—the same as Frank got for his last TV special. Then Frank asked me what the AFTRA union scale was. I said $l78 and he said he would do it for that. Then he said it would be great if I could get a donation to the Palm Springs Hospital in his father’s name. I got a $50,000 donation. Two weeks before my show aired Frank was being blasted in the media about Mafia connections, so I called and said, “I’d like to tell the press that you worked for $178 and a hospital donation.” He said, “No way. That’s between you and me. It’s nobody’s business.”

VEN: So you never clashed with him?

HR: Once we bumped into each other at Chasen’s Restaurant and I mentioned I had something in my Sinatra collection that he didn’t have. “Okay, smartass,” he said, “what do you have?” I told him I had an eight-millimeter home movie of his marriage to Ava—which took place in my Uncle Lester’s house in Philadelphia. Frank shrugged, but the next day his lawyer called and demanded the film. I offered to make him a copy and the lawyer said, “No way. Send me the negatives.” I did—after making an extra copy for myself.

VEN: Why did you switch from the frantic Hollywood scene to the tranquil Ojai Valley?

HR: Being a workaholic, I needed a change of pace to be with my family. I’d had a boat and a place in Palm Springs. But when I came to a TV wrap party in this area I fell in love. It was scenic, peaceful, and only an hour and a half from LA.

VEN: What do you consider the secret to longevity?

HR: Keep your mind active, agile, and fit. I think youthfully, and although in my eighties—I’m not youthful—my thinking is. I’m fascinated by the new technology. I’m still a workaholic, starting at seven in the morning till seven at night. I don’t watch what I eat or follow any diets and I’m healthy, thank God. I like junk food, pizza, and Italian food. I work out in my house gym and on a trampoline.

VEN: What are you up to now?

HR: I’ve just finished 130 one-minute mini shows for General Mills, which are designed for mobile devices, cell phones, and the internet. They’re  medical and nutritional  tips of the day done by Dr. Bruce Hensel, who was science and health editor at NBC, and by nutritionist to the stars Kim Shapira. I designed them for short attention spans because the youth of America today want their entertainment in short spurts—and when they want it.


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