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Inside the Casbah

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Inside the Casbah


The flamboyance of Casablanca’s stage acts were matched only by the Casablanca offices. There was no such thing as 9-5 once you stepped inside. The work got done, however, and whenever it needed to get done. Employees could be called on to do just about anything, from taking over security at Studio 54 to reserving two first-class seats on an airplane to ship a lifesize cake of Donna Summer from Los Angeles to New York. Employees worked as hard as they played. Few who walked through 8255 Sunset Blvd. ever forgot it…especially the stuffed camel.


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Michele Hart-Winer (Director of Special Projects): The office was Moroccan. There were tiles, pavers, rugs, ceiling fans. It was fabulous. There were three buildings and I was in the third building. 


Goldman: It was like a mansion. It was all in the taste of Casablanca. There was a stuffed camel in Neil’s office. They built me a desk to my specification and I remember in my office there was a rug. They’d gotten it at an antique store. It was like a ridiculous amount of money. The company was doing very well and there was no reason why it shouldn’t have been represented in the offices. It was a fun place to work.


Dennis Wheeler (Promotion Manager, Special Projects): Casablanca was on Sunset Boulevard and it was three apartment buildings that were turned into their offices. I was in the third building, which was the old Fatty Arbuckle estate. We’d invite all the stores and the DJ’s and on Fridays have margaritas and Spanish food sent over from the restaurant across the street. Our phones had long chords and we used to drop them down from the office on the second floor down to the pool, because we had the actual Fatty Arbuckle pool outside our office. We used to all sit by the pool and have record release parties right in our office. We had a live DJ booth there and DJ’s used to come over and play. It was a networking place more than just an office. Casablanca became a networking place for music and musicians and artists and singers. It was fun.


Ruben Rodriguez (National Promotion and Marketing Director): I actually started my career at Motown. Motown was one hell of a school and Casablanca was an incredible adventure. That’s the best way I can put it. It was an adventure because, quite frankly, there was nothing like us at the time. When I went to Casablanca, I’ll never forget because it was a drastic change of music. I came in at the beginning of Village People and Santa Esmeralda, and all the big Parliament-Funkadelic hits. I literally locked myself in my house for the entire weekend – at that time I was living with my ex-wife – and all I did was listen to Casablanca music. I listened and listened until Monday morning came around, and I walked out that door, I got it. I totally got it. I was totally psyched and totally pumped to be part of the Casablanca family. We were breaking artists left and right.


Cecil Holmes (Partner/Senior Vice President): It was my responsibility with the black acts to make sure they got their fair share, that they were taken care of, that everything was cool. I would go out on the major tours and we would have parties in every major city and a lot of the pop promotion guys, they would take care of the pop guys but my R&B guys, they would complain that they weren’t getting the same response. I would make sure that those guys were always taken care of. Susan Munao, who was Donna’s manager, and I were very close. She knew how I felt about that and she would make sure that when we were at a show, that the R&B guys would get good seats and, if they were coming backstage to meet Donna, that she would make sure that they would get a chance to meet her.


Nancy Sain (National Pop Promotion): There was no color at Casablanca. You were not discriminated because you were female, gay, black, or Jewish. Whatever you were, you were fine. It was, you have a job, you have a purpose, are you doing it the best you can?


Nellie Prestwood (Publicity): It was really an over-the-top environment but, in a way, there weren’t any rules. There was a freedom there and that’s what I really liked about it, although you knew you had a job to do but you didn’t feel confined. You didn’t feel pressure of being held back. The main reason I really liked it was because it was a place where you could flow and express yourself in any shape, form, or fashion. You had the freedom to come up with things that you wanted to do and explore things that you thought might be good for something that you were working.


Holmes: One thing that Neil did and I love him for, I’ll never forget, he told me one time, he said, “Cecil, whatever I do you’re entitled to have the same privileges”. He never backed down on that. I could travel wherever I wanted to travel. I could travel first-class. Whatever it took. We used to lease automobiles. I always would get the best automobile. I had a Mercedes. Everything was done first class. He always treated me first class. I love him for it.


Marc Nathan (National and Regional Promotion): We were always making a big splash at conventions. As it’s been documented in so many other places, Neil always believed in spending money, I don’t know how profitable Casablanca ever was but by all outward appearances, it was an extremely successful label. There were two types of class, first and none. We did do everything first class and it was an awful lot of fun. We really put an exclamation point after everything we did.


Chotin: A lot of people wanted to work there and Neil paid us well. We worked hard, long hours. I remember having to get something out for a presentation and I might be in the studio all night long or over a weekend. It was fun to go to work. You didn’t only do one little thing. You really got to grow and do as much as you wanted and were capable of doing.


Goldman: I was one of those kinds of people that did whatever it took and didn’t watch a clock. I didn’t take my lunch hour because I wanted to make myself something in the industry.


Gold: Casablanca was unique and wild but for me it was also an intimidating place because there were a lot of very bright, daring and extraordinarily energetic men and women there. I made lifelong friends there. New deals were being made daily. I was a little wet behind the ears even though I had worked at WEA, (the distributor for Warner Bros. Elektra and Atlantic Records). I was a bit more conservative (and naïve) having worked for a distributor as opposed to a record label. Casablanca had a new distributor and Neil thought I would be a good conduit I think.


Goldman: When Neil wanted something done, when I worked for him, it was like, “I don’t want to hear the excuses, just get it done”, and that’s the way you did it with other people and people listened. Neil was as kind as he was curt. He was tough but he got things done and people around him got things done.


Nathan: There were frustrations at times because there were some unreasonable demands as far as, “We need to get these records played”. For every KISS and Donna Summer, there were five Steve Sawyer’s and Simon Stokes’. All kinds of crazy singles.


Rodriguez: It was not easy getting Parliament-Funkadelic on radio. It was not easy getting Village People on radio. Guess what? We had one incredible marketing and promotion team and we did it. We weren’t just people that promoted radio, we were marketers. We marketed our artists to radio. We had to think outside of the box because a lot of times radio, they just weren’t going to jump on it right away. What I learned at Casablanca was the appreciation of artists that dared to be different and unique. I understood the benefits of that. There are certain people who get kind of freaked out with things that may fit into that little grey area, but to me I don’t look at grey as grey, if the shit is banging, I look at it as opportunity. I know that with it, you had to work your butt off. It was tough


Joe Klein(Freelance Producer, Radio and Television Commercials): Casablanca’s efforts at promotion and marketing were, at that point, virtually unparalleled in the business. This goes back to Neil Bogart’s P.T. Barnum attitude and trying stuff that nobody else would try, even if it might have been considered unsound from a business standpoint.


Goldman: I used to write this thing called “From the Casbah”, the newsletter that we used to write. I wrote the front page that Neil used to write and then I just started writing it for him. I used to write some of the descriptions of the albums and really the style – the dots, the dashes, the exclamation points – I still use. I really believe that even when he wasn’t trying, he really impacted many people’s lives informing what they would do in the future, whether it was relative to the record business or some other area, he was just that kind of person. It was infectious.


Klein: Casablanca had, I believe at the peak, four or five full-time writers on staff just to write bios, trade ads, the radio spots I produced, and other promotional materials. That was unheard of at the time. He had Ellen Wolff as a supervisor of that department. This department later became known with other labels. That is what they would call Creative Services Department. That was the department at record companies that would write trade ads and bios and press kits an,d later on, commercials when they became important marketing tools. Neil had a Creative Services department that’s never been equaled.


D’Ariano: Roberta Skopp was fantastic. Roberta was perfect for Casablanca. Roberta was fabulous. She came from Record World magazine, which was a big trade magazine. She became the New York – I don’t know the exact title – Publicity Director. She worked out for the woman out in California but she ran New York. Between her and Worthy and I we would put together all these promotional parties and events. Neil would always be calling and he’d want somebody to get into Studio 54 or this or that. I never knew what was going to happen everyday. It wasn’t a defined job. We were all kind of making it up as we went along.


Worthy Patterson (Vice President, Sales and Promotion): I don’t think in the whole time I was there anybody asked what anything cost. They didn’t have to have any meetings either. I’d call up my boss and say to Dick Sherman, ” I’m going to do this” and he’d say, “Okay, terrific”. We just broke acts.


Sain: The budgets were amazing. You weren’t told “no”, you were just asked how much is it going to cost? Neil would say okay. I think Neil was extremely unique. I think he understood marketing more than anything. He understood what it took so it was an easy conversation. You didn’t have to go in and convince him of a concept or any of that, maybe for doing new music, yes. It was just a decision over dollars – does this make sense?


Arnie Smith (National Director of Disco Promotion): At the first Billboard convention in New York, Neil spared no expense. They hired buses and took everybody rollerdisco skating to a rink in Brooklyn. All of the DJ’s, anybody that was registered that wanted to come. Can you imagine the money that Neil threw at his label?


Wheeler: We once threw at a party in New York at a small club. We had sand on the sidewalk and a live camel out front. That’s the thing about Casablanca, which has continued through my life and probably through most people that worked there, is we were trained to do events. We were trained well on how to present yourself, how to create an event from the bottom up and how to actually hit the streets with it and create something. That’s something that never left after all the years that I worked in the music business.


D’Ariano: Thank God It’s Friday (1978) had its premiere in New York because New York was the center of the disco universe. Neil was all about fun so he decides to have the party after the premiere at Studio 54 – the hot spot in the world. Nobody could get in unless they let you in. It was the place everybody was trying to go to. We take over Studio 54. Neil decides he wants Worthy, Roberta, and myself to work the door. There were only two ways you could get in: if you have an invitation you’re on one line and you went through the door and Worthy saw your invitation and you were in. The second way was a little more hectic because Roberta was outside with me and she had a guest list. If you’re on the guest list you can get in but if not, see you later. The system was working out fine. Once in awhile some jerk who wasn’t on the list would act out but then the crew would have a little chat with him and they’d split. The funniest thing was one guy couldn’t get in and he had a fit. He didn’t have an invite, he wasn’t on the list. There was a famous bouncer in those days. I just knew him as Big George. He was a huge African American guy. It seemed like everybody hired him when you had a party because he knew everybody. This guy’s freaking out and George says, “Maybe you got to make an exception for that guy because he’s one of the owners of Studio 54 – Ian Schrager”. I go over to him and say, “Hey listen we’re really sorry, it’s hectic here, we didn’t know who you were, go ahead in”. He’s livid. He’s cursing me out. He storms in the invitation-only door. A couple of seconds later, the door swings open, he gets thrown out again. He didn’t have an invite so Worthy threw him out! Eventually he got in. The night Casablanca took over Studio 54, the owner couldn’t get in. I think Roberta, Worthy, and I were banned from there after that!

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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