Talk about an Influencer.
For 40 years Ronni Chasen plied her craft in a way that many publicists did when I first entered the film industry in the late 70s, but few do anymore. She was creative, personal, passionate, and yes, tenacious. But she was also a class act.
Chasen will be missed, said her friends, family, clients and colleagues at her packed memorial service Sunday at the Hillside Memorial Park. Most of the crowd of 750 couldn’t fit into the chapel, and shivered under a wind-tossed tent outside. Publicists Vivian Mayer-Siskind, Jeff Sanderson, Kathie Berlin and Heidi Schaeffer, her brother, director Larry Cohen, and client/friends Lili Fini Zanuck and Hans Zimmer recalled a respected well-coiffed lady who sparked a room whenever she entered it, worked tirelessly on behalf of her clients, nurtured younger press agents, and said “I love you” before hanging up the phone.
“I thought she only said that to me,” Zanuck told the crowd. “She would be shocked by this outpouring, and pissed that her age is now part of her last name. She has literally stopped the show; the industry came to a standstill.” Chasen’s goal was to push her clients into the spotlight; she never gossiped, Zanuck said: “She never promoted herself. She was the real deal.” Zanuck scoffed at any speculation about workaholic Chasen’s secret life. “Ronni would have been happy to have had a life, let alone a secret one.”
Nor did Chasen ever try to take anyone’s clients away, said New Yorker Kathie Berlin, who worked with Chasen at Rogers & Cowan for years, sharing clients, before they both reported to Alan Ladd at MGM. Chasen liked to enjoy an early 6:30 PM dinner because she not only got better service, but could get home to finish up memos to her staff and emails. After hip surgery, Chasen arranged for all orders for flowers from her favorite florist to go toward the purchase of a tree. “She’s now upstairs changing the seating arrangements,” said Berlin, recalling how Chasen sat vigil with her dying former boss Warren Cowan. “She held a lot of our hands.”
Cohen grew up with younger sister Ronni, “his little companion,” in Washington Heights, New York and recalls carrying her home from the movies when they ran out of bus fare and taking her to her first celebrity encounter after seeing Roy Rogers and Dale Evans at Madison Square Garden. “I touched the Queen of the West!” she told bus riders on the way home.
Years later when they attended the Academy Awards together, Cohen’s sister took him back to her apartment to sew up his ripped tuxedo before hitting the Governors Ball. “Where did you learn this?” he asked. “I went to sewing school and got an A,” she told him. “She got an A in a lot of things: personality, perseverance, dedication and loyalty,” he said. “She was an A person.”
Chasen client T Bone Burnett and wife Callie Khouri comforted each other during the brief ceremony, sitting in the same row as vet publicists Marvin and Don Levy; nearby were Bruce Cohen, Richard Fischoff, Mark Pogachefsky, Neil Koenigsberg, Robert Forster, Adam Keen, Chris Day, Gregg Kilday, Steve Pond, Nicole Sperling, Rebecca Keegan, Steve Chagollan, Sharon Swart, Rob Friedman, Michele Robertson, Jeffrey Godsick, Julian Myers, Ron Yerxa, Albert Berger and Ron Bernstein.
“Ronni came to me last night and she was pissed as hell,” said speaker Mayer-Siskind, who remained close to Chasen after working for her 15 years ago at MGM. “Her strength and tenacity made her the best publicist in Hollywood. She was the pitcher, I was the closer. She had an amazing eye for talent. She knew a good film from a bad film, but she could sell them both.”
Chasen for the first time put such film music people as Burnett, Zimmer, Diane Warren and Elliot Goldenthal (who arrived late to the ceremony) “on the map,” said Mayer-Siskind. “She will always be remembered as a legend in the entertainment industry and a driving force in our lives who will never be replaced.”
Jeff Sanderson, who worked for Chasen for 16 years, described her as “generous, loyal and tenacious.” Her mantra was: “let’s keep moving.”
Press agent Heidi Schaeffer added that Chasen raised the profile for the Ghent Film Festival, with a focus on such composers as Goldenthal, Howard Shore and Zimmer. Chasen talked the composer out of stage fright so that he could do his first live concert there, he recalled. Zimmer watched her at the Academy Governors Awards as she worked the room: “She was at the top of her game.”
Sony Pictures execs Amy Pascal and Jeff Blake hosted a reception at the Sony commissary for the mourners (costs were shared by the major studios), including pallbearers Mace Neufeld and Richard Zanuck. Producers Frank Marshall and Kathy Kennedy talked with Bernie Weinraub; astronaut Buzz Aldrin sat with Barbara Davis. Press agent Kelly Bush commiserated with Sony’s Andre Carraco. Warners marketing exec Sue Kroll talked with director Nancy Meyers, whose ex-husband Charles Shyer was also there. Warners PR legend Joe Hyams perched on a stool. New Yorker Cynthia Swartz flew out for the event, and talked with fellow-The Social Network strategist Terry Press. Producer Julia Chasman brought her father, David Chasman, who I’ve hung with at Ronni’s parties, along with Candy Clark, Pete and Madelyn Hammond, Robin Swicord and Martha Smilgis. Neil Koenigsberg didn’t know that his old pal Bob Ackerman went to Adelphi University with Chasen. It was like that.
Some at the reception were disturbed to see The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman, in her trademark blunt style, grilling folks
notebook in hand, about Chasen’s murder. (UPDATE: Waxman denies that she conducted on-the-record interviews.) Finally, this cross-section of the film community not only mourned the loss of a friend but of a way of working, a civilized discourse, and the arrival of a more tabloid sensibility in Hollywood coverage, especially of Chasen’s violent death.
During the service, Berlin thanked the Palm Springs Film Festival for posting a $100,000 reward for information that would solve Chasen’s murder. But she warned the crowd to ignore other solicitations for money and off-base speculation. “If someone was following her we all would have known about it,” she said. “We have to just not look at the papers and know that we will find out who did it and that person will not see the light of day again.”