Just a day or two before the 58th annual Village Voice Obie Awards, which took place this year at Webster Hall on May 20, there were several firings of top staff members. This included Michael Feingold who at age 65 was chief theater critic at the Voice for 25 years. Another casualty after 29 years was Michael Musto of the gossip column La Dolce Musto. Aged 59, he stated at the time to a reporter, “It was horrifying. That paper was my heart and soul…I looked upon it as my home.” In recent years, both men had become to many readers the only reason to read the paper and even then it was referred to as a lowbrow entertainment rag. These first-rate men, however, were the exception; they have always been regarded as top professionals each in their specific fields. Feingold was seen as a serious, scholarly theater critic on the scene and Musto as an outrageous, hilarious gossip maven. The forerunner to Musto in the world of gossip was Arthur Bell whose column Bell Tells was published at the Voice from 1976 to 1984 when he suddenly died at age 44.
Following Musto and Feingold’s firing, the newspaper has become redundant and a bore to read. Alexis Solomon, who it seems has replaced Feingold as theater critic, is a freelancer who was a second string critic. Despite this, there were buy-out settlements and the owners and editors would like to continue utilizing at least Feingold in his role of the annual Obie Award ceremonies host and has invited him to contribute articles but as a freelancer. Currently, he is writing for www.theatermania.com and is considering his options. Musto is still prominent in the gossip and club scene and is now juggling a variety of media job offers. We hope they will both flourish and fare well. Without them the paper might be called The Village Ghost or The Phantom Voice.
It reminds me of the Walmart layoffs wherein former staffers were sadly demoted to part-timers without benefits; many were then offered enrollment in the government food stamp program by the company to help them survive the wage cuts. Another Voice firing was longtime restaurant critic Robert Sietsema. The list of others let go by New Times Media include music critic Robert Christgau dismissed in 2006 and in January 2007 the newspaper gave the axe to art director Minh Oung, the long term creative director Ted Keller, the popular fashion columnist Lynn Yeager, sex columnist and author of erotic books Rachel Kramer Busse, and Deputy Advertising Director L. D. Beghtol. Nat Hentoff, the great political columnist who worked at the paper from l958 to 2008 was saddened to leave after such a long run.
It should be noted here that also in May of this year, Village Voice editor Will Bourne and Deputy Editor Jessica Lustig told The New York Times that they decided to quit the weekly paper in preference to the dismissal of their staff. Both had only recently been hired; since 2005, the Voice has gone through five editors. Today, the Voice Media Group, which acquired the paper in 2005, is being managed by two journalists from Phoenix who have set out to strip the paper of any last vestiges of the old Bohemian leftist-liberal spirit.
The Village Voice was first published on October 26, 1955 in a building on the corner of 7th Avenue and Christopher Street (now the Duplex) by Norman Mailer, Dan Wolf, John Wilcock and Ed Fancher. It was dedicated to the Greenwich Village community and from the beginning, it broke new ground investigating local, city and national politics, the arts, music, dance, theater, and film. The first Voice theater critic Jerry Tallmer helped to create the new term off-Broadway and later, when Michael Smith took over Tallmer’s job, under the aegis of theater editor Ross Wetzsteon, he set out to write about theater events he would discover in church basements, in coffee houses like the LaMama, the Caffe Cino, or in and out of the lofts in the East Village. By persisting in reviewing in these arenas, Smith and the Voice helped create a new anti-establishment theater which came to be known as off-off Broadway.
The decline of advertising revenue seems to be a factor in bringing the paper to this low point coupled with mismanagement; the number of pages shrunk from 60 to 50 and then to 45. To many former employees, the downturn can also be attributed to a series of mainstream conservatives like Rupert Murdoch and Leonard Stern of the Hartz Mountain empire (former owners.) From about 1975 to 1980, my partner John Gilman and I were called in by editor Ali Anderson to jazz up what was then a where-to-go and what-to-do double page middle section spread called ‘The Centerfold.’ Ms. Anderson wrote an article in The New York Time about us and the phenomenon of collecting when our book Dime-Store Dream Parade – Popular Culture 1925-1955 was published in 1979 on the 50th anniversary of the Great Crash. Our articles for the Centerfold focused mainly on American popular culture trends and John and I took delight in writing about our favorite places to go including old-time mom and pop ice-cream parlors, flea markets, collectibles and collectors, movie memorabilia, visits to Hoboken – written before the real estate boom – historic walking tours of Greenwich Village, a focus on almost forgotten old time Atlantic City written just before it became a gambling resort, and, yes, we led a busload of people into New Jersey on a tour of l950s stainless steel glassblock, neonized diners. In the 1970s, there was a great wind of nostalgia for the 1930s Depression era. We covered subjects like Mickey Mouse Memorabilia, Art Deco, and the phenomenon of the revival of Busby Berkeley’s Goldigger’s movies. Voice photographers like Fred McDarrah, Randolph Graff, and Abner Symons were always on hand snapping away. There was a lot of fun and good spirit at the Voice at that time and now as we mourn those halcyon days we have to put forth the question “Whatever happened to the Village Voice?”
Left to right: Actress Gillien Goll, critic Michael Feingold with writer Robert Heide at the 2013 Village Voice Obie Award ceremony at Webster Hall. Host Feingold who had just learned that day that he had been fired mockingly referred to the event as his Retirement Party.