Pretty Polly Productions / Howie Cusack
Howie Cusack was born on July 15, 1949 and raised in the Riverdale section of The Bronx. His father, Howard, worked for Travelers Insurance and his mother, Madeline, was a successful banker. He was pretty much a sports obsessed kid with a particular focus on basketball. Growing up directly across the street from the legendary St. Gabriel’s “schoolyard courts” resulted in endless hours of practice and by the time Cusack was eleven years old a group of him and his friends would regularly board the crosstown Bronx buses in search of other schoolyards and players in an attempt to ratchet up their game.
He got into the music business on a fluke. After his basketball days at Fordham University in NYC were eclipsed by some guys faster and more talented than him, Howie landed a weekly show on the campus powerhouse station WFUV. When graduation day rolled around, close classmates of his announced they were moving to Boston in the fall to start a band and told Howie that he was to wrap up his last summer in The Hamptons and join them in The Hub as their manager. The band concluded that because he spun records once a week that he knew all about the business. So Cusack went to work and had the band on salary within nine months. In the early ’70’s, it was unheard of to be an actual working musician with no day job.
Howie had to learn the business very quickly and spoke to everyone he could in the Boston music scene; and was thrilled that his degree from Fordham in “mass communications” was frequently given the acid test and passed with flying colors. More importantly, and it certainly wasn’t a hardship, he went to four clubs nightly, five days a week, for months on end and amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of all of the popular bands and venues in New England.
Dave Werlin and Roe Vallely had just started Pretty Polly Productions in late ’72 or ’73 and would call to book Howie’s band. ‘They realized since my band was always busy perhaps I might be a good addition to their team and I came in as an immediate partner which, in reality, sounded cool but resulted in me doing an incredible amount of long hours and hard work. But the efforts gradually began to take hold and we gained a considerable amount of traction in a very short time,’ Cusick notes. ‘Initially, and in addition to managing The Chris Rhodes Band. we just were on the hunt for any gigs we could land for any bands that were available. Within a couple of years I realized that the fast track to success was signing up the best bands for exclusive representation.’
Enter Kathe Burbach. Kathe’s career began in the mid ’70’s as Fred Taylor’s assistant at HT Productions (Paul’s Mall and The Jazz Workshop) and included stops at Ted Kirkland Associates, Rounder Records and Harvard Square Productions where she acted as Promotional Director and handled a variety of business management tasks. Howie and Kathe were married in 1980 and for thirty years worked tirelessly side by side 24/7 in developing Pretty Polly into a player in the world of booking artists and producing major concerts. Cusack comments: ‘without Kathe’s expertise, commitment and belief there would be neither a Howie Cusack nor a Pretty Polly Productions.’ Kathe passed away in 2010 after a long battle with a variety of health issues. His next move was signing up as many local venues as possible which gave Pretty Polly Productions control of the market; and allowed them to expand outward as well. If you were a band from southern Ct. wanting to play Boston you had to go through Pretty Polly. This operations management style and organizational behavior resulted in forming relationships with all these new bands and allowed the organization to take over their overall booking everywhere Pretty Polly grew amazingly fast. About this time, PPP developed a talent buying profile and their first big success was in Eschoheag, RI, in 1974: and they caught Aerosmith just as they were breaking; and had a crowd of 30,000. The headliner that day was Sha Na Na. In 1976, Pretty Polly ran a huge event at Raceway 42 in Warren, Ohio that featured Steve Miller, J. Geils, ELO and other big names. 40,000 people paid and 40,000 didn’t. ‘I will never forget leaving the venue in a helicopter just as ELO took the stage and unleashed a torrent of beams which appeared to be aimed directly at our chopper,’ Cusack laughs. In the ’70’s and ’80’s, Pretty Polly created and produced dozens of festivals all over New England. They also enjoyed a twenty six year relationship with CBS Radio; and brought virtually every name Oldies group to City Hall Plaza. This event eventually outgrew the small outdoor venue and moved to The Hatch Shell. Pretty Polly’s band representation continued to grow until just after the jam band era of the 1990’s and 2000’s.. Over the years, Cusack handled the booking careers of Aimee Mann and til tuesday, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Guster, The Stompers, Robin Lane and The Chartbusters, all of Rick Berlin’s bands starting with Orchestra Luna, Human Sexual Response, Face to Face, New Man, Radio King and His Court of Rhythm, John Lincoln Wright and The Sourmash Boys, The Atlantics, Private Lightning, The Neighborhoods, Bim Skala Bim, The I Tones, Fat City, Pastiche, Percy Hill, Moe, Tribe, Ellis Paul, Barrence Whitfield and The Savages, O Positive and a ton more. As the agency and the bands became bigger and better it became increasingly difficult to keep the major agencies from wooing the groups. At the same time, PPP began mining the college market and used their own popular bands to expand into becoming a full blown college middle agency. They would solicit a school and give them a list of options for their fall or spring events, and they really became great at this; at one time exclusively handling more than 100 college accounts. Most importantly, PPP mastered the art of concert production from load in to load out. They built a network of support companies; and this venture grew way beyond New England. Pretty Polly enjoyed an outstanding reputation for integrity and attention to every detail. Eventually, their representation of regional bands began to lose steam and the organization became gradually more involved with national acts and larger scale nationwide college touring. It became evident they couldn’t compete with the William Morris’s, CAA’s, (Creative Artists Agency) and ICM’s (ICM Partners) of the booking agency world so they intensified their efforts on their middle agency levels; and thanks to an ever competent and very creative staff they improved their presence and performance in the land of college concerts. Landing dates with everyone from The Pretenders to The Kinks to The Steve Miller Band to Dave Matthews that brought them great success in this area and enabled them to establish close relationships with many of the major artist agents.
In 2014, Howie moved to Florence, Oregon, and turned the company over to his nephew Dan Saldarini. ‘I was getting a little long in the tooth,’ Howie jaws. ‘The time was right to move on. Dan has worked by my side for almost fifteen years and I act as an adviser to him and handle whatever “special events” needed handling.’ By chance, Cusack read an article in the Eugene newspaper that ‘the newly opened Matthew Knight Arena on the campus of U of Oregon was not landing enough touring acts to meet expectations’ so he offered them a hand and brought in successful shows with Passion Pit, Kevin Hart, Macklemore, Lee Brice and a couple of others. Eventually the venue became one of the hottest in the PAC NW and Live Nation and AEG’s (Anschutz Entertainment Group) began bringing in shows; ending his position there.
Coincidentally, with the birth of social media, new technology corporations were looking for avenues to penetrate the under-utilized college market with innovative technology and establish their presence there. Around 2008, Mark Lev from Fenway Sports Group brought Howie an opportunity to introduce Verizon’s new wireless technology to college campuses by booking a national concert tour. That first year, they presented Howie Day and Brandi Carlisle on a northeast tour and the second year they landed the very popular All American Rejects. Cusack eventually established relationships with Vice Media and others as well. In 2010, in association with the folks at Reverb.org they created the Campus Consciousness Tour which was loosely modeled on Dave Matthews’s arena efforts at greening his concerts. In addition to a strong environmental stance over the years, this popular tour included a variety of socially current issues ranging from voter registration to LBGTQ issues to healthy food alternatives. The first tour, which ran for twenty five shows featured Drake and was really a national college tour, played a number of well known venues around the country. Drake exploded just as the tour launched so Howie and his crew looked like geniuses; and the tour was an outright smash. They subsequently landed CCT tours (Campus Consciousness Tour) with Wiz Khalifa, Passion Pit, Janelle Monae, Fun, Grouplove, Guster, Capital Cities, Iconopop, Ben Harper, and many others. In addition to their efforts at music concerts, Cusack has also long had a comedy presence on college campuses. His companies have produced successful shows with everyone from Bill Cosby to Jon Stewart to Howie Mandel to Jay Leno to Tina Fey to Amy Schumer to Russell Brand to virtually every SNL cast member. They even managed to secure a show with Penn and Teller at the height of their stardom.
Today, Howie stays somewhat involved in things out on the upper left coast and produced a couple of successful festivals in his little seaside town. Last year, in April 2018, he created and opened a sushi/ Pacific fusion/ tiki bar that quickly became the top rated restaurant on Oregon’s central coast and received 50 5 bubble reviews on Trip Advisor. Howie: ‘I recently sold my share and am now traveling quite a bit; and am constantly seeing shows, for sure.’
Pretty Polly started as a basic local booking agency and morphed into one of the key players in the Boston music scene: handling a significant size of the local club and college market; and then grew throughout New England becoming a significant developer of regional talent. PPP is now approaching it’s 50th year in business.
THINGS TO ASK HOWIE IF YOU RUN INTO HIM AT A SHOW:
* About the time he had to shore up a collapsing stage for Meatloaf
* His being held at gunpoint until 4 a.m at The Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford, Ct. because an r&b show didn’t meet the promoters expectations
* Having a guy drive off with $60k in box office receipts and not paying the bands
* Getting Muhammad Ali’s final tour in Providence
* Dealing with Aretha’s taxes at The Wang Center
* Getting a thumbs up from Bob Dylan
(by A.J. Wachtel)
Published on April 17, 2019