Legacy: Seymour “Cy” Leslie, 1922-2008
Growing up, Seymour “Cy” Leslie had a crush on Judy Garland. He loved The Wizard of Oz and understood that others held similarly dear the celluloid stories flickering across screens in midcentury America. So Leslie dedicated his life to transforming entertainment from something people merely experienced to something they could possess.
The recording and video industry pioneer -- founder of Pickwick International and MGM Home Entertainment -- died on January 6 at age 85.
Like many children of the Depression, Leslie shouldered responsibility early. A lifelong New Yorker, he helped support his sister and widowed mother by working as a delivery boy, promoting himself on business cards as a "transportation engineer." After he served in World War II, Leslie began composing birthday songs and other ditties with his wife, Barbara. They recorded the tunes on 45s and packaged them in greeting cards, for sale through drugstores.
In 1953, Leslie founded Pickwick, named for the first volume in a set of Dickens novels Leslie had treasured as a youth. The company created compilation discs, a revenue source neglected by the major record labels. Some recordings he licensed; others he rerecorded using less-starry talent. (Pickwick also recorded original work: Leslie employed a pre -- Velvet Underground Lou Reed to write pop songs for $25 a week.) "There was no such thing as greatest-hits records at the time," says Micky Hyman, who would later work alongside Leslie in his video ventures. "The idea of the compilation is pretty much his."
After Pickwick was acquired, in 1977, Leslie was eager to apply his out-from-the-vault business model to movies. In 1979, he partnered with CBS to launch CBS Video. Among its first releases, not surprisingly, was The Wizard of Oz. Three years later, Leslie left CBS to start MGM Home Entertainment with MGM. It was 1982; VCRs were scarce, and many doubted the industry had legs. "He was constantly challenged: 'Why would anyone want to keep a film after he saw it?" recalls Dick Gersh, Leslie's longtime publicity man. "The old expression 'a voice in the wilderness' was never more appropriate."
To prove the doubters wrong, Leslie employed all of his skills as a master merchandiser. For Gone With the Wind's release on video, he obsessed over every detail of the packaging. "He wanted it to be something people would be so proud to own, they'd want to show it off," Hyman recalls. When distributors failed to embrace the product, Gersh says, "Cy said, 'I don't care what you have to spend, but we can't let that great, classic movie fizzle away on us!" Gersh induced Olivia de Havilland, the only one of the film's stars still alive at the time, to fly in from Paris for a press offensive, and sales took off.
In recent years, Leslie partnered with Robert Linton, the former CEO and chairman of Drexel Burnham Lambert, to invest in entertainment deals. He also remained active in the recording industry. "He loved the Great American Songbook," says Irv Lichtman, the former deputy editor of Billboard. "Sometimes, he'd drive me home after an industry gathering. He and I would break into song for most of the trip."