Westporter Harold Levine is the big-time ad man who championed creativity and now opens doors to an arts education for all
Photograph by Venera Alexandrova
Anyone who has attended the annual gala for Neighborhood Studios—usually held at the Westport Country Playhouse—knows that Master of Ceremonies Harold Levine is a born showman. He’s as comfortable at center stage in retirement as he was leading his award-winning ad agency, Levine, Huntley, Schmidt & Beaver. Established in 1970—at the dawn of big changes in the industry—the firm benefited greatly from Levine’s faith in the power of creativity and the unique talents of all people. It was that perspective that helped not only his company traverse the changes of the times, but also he himself develop a personal roster of philanthropic and civic initiatives to champion, including those in Westport.
The opening scene to this story begins with Chet Huntley, who would become one of Levine’s partners at the firm. He had been the NYC anchor on the Huntley-Brinkley Report, an evening news program (David Brinkley anchored Washington, D.C.).
The partnership began, coincidentally, with a game of bridge. “I met this man who was delightful, very shy, very quiet, and relatively unassuming,” says Levine. Yet Huntley soon revealed enormous ambition—a development in Big Sky, Montana. “He acquired millions of acres and wanted to develop the property so that it could have a golf course, a ski resort, horseback riding and everything that is needed for good outdoor living,” says Levine, who was tapped to devise the marketing strategy for the project.
Things went so well with Levine’s contribution that he eventually asked Huntley to help on his own grand plans—a new ad agency. He wanted Huntley to be a partner. “Let’s discuss it with Tippy,” Huntley replied, mentioning his wife. Three months later, he was making speeches for the fledgling company, while Bob Schmidt served as account man and Allen Beaver as creative director.
Tragically, within about two years, Huntley received a diagnosis of lung cancer. “Not surprising,” says Levine now. “Chet was never without a cigarette.”
Yet it begs the question: What was the ad scene like at the time? “Go turn on Mad Men,” he begins. “It was true. A lot of smoking. A lot of drinking. A lot of messing around with women. There was no question about it. Now, of course, it didn’t happen at our agency, but it was common.” He continues, pointing out another difference between then and now. “The agency business was always a restricted business. It was wealthy guys and their children, who came into the business. If you had a father who could introduce you to a client, you became an account executive. And there was relatively little emphasis on things like creativity,” he explains. “In addition, they didn’t hire you if you were Jewish, if you were female (except as a secretary), if you were Italian. It was very restricted.”
Things changed he said after the war, when the firm DDB—founded by Bill Bernbach, Ned Doyle and Maxwell Dane in 1949—focused on creativity. “What agencies began to learn is that maybe if they hired Jews or Italians or African-Americans, they could bring a spark of creativity to the business…[and] at our firm, we put emphasis on spending money to hire good, creative talent. The result? We were probably one of the most widely awarded ad agencies for creativity in the seventies and eighties.”
Nurturing young talent has been important to Levine even outside of work. He was president of the Board of Education in Freeport, New York, when the town’s one black school was closed. Levine says he recognized that the arts could bring diverse populations together; so to soothe the strife of the school integration, he helped found an arts council.
It was that experience that informed a decision he made when he later moved to Westport in 1978. “I purposely visited the Bridgeport schools to see what it was like,” he says. When he saw the lack of programs firsthand, he proposed an arts programs that eventually became Ailey Camp. Fortuitously, Levine had been serving as chairman of the Board of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, and the idea for camps had come about when the mayor of Kansas City asked Levine for ideas on how to use the arts to bring people together. Levine had just the person to ask. “Alvin Ailey immediately jumped in and he and I went there,” he says. “Out of that came Ailey Camp.”
Levine hoped these camps would work in Bridgeport. “My wife had been helping MACH [Music and Arts Center for Humanity, which became Neighborhood Studios in 2011], and I went to the board, who looked at me as though I was crazy. Their comment to me was, ‘Look, we’re a fragile organization,’ he says. “They were afraid to even get involved. But I convinced them to start it. Now we’re on our fourteenth year of Ailey Camp.”
These days Levine speaks passionately about the needs of the Bridgeport students, especially when it comes to art, music, dance, and theater education. Neighborhood Studios now teaches some 1,600 kids each year, according to Levine. Chairman Emeritus Levine served from 2003 to 2008. The responsibility now rests with Laurie Gross and Executive Director Frank Derico, who says, “Harold has been a champion for Neighborhood Studios throughout Fairfield County. He has helped us find new supporters and make stronger connections to more organizations. He amazes me how many ideas he comes up with every time we talk.”
Levine says he acted as a “cheerleader” for Neighborhood Studios, adding, “I felt it was important to bring the story of the needs of those youngsters to the people in the neighboring communities.…I think everyone around Westport knows I’m one of the few people who doesn’t mind asking someone for money,” he says with a laugh. He credits his fundraising prowess to a former chairman of the board at NYU who advised him to not only have passion for the cause but also “determine how much you need, then go to the man or woman who has that money and ask for it, eyeball to eyeball.”
This year Harold Levine will be honored by Neighborhood Studios for his longtime commitment to its mission. The event takes place on Sunday, March 10, 5 p.m., at the Westport Country Playhouse. More at nstudios.org.