Oscar Arslanian is chatting from his penthouse office in the Crossroads of the World tower, an Art Deco wonder on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood that looks like an ocean liner. It has porthole-shaped windows that give Arslanian and his wife/business partner, Nyla, a fantastic view of the streets below. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and the Hollywood Walk of Fame are but a half-mile away.
Arslanian, a 1957 Lynn English High grad, was just featured in a Page 1 article in the Los Angeles Business Journal that spotlights his career as a music producer, publisher and personal manager to such stars as Fabian Forte, the kid from South Philadelphia who became a late-1950s teen idol and movie star. Oscar is eager to talk about his successful career and being at the forefront of the “oldies” nostalgia movement and those ubiquitous PBS pledge-drive music shows.
In 1980, shortly after being laid off by Capitol Records, Fabian asked Arslanian to manage his career. Arslanian had never managed anyone. “He wasn’t doing much at the time. But there was something there. We came up with a business plan, like one would with any enterprise. The thing, though, was that Fabian did not want to perform. He’d starred in many movies and wanted to go that route.
“A promoter was booking the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Magicians Siegfried & Roy canceled a long-term engagement because Siegfried busted up his knee. I got a call asking if Fabian would do a show with Chubby Checker, Sam Moore and Mary Wells. They agreed to let Fabian host the show and have him introduce the acts. So, we went to Vegas, put it together in an afternoon, and it was a tremendous success. The midnight show was packed with local people, not tourists. I came back to L.A. and said, ‘There’s an audience for this.’ I put a show together myself. I didn’t know my ass from my elbow about putting on a show. But I did it, and it was a hit.”
A show at L.A.’s Greek Theatre, a 5,800-seat venue, with Chuck Berry as headliner and a supporting roster that included Lynn’s Freddy Picariello, better known as Freddie “Boom Boom” Cannon, sold out. From there on, it was one success after another. In Las Vegas, Branson, Mo., New York, Indian casinos, and even Europe.
He packaged three Philly idols — Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell and Fabian — as The Boys of Bandstand (Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” was a TV sensation) and the tour sold out. Those three still tour regularly as the Golden Boys of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Arslanian’s managerial roster expanded to include vintage performers Chris Montez (“Let’s Dance”), Freda Payne (“Band of Gold”), Brian Hyland (“Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”), Kathy Young (“A Thousand Stars”), Johnny Tillotson (“Poetry in Motion”) and Peggy March (“I Will Follow Him”).
Other opportunities came along. A promoter of pay-per-view boxing matches suggested in 1985 that Arslanian provide the talent for a free tribute concert in Baton Rouge, La. “Fabian’s Good Time Rock ‘n’ Roll Show” featured oldies but goodies Avalon, Checker, Bo Diddley, Lesley Gore, Little Anthony, Del Shannon, and others. Fabian was the host.
A young TJ Lubinsky saw it and was inspired to organize the very first PBS pledge-drive oldies show. Lubinsky still produces those programs.
Packaging and promoting music might not have been Arslanian’s original career plan, but this niche market has served him well. “In any business, give the people what they want. If you want to be successful, look for what’s missing and provide it. It’s that simple.”
Arslanian grew up in East Lynn, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Arslanian of 9 Chestnut Ave. His dad, an Armenian immigrant who miraculously escaped the Turkish Genocide, was a well-known cobbler, and Oscar made walking-around money as a boy by shining shoes in his dad’s shop on Essex Street. “I was a damn good shoeshine boy,” he said. “I’d pop the rag and sing shoe-shining songs to get extra tips.”
Arslanian excelled at English High, playing football, serving as manager of the basketball team for three seasons and serving as president of the junior and senior class.
“My idols at that time were Harry Agganis and George Bullard, two exceptional Lynn athletes.” He also had a love for music, especially jazz. “As a kid, I sat on the couch and drummed on the arms of the couch, imagining I was playing with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. I loved all music, so when rock and roll happened, it was real easy for me to jump onboard. I saw the Rolling Stones at Manning Bowl in ’66, when the Lynn cops tear-gassed the place.”
All that hard work paid off. Oscar got a full boat to Dartmouth. He’s still an active member of the college’s alumni council and makes it back east for class reunions.
Upon graduating in 1961, he joined the executive training program at Filene’s. He parlayed that into a sales position at Scott Paper Co., earning a series of promotions that landed him in Los Angeles in 1968. He was on the fast track, and he liked the West Coast.
Music, though, remained his passion. But he couldn’t get a job in the industry, no matter how hard he tried.
Then Memorex called. The company was branching out into selling blank cassette tapes, and hired Arslanian to run the operation. The job necessitated a move back east, to New Jersey.
“Boy, did I miss the West Coast. It seemed my car was always frozen. It would finally start and the Beach Boys’ ‘California Girls’ would be on the radio. I had to find a way to get back to the West Coast.”
Impressed by Memorex’s success, Capitol Records recruited Arslanian to be national sales manager of its tape division. Capitol, of course, was the Beatles’ label. “I was one of the suits, working on the ninth floor of the Capitol tower, and the record guys, who wore jeans and vests, hated us. … I got my maximum amount of free LPs and tickets to every concert I could get to for a couple of years.” When Capitol pulled the plug on its blank tape business, Arslanian was moved to director of Media and Artist Relations. He worked directly with the musicians, the venues, and helped get the word out to the rock press about new records by Capitol acts, including Bob Seger, Steve Miller, Anne Murray, and others.
When a major downturn hit the music industry in 1969, his position was eliminated. He didn’t have much time to feel sorry for himself. The morning after he was canned, Gerry Beckley of the band America and Bob Welch both called asking him to serve as their independent public relations representative. He set up an office in the bedroom of his Hollywood Hills home and worked the telephone. Rick Nelson signed on. Artists continued calling him, lots of Capitol artists, including The Motels and The Knack.
Arslanian is also publisher of Discover Hollywood, a free tourism-focused magazine he and his wife of 49 years publish quarterly.
“In the ’80s, Hollywood was in urban decay. It was terrible, dirty. But, in the middle of that, people by the busloads came to Hollywood, and got off the bus at the Chinese Theatre. Every year, 48 million people come to L.A., and about 70 percent of them come to Hollywood. The magazine celebrates all the positive things in Hollywood.”
He occasionally comes home to Lynn. In May, he was in town to visit with his late brother Peter’s wife, Kay. His first wife and son, JP, are in Newburyport, and he stays in touch with longtime high-school friends George Lundstedt, Phil Williams and Sonny Carrington.