The road to big-time show biz success doesn't always run straight to Hollywood.
Sometimes it runs through Northern Boulevard in Roslyn.
That's where one of the country's kingpins of comedy orchestrates the careers of superstars like Ray Romano and Robert Klein, as well as up-and-comers like Lance Krall, creator-star of VH1's improv sitcom "Free Radio."
If you don't know Rory Rosegarten's name - though maybe you do, after nine seasons of executive producer credit on Romano's CBS hit "Everybody Loves Raymond" - you sure know the clients guided by this garrulous manager's Conversation Company from a nondescript three-story office building overlooking not much but a car rental building. Besides a dozen kings of comedy, Rosegarten's roster includes the occasional TV personality ( Marilu Henner), showroom mainstay (Clint Holmes) or broadcast talker (Alan Colmes).
"My job as a manager is, I'm your biggest cheerleader, I'm your biggest critic, I'm a rabbi, I'm there to kick you in the -- when you're down, and to try to make it all even out and work out," Rosegarten explains in his art-filled office. He's there to help clients "draw the road map of a career. But you're gonna hit a detour somewhere. My job is to continually redraw the map so we get where we wanna go."
"But there's a lot more it entails," says longtime client Romano, who, like his TV character, is famous for fretting. "It's holding your hand when you need hand-holding. It's talking you off the ledge. Especially with comedians. We're screwed up. So he's part shrink sometimes."
As Krall says, "When you're working, you're in your own bubble. You have no idea if what you're doing is right or it's wrong."
'A filter and an adviser'
Now starting his second season as a clueless shock jock hosting celebs like Kiefer Sutherland in "Free Radio" (Thursday nights at 11 on VH1), Krall is confident after a decade together that "Rory is there to guide me in the right direction. He's like my first test audience for my ideas. And he's got my back. He allows me to stay creative while he worries about the other things."
Rosegarten is billed as co-creator of "Free Radio" (Krall says his manager conceived the show in the shower), but his primary focus is being "a filter and an adviser" for the clients he affectionately calls "my guys."
"I don't even call them clients. I don't have one client where it's strictly a business relationship. Not one. I only wanna work with people who I love," effuses Rosegarten, who, it's no surprise to learn, counts Woody Allen's old-time show biz valentine "Broadway Danny Rose" among his favorite films.
"All my clients, they're nice guys," says the 47-year-old manager. "I don't have any jerky guys. There's underlying friendship there, and it's not just business, and I think I do better work because of it, 'cause I love them."
If it sounds like a marriage, Rosegarten is indeed in it for the long haul. Klein has been with him 25 years, and he can tell you the exact date from that first check framed in his office. Romano is nearing the two-decade mark. While Klein was already a star when they joined up, Romano was years away from "Raymond."
"Everything in my career for good or bad has been visceral," Rosegarten says. "When I see a guy, I can feel it here," in his gut. "I loved Ray the guy," as much as the comic he saw in the late '80s. "His stuff was so relatable. They weren't mother-in-law jokes, and they weren't observational commentary. This was a guy who was taking us on this little journey about his family. I really liked him, and [our relationship] was built on being a manager, but a friendship developed very quickly. We hit it off, and it was fun, and the fact that we worked together was almost a bonus."
Exceeding his dreams
Some bonus. In addition to that "Raymond" executive producer credit (and ongoing residuals), Rosegarten has eight Emmy nomination plaques filling a wall of his office. (The two best-comedy Emmy statues, he keeps at home.) His work quarters are adorned with the rewards of success - a modern art collection boasting Keith Haring and Peter Max, two seats from razed Shea Stadium, framed photos of Rosegarten with everyone from Bill Clinton to the late Joey Ramone (about whose life he's developing a movie).
"The 'Raymond' thing for me was beyond anything I could have ever dreamed," Rosegarten says. "And I dreamed a lot, growing up. I'm one of those guys who landed where he wanted to be. I was an autograph collector. I was enamored of celebrities. I just loved all of show business."
As a kid, Rosegarten nurtured his obsession by writing letters to old-time stars such as Groucho Marx and George Burns. Already enterprising, he interviewed celebrities such as Dustin Hoffman for his Great Neck South High School newspaper - "I just had a knack for getting to these people" - and continued in entertainment journalism at Arizona State University. A friend of his father, former Great Neck Plaza Mayor Robert Rosegarten, got him an advertising internship at Playboy, where he planned to keep writing on the side for college newspapers through a syndicate he named The Conversation Company. But then Playboy asked the college dropout to interview HBO standup king Robert Klein for a spring-break issue.
Rosegarten hit it off with his subject, and kept in touch, and before long "he stepped right up and said he wanted to be my manager," Klein recalls. Then 42, the comic felt relationships were becoming less personal as entertainment exploded in the cable TV age, and he liked the young go-getter's zeal. "He had all the confidence of an old-timer."
So Klein hired the 22-year-old as "an assistant with quasi-managerial responsibilities," Rosegarten recalls, "and that opened a million doors for me."
His Conversation Company morphed into a management firm ready to help other "guys" whose work spoke to him. Rosegarten soon spotted that in Alan Colmes' standup gigs and radio work, and signed him long before Colmes' ascendance as Fox News Channel's liberal counterpoint to Sean Hannity. Colmes left the long-running show in January.
"He's been a guiding force and a confidant and practically a brother along the way," says Colmes, a Hofstra grad from Lynbrook, speaking from his weekend place in Long Beach. "He's a Long Island boy," says Colmes, "just like I am."
That's in Rosegarten's gut, too. Even as his client roster grew to include performers around the country, The Conversation Company stayed put in Roslyn, where Rosegarten today likes to say he works "a tenth of a mile from my house," shared by wife, Wendy, and teenagers Dani and Ryan.
"I love to work, and I work hard, but when my day is over, it's over, and I take off my show business outfit, and I'm a dad and a husband. The truth is, I probably wouldn't thrive very well in a 24-hour show business town. I decided I was gonna do it from here and let's see what the hell happens."
That more-to-life attitude appeals to clients as much as Rosegarten's show biz savvy. Romano may have moved to L.A. for "Raymond," but he remains essentially a family man from Queens. Bronx native Klein says he "made important decisions that were detrimental to my career" so he could stay in New York with his son: "I turned down a number of offers, and Rory said OK, he understood, he was always on board." Krall, too, appreciates Rosegarten's outsider perspective. Having moved to L.A. from Atlanta, he finds "his sensibilities and my sensibilities are a little more morally grounded than the people out here, which is really important to me."
Romano's new show for TNT
These birds of a feather stick together. Rosegarten flew west for nearly every weekly episode shoot of "Everybody Loves Raymond" over nine seasons. He'll rack up more frequent flier miles as Romano starts production on his 2010 TNT dramedy hour, "Men of a Certain Age," about ordinary middle-aged guys coping with life changes. It's a dramatic departure for the comic, who stars as a divorced store owner alongside pals played by Andre Braugher and Scott Bakula. Romano says the end of his CBS sitcom "was like losing a member of your family, almost. It was such an emotional transition I was making."
Rosegarten got him through it. "We would talk almost every day," Romano says, "but he didn't overpush it. He's not just doing it for the money. It's easy to say that when you have a hit show, but even before that, to his credit, he was always looking out for what was best for my career."
Which is why Rosegarten has a career.
"The nice thing is, with show business, it's an ongoing journey," the manager smiles. "You don't get to a destination and you're done. Ray did 'Raymond.' We got to the destination. But then it ended. So you redraw the map and you set another goal."