Shelly Saltman, the Man behind the Stars
Promoter Shelly Saltman ’53 worked with top athletes and Hollywood stars—and has the stories to prove it.
The food at Boris Yeltsin’s dacha was awful. So says Shelly Saltman, who played tennis with Yeltsin on a visit to the Russian leader’s Black Sea retreat when Saltman was there promoting cellular technology. “Yeltsin was my doubles partner,” says Saltman. “We never lost.” Saltman is UMass Amherst’s very own Zelig. In an extraordinary career as a promoter of athletes and entertainers, he worked and socialized with a plethora of famous people and was in on the beginnings of satellite TV, plastic credit cards, home video, and cell phones.
Born in Boston in 1931, Saltman grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household without much money, but grounded in talk of Boston politics and reverence for education. “I wanted to go to UMass from when I was a little kid,” he says. “Max Goldberg [an English and humanities professor at UMass] was like a cousin to me.”
At UMass, the born showman made a splash. He played basketball, wrote for the Collegian, was an announcer at the student-run radio station WMUA, served as a master of ceremonies at university events, and was a member of the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. He ran pep rallies, directed intramural athletics, even coached the freshman baseball team. His memory is impressive. “My job as intramural athletic director was that on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, I’d sit in the Curry Hicks equipment cage and give out footballs and jerseys. I earned $3 an hour, three hours a night, three nights a week—big money in those days.”
He’s proudest of bringing the Harlem Globetrotters to campus to play against UMass basketball coaches in “Shelly’s Spectacle,” which raised $6,000 for cancer research. “Later, I represented Meadowlark Lemon [a Globetrotter star], and we became friends.” But back to UMass . . .
Saltman has a good word for almost everyone who crossed his long path.
Saltman’s fellow 1953 graduates noted his zeal in the year’s final Collegian: “Shelley [sic], the guy with the irrepressible grin and the endless supply of stories, has sparked many an event during his college career. This happy extrovert is the man most people came to when there was a show to be put on; for Shelley was always ready to put on a show for the people.”
Between shows, he earned a degree in political science and then served in the U.S. Army at the end of the Korean War. That’s when Billy Martin was his roommate. “We got along great,” he says. “I was the designated driver.” Saltman quips that he carried a microphone in the war, serving as a sports announcer and radio broadcaster for the military’s Far East Network. “You remember Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam? I was ‘Good Morning, Korea.’ The big difference was that he was talented and I wasn’t.” Saltman then returned to Boston where he earned both a master’s degree in public relations and a law degree with help from the G.I. Bill and Mollie, his wife of 51 years.
While attending night school, he went to work in radio and television broadcasting for Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. At this point, Saltman’s career took off, bringing him all over the United States and to 52 countries. His life became so eventful, that a deli lunch allows time for him to relate just a few of his decades of anecdotes.
He takes particular delight in recounting that in 1984, he was co-commissioner of boxing for the Los Angeles Olympics, and took the opportunity to convince the International Olympic Committee to allow women to run an Olympic marathon for the first time.
At Brent’s, Saltman has a good word for almost everyone who crossed his long path. Mel Brooks? “Funniest guy I’ve ever known.” The boxer Thomas Hearns? “Gentle, gentle man. Of all the athletes, the boxers were the most gentle.” Wilt Chamberlain? “The greatest all-around athlete ever.” Mary Tyler Moore? “Effervescent!”
He holds no bitterness toward the up-and-coming publicist who, he says, stole the Osmond family from him. Saltman was the Osmond’s first publicist when the brothers, without Donny and Marie, performed at Disneyland. “I didn’t care,” Saltman says. “He was a young guy, and he wanted it more than I did.”