By: Duane Byrge and Cynthia Littleton
(The Hollywood Reporter) Tichi Wilkerson Kassel, longtime editor and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter and founder of Women in Film, died Monday morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after complications from intestinal surgery. She was 77 and had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for the past 14 years.
Wilkerson Kassel’s legacy at the Reporter included the founding of the Key Art Awards, now in its 33rd year, to honor excellence in film advertising long before “”marketing”” was a Hollywood buzzword.
“”She was a gentle person who was well ahead of her time,”” said Robert J. Dowling, editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hollywood Reporter, who took the reins as publisher from Wilkerson Kassel shortly after he joined the trade newspaper in 1988. “”From the day I arrived at The Hollywood Reporter, Tichi was in my corner. She gave herself, her support and her wisdom. The Key Art Awards and Women in Film are only two examples of lasting icons she had the sight and vision to create.””
Indeed, Wilkerson Kassel was synonymous with Women in Film, the nonprofit organization she founded in 1973 after reading a statistic in the Reporter from the WGA that only 2% of all television series scripts were penned by women.
Wilkerson Kassel decided it was time to launch an organization dedicated to mentoring and opening doors for women in the industry. She held a meeting in her office at the Reporter with fewer than a dozen women, and she gave the organization substantial financial support during its early lean years.
Today, Women in Film ranks as one of the industry’s most respected nonprofit organizations, with about 10,000 members and dozens of foreign chapters. It bestows the annual Crystal and Lucy awards honoring the accomplishments of women in film and television.
“”She was a giant of a woman,”” said producer Ilene Kahn Power, who attended that first meeting in Wilkerson Kassel’s office and has remained an active member of Women in Film. “”Tichi was always so can-do. She empowered us.””
Wilkerson Kassel remained a guiding force at Women in Film, even as her health failed in recent years, according to WIF president Iris Grossman, an agent at ICM.
“”She changed the course for women in our industry, and she hardly took credit for any of the things that she did,”” Grossman said. “”She’ll be greatly missed as the spirit behind Women in Film.””
Johnny Grant, honorary mayor of Hollywood who oversees the Hollywood Walk of Fame, noted Wilkerson Kassel’s generosity, whether it was with large philanthropic donations or helping artists get their foot in the door in the insular Hollywood community.
“”She helped a lot of people, and she was very quiet about it,”” Grant said. “”Tichi had a great passion for her work, and she had a great passion for making life more comfortable for those less fortunate in our community.””
Friends also recalled Wilkerson Kassel’s soft-spoken manner and dry sense of humor. At the end of an informal party that Wilkerson Kassel held at her home for the early members of WIF some years ago, she handed out small hand-held electric fans as a kind of premenopausal party favor, recalled longtime friend Bonny Dore, a producer and past president of WIF.
“”She’s the perfect example of the one woman who makes all the difference in the world,”” Dore said. “”She was not voluble, but she was insightful. She really liked to bring interesting people together at parties and dinners. You didn’t have to be rich, and you didn’t have to be famous. She just liked putting people together.””
Born May 10, 1926 in Los Angeles, Tichi Noble was raised in Mexico City, returning to her native Los Angeles as a teenager. Gorgeous in a Rita Hayworth kind of way, she attracted the attention and interest of Billy Wilkerson, founder of The Hollywood Reporter. After a whirlwind courtship — she was the daughter of Wilkerson’s maid — the two were married in 1947. Billy Wilkerson was in his 60s; Tichi Noble was 19. It was Wilkerson’s sixth marriage, her first.
Soon after their marriage, she asked Wilkerson if she could come to work for him at the trade paper. Wilkerson, who was a flamboyant man of the world — he allegedly was a rumrunner who founded the L.A. hot spots of the day, the Trocadero and Flamenco — was not averse to showing his young wife the ropes. He set up a desk for her and taught her the trade journalism business. When Wilkerson died in 1962, 32 years after he founded the paper, Tichi Wilkerson took over the reins as the trade paper’s second editor and publisher.
At the time, the paper was housed at 6715 Sunset Blvd., in the building that Wilkerson had originally established as a tony men’s haberdashery. The silk ties and suits were moved out, and journalists were crammed front-page style into the establishment’s barbershop, while advertising was ensconced in the posh, wooded haberdashery. It was colorful. During that period, Wilkerson Kassel discovered Lana Turner at a hamburger joint across from Hollywood High, which was just west across Highland Avenue from the paper. Schwab Drugstore stories are untrue.
Despite her humble beginnings and lack of formal education, Wilkerson Kassel possessed savvy business acumen. While helming the paper, circulation greatly increased and its influence spread. Among her virtues, Wilkerson Kassel was renowned for giving new people opportunities. Unfortunately, her management was sometimes capricious. During one eight-year period in the 1980s, seven different editors helmed the paper.
“”She was the most honorable person I’ve ever met in the entertainment industry,”” said Sue Cameron, a former Reporter columnist who penned the story about the dearth of female TV writers that inspired Wilkerson Kassel to launch WIF. Cameron, now a novelist and partner with actress Joely Fisher in FishCam Prods., recalled showing up at the Reporter offices unannounced when she was fresh out of USC and landing a meeting with Wilkerson Kassel. “”She hired me as a reporter and told me if I was any good, she’d make me a columnist in six months. And she did.””
Although the paper was erratic, Wilkerson Kassel’s eye for hiring was keen. Even during the most trying managerial conditions, there was always a nucleus of dedicated, talented people to keep the paper afloat and competitive. Admittedly, one of the paper’s most glaring sins during this time was the undue interference that advertising made in editorial. Ragtag production companies bought up huge amounts of advertising and, voila, landed banner stories. Ironically, those same companies were loathe to pay their bills.
One of Wilkerson Kassel’s most enduring editorial innovations was the “”Special Issue,”” an entire section of the paper that was set aside to tribute an individual or entertainment industry phenomenon. The first special issues during the 1980s were run in The Hollywood Reporter’s international edition. Other publications followed her lead in this area, and such issues today are ubiquitous.
Wilkerson Kassel’s publication interests extended beyond the front page. Among her accomplishments are the inauguration of the Key Art Awards, which annually honor outstanding achievement in motion picture and TV advertising and promotion, and the Marketing Concepts Awards, which offered recognition and cash rewards to motion picture exhibitors who developed and originated innovative and effective marketing campaigns.
In the mid-1980s, she was instrumental in making Beverly Hills and Cannes sister cities, recognizing their entertainment and commercial commonalties. She was feted at the 1985 Festival de Cannes for that foresight.
During the same period, Wilkerson Kassel helped launch the Life Line programs for Variety clubs, and as a member of the board of directors of Tent 25, she donated a sunshine coach to the Crippled Children’s Hospital in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which bears her name.
An overall champion of outsider talent, Wilkerson Kassel also started the Wilkerson Foundation to encourage young people to enter entertainment fields. In 1995, the Wilkerson Foundation merged into the World Film Institute with Wilkerson Kassel serving as the chairperson emeritus. The World Film Institute has provided scholarships to students at the UCLA Film School as well as scholarships to film and journalism students at other Southern California campuses. It also created the Family Film Awards, which she produced in association with Dick Clark.
Independent of her work with the foundation, she also created a scholarship fund for the Hollywood Women’s Press Club that aids students pursuing careers in film and journalism. Throughout her life, Wilkerson Kassel provided support and financial contribution to countless charities and nonprofit causes. She supplied a home to the Motion Picture Country Home and contributed to the Gloria Swanson Humanitarian Award, which is given by the American Cinema Award Foundation.
Along with her one-time editor Marcia Borie, Wilkerson Kassel penned a book on her days at The Hollywood Reporter in the 1990s titled “”The Hollywood Reporter Years.”” Following the sale of the paper to BPI in 1988, Wilkerson Kassel, essentially retired from public life, usually appeared only at functions like the Women in Film Festival.
Proud of her Hispanic heritage, Wilkerson Kassel established a community center and educational program for Olvera Street and had been a major force behind the preservation of that location as well as the Adobe House. She supported the Los Angeles Police Department in various ways, including the creation of a scholarship for the Hispanic Command Officers Assn. to provide educational opportunities for officers’ children and providing aid for the LAPD Museum. In addition, she has sponsored programs at the Beverly Hills Family YMCA.
Following Billy Wilkerson’s death, she was married to William Miles, a realtor. The couple divorced in the 1980s, and she subsequently wed Arthur Kassel, a gun enthusiast and co-founder of the Beverly Hills Gun Club. For one year, Kassel generously donated the Beverly Hills Gun Club to serve as the site for the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s annual December vote.
In 2002, Kassel and Wilkerson Kassel founded the Tichi Wilkerson Kassel Parkinson’s Foundation to raise money for medical research into the debilitating nervous disorder.
In addition to Kassel, Wilkerson Kassel is survived by her sister, Gloria O’Connor; two children from her marriage to Wilkerson, Cynthia, one-time managing editor of The Hollywood Reporter as well as an agent, and William, a songwriter; and three grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at noon Friday at Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary in West Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Tichi Wilkerson Kassel Parkinson’s Foundation, 1541 Ocean Ave., Suite 300, Santa Monica, Calif., 90401.