Considering his background, the fact that Werblin has become the agent for a university as well as an entire state is not too startling. It's just Phil Spitalny and his All-Girl Orchestra all over again, give or take a few million extras. Ed Sullivan once said, "Sonny's a terrific agent because he's always had that undergraduate zing." Raised in Brooklyn, Werblin began his zinging at James Madison High, where he played center on the football team and was voted the handsomest boy in his graduating class—but he adds, "You don't know what an ugly class we had."
"Beautiful" was Werblin's impression of the Garden State when he visited relatives there. "I actually fell in love with the place," he says. That led him to enroll in Rutgers, where he managed the swimming team and served as a part-time correspondent for no fewer than seven different newspapers. "I made so much money they broke me up as a monopoly," he says. "Actually, I earned more in my senior year than I did for the next five years."
Graduating just in time for the Great Depression, Werblin got a job as an office boy at the Music Corporation of America, the giant talent agency, for $85 a month. He soon moved up to band manager, touring with the likes of Guy Lombardo, Xavier Cugat and Eddie Duchin. He recalls, "That's when I learned to count the house, which can be tricky if you're playing for percentages." Once, when he caught a ballroom manager sneaking in customers on the side, he scooped up all the money he could carry and fled on the band bus.
One engagement Werblin extended was with Leah Ray Hubbard, a singer with the Phil Harris band. They were married in 1938. (Leah Ray's most popular song: On the Sunny Side of the Street.) Though lore has it that he got his nickname from one of MCA's major clients, Al Jolson, whose record Sonny Boy was all the rage, Werblin says that what the singer really gave him was "an interest in racing. Jolie loved horses but he couldn't move anywhere around the track without becoming the center of a mob scene. So I used to make his bets for him. It was my mother who called me Sonny, because I was the oldest of three boys."
Werblin's show-biz smarts eventually made him a vice-president of MCA Inc. and president of MCA-TV, a subsidiary. Hailed by Variety as broadcasting's "greatest promoter and salesman," during 30 years he handled such stars as Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Jack Paar and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Werblin's specialty was packaging. He would create TV shows, cast them with MCA's own clients and sell the packages to sponsors and networks. He was also famed for "walking the talent." For instance, when NBC failed to renew its option on Wagon Train, he walked the show over to ABC. Then, to fill the gap left in NBC's schedule, he sold the network The Virginian. At one point he walked Jack Benny from NBC to a better deal at CBS and then, when the price was right, back to NBC. He was a master, reported Variety, "of the time-honored show-biz dodge of starting a war and selling ammunition to all sides."
In 1963, two years before he retired from MCA, Werblin wrote a personal check for $1.1 million and bought the debt-plagued New York Titans of the American Football League. At a cocktail party soon after, Werblin agreed to let three of his partners in Monmouth Park racetrack—Leon Hess, Phil Iselin and Townsend Martin—in on the deal. "Through the importuning of Iselin's friends I also gave Don Lillis [then the president of Bowie racetrack in Maryland] a share," says Werblin. "We thought we'd have our own little sports empire, but it didn't work out that way."
Walking the talent, Werblin moved the Titans to Shea Stadium, named them the Jets in deference to nearby LaGuardia Airport and dressed them in Kelly green in honor of his Saint Patrick's Day birth date. The Jets did not take off immediately. "At our first game," Werblin recalls, "we drew 3,800 and 2,700 of them were related to me."
Adhering to his maxim that "a million-dollar set is worthless if you cast a two-dollar actor in the main role," Werblin went looking for a leading man and found him starring in an Alabama road show. Joe Namath? Forget the rifle arm and the hotshot rep. What Werblin saw in that raw, slump-shouldered bearing was "star magic." Upon signing Namath in 1965 for $400,000, a record for those comparatively pre-inflationary times, Werblin told him, "I don't know whether you'll play on our team or make a picture for Universal."
Werblin played the media like Yehudi Menuhin playing a Stradivarius. He put floodlights on the $400,000 price tag and packaged and peddled Namath into a superstar before he had thrown a single pass. And when it came time to count the house, there were 53,658 screamers on hand to see Broadway Joe's opening act at Shea—or about 20,000 more fans than the Titans had drawn their entire final season.