It would only be a bit of stretch to call WMA the house that Ruth built, because she was the one who crafted the deal points and the contracts for all of those vintage TV shows that help keep the agency's coffers flush. Ruth spent 59 years with WMA. She was the go-to person in TV business affairs back when the business of filmed entertainment series was young, anything was possible and star client Danny Thomas and his partner Sheldon Leonard were turning out hits ("The Andy Griffith Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," etc.) faster than Ruth could draw up the contracts.
I got a crash course in TV biz affairs 101 some years ago when I spent about two hours with Ruth in her WMA office for a column about her remarkable career. She recalled that back in the day, she and a few other WMA folks essentially were the business and administrative affairs department for Thomas and Leonard's bustling production company, along with a bunch of other top clients.
She was proud of her role in etching the templates for production, program licensing and, of course, agency packaging pacts that endured largely unchanged until the vertical integration boom of the late 1990s. When we met, she was giddy at the prospect of closing a greeting card licensing deal for one of the old Thomas-Leonard shows. "You wouldn't believe what they're going to pay us," she said with the enthusiasm of a dealmaker on the verge of victory.
Ruth's longevity in the biz is evidence that she was gifted with a potent combination of smarts, spunk and determination. The T-word is often overused but in Ruth's case, "trailblazer" is absolutely accurate. She was too capable to let the fact that she was a woman trying to succeed in a man's arena get in her way. The fact that she sounded like Selma Diamond (at least in her later years) only added to her charm, and it seemed to give her a don't-mess-with-me gravitas that surely served her well over the years. (Click here to see for yourself in Ruth's interview with the Archive of American Television.)
Engelhardt first joined WMA as a fill-in legal secretary in 1949, and she took to the biz immediately. (She was sold when she looked up from her desk one day and saw Al Jolson strolling through the office, flirting with all of the secretaries.) Ruth eventually decided that what she really needed was a law degree, so she attended night classes at Southwestern U. of Law for six years until she got her J.D. in 1958. And yes, she had a husband and young son at the time too.
Ruth became an agent briefly in the mid-1970s, but repping clients was not her forte. She was named head of the TV biz affairs department in the early 1980s -- just in time to ride herd on a new wave of WMA-packaged hits, including the boffo "Cosby Show." By the start of this decade, she transitioned to a consulting deal with the agency, but she spent at least
one day two days a week in the office, poring over contracts and offering sage wisdom and dealmaking advice to her younger colleagues.
It's no accident that WMA's current head of TV business affairs is the well-regarded Susan Brooks, who is among the many high-profile folks in the industry who counted the indomitable Ruth as a friend, mentor and inspiration.
I've gotten a lot of calls and emails regarding Ruth in the past few days. Here's a good one from producer/TV archivist Paul Brownstein, who spent time with Ruth in her last days at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
"Ruth was in intensive care at Cedars last month, and we were watching "Sonny & Cher' together on the hospital’s Board of Governor’s Channel. With the oxygen going full blast, Ruth’s eyes got a little wider as the program ended. "Where's your logo?" she asked.
She had not only made my deal for (remastered episodes of the show for DVD release), but the original production contracts crossed her desk when the shows were taped. And she remembered all the deal points, decades later.
A cable executive came to visit Ruth at Cedars. While in intensive care, Ruth made sure to get in a pitch for 'The Dick Van Dyke Show.' Now that is the stuff of legend."