The recent opening of the “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibition marked the end of an era for one member of its production team. After 35 years, Charles Zukow – Charly to his friends – has folded up his press table and exited the lobby for the last time as San Francisco’s premiere arts and lifestyle publicist.
His announced retirement has drawn an expected wave of testimonials and tributes.
“It’s overwhelming,” he admits. “I never approach anything looking for any kind of attention or accolades or anything, so to hear, see, read all of this is humbling.”
It wasn’t the career he planned. Youthful stardom in Hollywood had proved elusive. After a love migration to San Francisco, he was instead pitching movies, though he longed to return to theater work. He soon did, and clients in the decades since have included “Beach Blanket Babylon,” Cirque du Soleil, American Conservatory Theater, and a plethora of national tours and regional theater companies.
As import to him are social issues and the list of causes he’s worked on is long, including San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, Meals on Wheels, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
When he’s in, he’s all in, which explains why he’s closing shop rather than kicking himself upstairs to a chairman’s seat. “If I’m gonna do something, I’m gonna do it 150 percent.” Sometimes that also meant turning down clients. “We gave them absolutely everything and more, or we said no.”
If Zukow has a prime directive for serving clients, it’s “always be honest…and direct. I think so often, people just ‘yes’ people. There’s a time and a place for that, but I think it’s more important is to be honest.”
He’s never been a fan of the instant gratification the media often craves, if not outright demands, but when he’s said he’ll get back to someone, he always did. “It’s really easy to rattle off an answer and it’s hard to correct a mistake,” he says, pausing, then adding, “I think being cautious, taking a moment… there’s no harm in taking that extra time to make sure something’s correct.”
Media portrayals of publicists like the recent series “Flack” starring Anna Paquin make him giggle. “I don’t know how else to describe it. They’re funny, they’re interesting, they captivate you,” he says, adding definitively, “That was never my life.”
It’s a career he recommends “if you’ve got the stamina, the drive, the passion. If you’re passionate about something you can sell anything.”
He pauses while relating a cascade of plans for gardening, grandchildren and travel to Paris and Amsterdam with his husband John Ferrara. “I was thinking that so many people have a once- in-a-lifetime experience and they’re so excited about having that experience. I’ve been blessed to have so many of those experiences, that it’s overwhelming.”
Asked to pitch “The Charly Zukow Story,” he is silent. “You stumped me,” he laughs, “and I’m very rarely stumped. I’ll get back to you.”