This year, for its all-important annual fund-raiser, the Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia decided to try something new.
Instead of honoring a big shot at a banquet, JFCS hired a celebrity to attract attention — but what it did blew up in its face.
Two words: Trevor Noah.
JFCS hired the South African-born star of Comedy Central's The Daily Show to headline its 34th annual benefit to be held Sunday at the 2300 Arena in South Philly. The night was to be called "Laugh on Behalf of JFCS with Trevor Noah."
No one is laughing now.
Booking Noah created a big buzz, I am told by JFCS's president/CEO, Paula Goldstein. For the nonprofit, established in 1855 as America's first Jewish orphanage and now offering various nondenominational social services, this was "a complete departure from something we normally do," says its marketing and communications VP, Suzanne Myers.
Ticket sales — starting at $118 for people under 35, ranging up to $2,000 for a dessert meet-and-greet with Noah — were through the roof, especially among millennials, a new market for JFCS.
Then the bomb went off: Noah canceled without explanation just 18 days before the benefit, throwing the organization into a panic.
JFCS could not find a star of similar stature on such short notice and was forced to cancel the fund-raiser. Based on deposits lost and refunds to ticket-holders, "we will have a funding gap of $200,000," instead of the $350,000 profit it had counted on, says Myers.
"When you book a celebrity, it's a leap of faith," says Goldstein. Regarding the cancellation, she says, "It's one thing if there was some kind of an emergency, but there has to be some level of integrity. This doesn't hurt me, it hurts the 25,000 clients we serve each year."
Noah was booked through Ruth Stover at Celebrity Talent International. His fee was $170,000 for the night's work, a contract was signed Jan. 22, and Noah received a $92,000 deposit. (His Comedy Central salary is estimated to be at least $4 million a year, and he recently bought a $10 million Manhattan penthouse.)
I call Stover to ask why Noah bailed at the last minute and left JFCS holding the empty bag. Stover says, "I can't comment without the permission from my client."
So I tweet Noah, saying I'd like to hear his side of the story. I send emails to his personal publicist and to a Comedy Central publicist.
Here's part of what I say: Noah contracted to do a show, canceled just 18 days before the show. The organization received no explanation, it had to cancel the show, and now it is $200,000 in the hole. (Noah's $92,000 deposit was returned.)
JFCS deserves an explanation, an apology — and maybe more, I think.
Noah's publicist, Jill Fritzo, emailed: "Trevor unfortunately had to cancel due to a business scheduling conflict." I thank her for the reply, but it's vague. I ask about specifics and whether he feels any shame about throwing JFCS into a deep financial hole.
I don't really expect an answer. This is the ugly business side of show business.
"We are in conversations with our general counsel," Goldstein tells me.