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november / december 2005:

Through a mirror, darkly
He’s Usher’s attorney. He grew up thinking he was Episcopalian. Now, in his spare time, the Jewish entertainment lawyer is chasing a dream: An idea for a screenplay based on the true story of a Russian circus abandoned in Marietta by the mob, the U.S. government, and even the Commies. A wacky and sordid tale, it’s one that can only be told by Cliff Lovette.

Story by Vincent Coppola. Photo by Alex Martinez.

A funhouse mirror greets you when you enter the Lovette Group’s Peachtree Street offices. The walls are covered with gold and platinum records — Outkast, Toni Braxton, Usher among them; CDs are piled on desks and cabinets like poker chips after a winning hand, testimony to Cliff Lovette’s enduring success as an entertainment lawyer.

Low key and self-effacing in an industry rife with sharks and screamers, Lovette, 49, provides a range of legal and business services to clients including Organized Noize Productions (producers of TLC and Outkast), Usher, and the estate of former TLC member Lisa Lopes (killed in a car crash in the Honduras in 2002). In recent years, he has extended his expertise to literary, film, television and new media clients. He’s been diligently putting together the pieces — research, rights, script — for a movie based on the madcap adventures of a troop of Soviet circus performers stranded in Atlanta in 1990.

Those who know him say Lovette, a Tufts and Emory law school graduate who broke into the business hustling talent at area night clubs, and earned his doctorate in deal-making under entertainment powerbroker Joel Katz, is a man of myriad interests and passions, a “storyteller” reinventing himself the way his paternal grandfather invented gizmos and gadgets. In the last decade, he’s been taken with flying (he earned his private pilot’s license), dabbled in hypo-therapy, and has become so fascinated by the saga of Circus Bim Bom, he’s been showing up at the doors of Russian émigrés and performers as far away as Columbus, Ohio.

A visitor keeps returning to the funhouse mirror. Is it a keepsake salvaged from the wreckage of Bim Bom, or some amusement park on Long Island where Lovette grew up? A whimsical distortion of reality like the stories generations of Lovettes have spun for colleagues, friends and family? Or, more likely, a reminder of the house-of-mirrors that framed the childhood of Cliff Lovette?

Ask him and he keeps it simple, telling you he commissioned the mirror in the early 1990s when he was handling legal affairs at La Face records with multi-Grammy award-winning songwriter/producers, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds and Antonio “L.A.” Reid. (Lovette would rise to senior VP of Business and Legal Affairs at the renowned label.) “I made it so when people walked in the door,” he says, “they’d have a laugh before we did business. They’d see weird images of themselves.”

Weird images. Like the inexplicable jar of gefilte fish that languished for years in the Lovette family refrigerator in Westbury, Long Island. “It was like the monolith in 2001,” Lovette recalls. Or the place-setting at the family table for Reginald the Ghost, though for some odd reason Lovette remembered the setting was for Elijah, until his older brother corrected him. Weird because the Lovettes were Episcopalians — baptized and confirmed — living in a town full of Irish and Italian Catholics. Weird because he attended a Quaker school, and really weird because his maternal grandfather, patent attorney Sigmund Metz, was a Presbyterian turned Unitarian though perhaps the oddest-named and accented Protestant in the Murray Hill section of New York City. “We had a whole family background,” says older brother Brad Lovette. “It was just paper-thin.”

Young Cliff didn’t pay much attention to these seeming inconsistencies; they were stories, woven inside other stories, constantly and continually embroidered, to marvel and enjoy, not question. Besides he was creating stories of his own. Grandfather Sig Metz claimed he was an orphan. “So we assumed that we had very few surviving members of our family,” says Lovette. “In fact, it turns out we have loads of family in London and Australia. These are my grandfathers’ peers. I have a distant relative, Hyman, who’s a dead ringer for Sig.”

Lovette’s paternal grandfather was an inventor, though no one remembers his name or inventions because Cliff’s paternal grandmother, Flo, got divorced and apparently invented a story that the inventor was dead. “My father and his brother were told for a long time that their natural father was deceased,” says Lovette. “Flo was trying to protect them from an abusive man.” When Flo married a Greek gentleman, the family tree was twisted to the point where Brad Lovette “did a Roots-thing” to sort it all out. “I didn’t grow up lacking a background,” says Brad. “It was just the wrong background.”

Flo, who had a picture of the Acropolis on her wall and a mezuzah on her door, told her grandchildren that she was one of the survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, a 1911 conflagration that killed 146 women, a highly doubtful story that proved to be completely true. Sig Metz, a boxing buff, claimed he was a Golden Gloves boxer, though no one has any proof of this. “This is a constant theme throughout my upbringing and my family,” Lovette says. “You never knew what was true and what wasn’t. There’s just this natural ingrained inclination to tell stories.”

What kid would suspect, particularly one with a grand imagination of his own, that beneath the green lawns and Ozzie and Harriet lifestyle, his parents’ marriage was troubled? Besides, grandpa was there to save the day. Without question, the-larger-than-life Sig was the predominant influence in Lovette’s life. “He came from nothing and became a successful lawyer,” Cliff says. The old man would sweep into Westbury in his big Thunderbird and carry his three grandsons off with him (and his increasingly blonde first, second, or third wives) on adventures along Old Country Road.

Cliff loved visiting Grandpa Sig’s plush law office in the Chrysler Building, where his mother and father, also lawyers, worked. “I saw my parents’ name on the smoked glass door,” he recalls. “I’d walk into my grandfather’s office and he’d be there with his cigar and pipes. It had such a sense of power, security and safety.”

That desire for security, stability and certainty has driven legions of young men and women into the seemingly solid practice of law. It was particularly strong in Cliff Lovette’s case. His father, always aloof and distant, had mysteriously disappeared for a year. He returned, just as mysteriously — such things are not discussed with little boys — before his mother was diagnosed with a fatal cancer. After Joyce Lovette’s death, Gene Lovette quit his Manhattan law practice and happily became a high school teacher and, for a time, a single parent. Then to his son’s surprise, Gene married Cliff’s Sunday school teacher, Edith. Soon enough, his two older brothers, Brad and Spencer, were off to college and Cliff was home alone.

If Lovette’s decision to follow his parents and grandfather into the law seems preordained (“I have both a creative and a logical side,” he says. “I imposed on myself that this was something I was going to do.”), his decision to move to Atlanta after graduating from Tufts University is less logical but understandable. “I was living in Boston when the Great Storm of 1978 hit,” he recalls. “The snow was so deep I had to climb out of my second story window to go for a walk. The first day mail resumed I had an acceptance letter to Emory University School of Law. I fell in love with the city and decided to stay.”

In Atlanta, to his delight, he tracked down a branch of the Lovette family, observant Jews as it turns out, living in Charleston, S.C. (As a child, the youngest of three boys in a self-contained family unit, Cliff desperately wanted to be part of a larger, extended family, like the Zainos or the Mays who lived nearby.) One of these relatives, a young man, nearly his age, was living in Atlanta. They connected and became close friends, Lovette says, until the man experienced a dramatic rebirth of his orthodoxy, and decided he should break off all contact with his Episcopalian kinsman.

In 1993, Lovette wooed and married a stunning and smart young woman, Shelley Foy, who’d fled the rust belts of Ohio. Today the Lovettes live in a leafy Atlanta neighborhood with their two children, Lana, 10, and Liam, 5. Some things do change over the generations. “Cliff is an absolutely great father,” says comedian Jerry Farber, a friend of the family. “He loves to get up, have breakfast with the kids, take them to school. If he didn’t have to be at the office, he’d be running around cleaning the house.”

Is it really any surprise that Lovette has inherited the family storytelling propensities? At the moment, the story he’s most interested in telling on the big screen is that of the ill-starred Circus Bim Bom, a tale destined to become more famous in the telling than the convoluted chain of events — Cold War intrigue, bureaucratic incompetence and downright silliness — that left a band of superstar Soviet performers — clowns to trapeze artists, penniless, sans animals and equipment (impounded by customs) stranded for months in Marietta.

“I was working for Joel Katz in 1991,” he says, “when this client showed up, Bobby Liberman, who was the road manager for Jimmy Buffet.” He too had a story to tell. Liberman, it turned out, had been hired to manage what was supposed to be the circus’ two-year triumphal tour of the United States.

Then, Liberman told Lovette, things got complicated. The Soviets, whose empire was crumbling around their ears, allegedly signed over the management rights to Circus Bim Bom to the American mob (and, by extension, to an actor who made a living in XXX movies under the dubious name of Jon Stallion). Stallion, despite his lengthy experience in non-speaking roles, found running a circus beyond his expertise. The tour failed after about five weeks — at some stops the highly skilled circus stars performed to less than 50 people. An oil-rich Kuwaiti, who was the circus’ primary investor, soon decided to bail out just as Saddam Hussein was about to come knocking at his nation’s door.

Liberman, who went on to marry one of Bim Bom’s magician’s assistants, wound up putting food and hotel bills for a 120 hungry Soviet strong men and lion tamers on his fast-disappearing credit card. When he maxed out, some of the enterprising Soviets did what they knew best and performed daring acrobatic routines from their second story Motel 6 balcony in Marietta.

Needless to say, Cliff Lovette was as hooked by this mad tale as the Wedding Guest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Fifteen years later, he’s still chasing the storytellers “There’s this primordial urge,” he says as he discusses his upcoming screenplay. “Looking back, I’ve always been a storyteller like my parents. In college, I used to tell my friends stories. I’d start with a true story and embroider it just to see how gullible they were. Now, if I hear a compelling story, I want to tell it. Getting an audience engrossed. It satisfies me and fills a need. Circus Bim Bom is a story with great archetypes and emotions. The fact it’s true makes it all the more interesting.”

The same can be said of the Cliff Lovette story. He just has to look in the mirror.

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