Talent icon Shirley Hamilton memorial set for Sept. 26

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Shirley Hamilton typically on the phone, 1963

A memorial service will be held for Shirley Hamilton, the dedicated, dynamic talent agent whose life was spent in the talent business in Chicago, on Monday, Sept. 26 at the Winnetka Presbyterian Church at a time to be determined.

Mrs. Hamilton died peacefully Sept. 15 at age 90 of natural causes. 

Over her amazing, lengthy and productive career, Mrs. Hamilton helped position Chicago as a major talent center.  She worked indefatigably to cultivate and promote her exclusives and launched many local actors to movie and television fame. 

They include Mandy Patinkin, Tim Reid and Tom Dreesen, George Wendt, Robert Urich, Darryl Hannah, Ron Masak, Jim Belushi, Shelley Long and New York model Wilhelmina.

“Shirley lived a phenomenal life,” says her daughter, Lynne Hamilton Wray, who heads Shirley Hamilton Inc. (SHI). Her sister, Laurie Hamilton, is the agency’s director of print and sister-in-law, Susan Davies, is the company accountant. 

At 49 years in business, SHI ranks as Chicago’s oldest talent agency and one of the oldest, local visual media companies.

Founder Shirley Hamilton and Lynne Hamilton Born in 1921, the former Shirley Hultgren met her future husband, the late Grant Hamilton, in chemistry class at Senn High School.  They married in 1943 while he was in military service during World War !!.  

Her modeling and acting career began after high school and only diminished decades later when her husband, an oil business executive and an inseparable part of her life, became ill in the late ‘90s and died a few years later. 

Mrs. Hamilton inadvertently got into talent agency business in the 1950s while working for Patricia Stevens, who owned the city’s biggest talent agency and modeling school.

Stevens, who was about to marry a colorful car dealer by the name of Earl “Mad Man” Muntz, needed someone to take over her Saturday afternoon TV show while she was on her honeymoon. 

Stevens called her into her office, where she was sitting under a hair dryer, Mrs. Hamilton later recalled, to tell her she was the anointed one.    Mrs. Hamilton knew nothing about TV show production, but she rose to the occasion.  Soon thereafter, she was named director of the Stevens’ modeling agency.

A few years later, she was hired by four top local broadcasters to head their newly formed Talent, Inc. agency.  Their relationship ended two years later after a disagreement with the owners.  “She started her own agency in 1962, when her top 12 people she had represented at Patricia Stevens told her, ‘We want you as our agent,’” says Lynne Hamilton.

SHI’s first office was no bigger than a closet, literally, says her daughter.  A business friend offered her a desk and a telephone in his small office in the 360 N. Michigan Ave. building, one of the bustling hubs of advertising activity. As the agency grew, it moved to offices at 500 and 630 N. Michigan and a dozen years ago settled into its present offices at 333 E. Ontario

She had passion for her talent and her work

Mrs. Hamilton’s energy and dedication to her talent was legendary. She gave new meaning to the words “work ethic.”

She had one of the original home offices, says her daughter.   The agent’s workday didn’t end at 5 p.m. It was routine for her to work late into night, phoning clients from her Wilmette home, a cigarette in one hand, schedules in front of her, to personally remind them of auditions or call changes. 

Actress Nancy Baird, who calls Mrs. Hamilton “the love of my life,” was her client for 20 years.  She recalls when she told Mrs. Hamilton of the date of her wedding. “Shirley emphatically told me I’d have to change the date because she a guaranteed booking for me with a big advertiser,” Baird laughs.  “Nothing was going to stand in the way of a job.”

“We kept our wedding day, of course, and later Shirley hosted a lovely reception for us with our family and friends at her home,” Baird says.

Known for her warmth, generosity and integrity, it came as a bitter shock to the Hamilton family in 1987 when a trusted employee was caught having stolen $85,000 from the agency by ripping off talent payments to actors over a number of years.  The revelation came at a time, as Mrs. Hamilton was especially vulnerable, undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

What was most painful, recalls Lynne Hamilton, “was that we treated [the embezzler] like a member of our family.  She was our grandmother’s caretaker; she had her wedding in my parents’ home; we sponsored her citizenship, and brought her into the business as our trusted bookkeeper.”

Although the accused was found guilty and ordered to make recompense she never did, Lynne Hamilton says.

Her example influenced women to start into own businesses

Caption Shirley Hamilton goes for a ride with grandson, Dr. GrantA pioneer in the national talent industry, Mrs. Hamilton leaves an indelible legacy.  “A strong advocate for talent, Shirley always put her actors first,” says her daughter.

“Her early and long lasting success is a tribute to that philosophy. We like to think of her professional life as a history of Chicago advertising at its best.”

Moreover, at a time when women in authority and women business owners were a silent minority, Shirley Hamilton showed other women that they could start their own business and be successful, says veteran agent Linda Jack, of Grossman and Jack.

“Having seen what Shirley had done gave them confidence in their own abilities to try it for themselves, me being one of them,” say Jack.

As Stewart Talent’s Joan Sparks sums up, “Shirley Hamilton was the first.  She paved the way for many and will be greatly missed.”

In addition to her daughters and daughter-in-law, Mrs. Hamilton is survived by a son Grant Hamilton, Jr., son-in-law John Wray, grandsons Matt Hamilton, Dr. Grant Hamilton III, Spark O’Connell and Spenser O’Connell and three great-grandchildren.

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