VH1's Development Diva
Lee Rolontz balances music programming with homemade sushi
By David Tanklefsky -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/7/2009 2:00:00 AM
Lee Rolontz doesn't have a lot of downtime. As executive VP of original music production and development at VH1 and VH1 Classic, Rolontz has been behind some of the music world's most momentous live events. And as a mother of two (and active member of the PTA), she brings the same passion to staying up late into the night to make sushi for her daughter's middle-school class.
“Have you ever tried to make sushi? It's very hard!” says Rolontz, who insisted on following the assignment to make the labor-intensive delicacy, not buy it.
That work ethic has carried her from her days as a freelance producer to her senior management post at VH1. After graduating from Brown University in 1984, Rolontz got her first taste of music production while working as an assistant to producer Martin Lewis, who asked her one day if she liked 1980s pop heartthrobs Wham!
“I was 21, and it was their heyday, and I was like, 'I love Wham!'” she recalls. “And he's like, 'Do you think we should go to China with Wham!?' and I said, 'Of course!'”
Rolontz joined Lewis and director Lindsay Anderson in documenting Wham!'s historic 1985 tour of China for the concert film Wham! in China: Foreign Skies.
Through the early '90s she gained experience in a number of music production projects. These included working as music video commissioner for Columbia Records, and producing events and documentaries featuring Bruce Springsteen, Roger Waters and a young Christina Aguilera, among others.
Rolontz moved on to stints as an executive with Sony Music's in-house production company, Automatic Productions, and with Ellsworth Productions. While at Ellsworth in 2001, she received a call from a Brown classmate she'd never met. It was Lauren Zalaznick, then senior VP at VH1, who invited her to work for the MTV sibling.
Her first major project at VH1 also happens to be the one she considers a landmark moment in her career: the October 2001 Concert for New York City, held at Madison Square Garden in honor of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. “To sit in a show where everybody in the truck is crying as it's going on,” Rolontz recalls, “that was just tremendous.”
Rising to senior VP of original music production in 2005, Rolontz developed new franchises for the network, including Hip Hop Honors and specials like A Kid Rock Christmas. She helped revive VH1 Storytellers and developed a number of series for VH1 Classic, including That Metal Show and the All Time Top 10 and One Hit Wonders franchises.
This fall, Rolontz will deliver a refreshed version of VH1 Divas (premiering, with new host Paula Abdul, on Sept. 17) and the sixth year of Hip Hop Honors (Oct. 13), both of which will air live from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
As an executive, Rolontz strives to balance her convictions about producing quality programming with an inclusive and encouraging leadership style. “I do feel that whatever I put forth is kind of the vibe,” she says. “But I think that most people feel their voice is heard.”
Richard Gay, executive VP of strategy and operations for MTV and VH1, appreciates that approach, recalling the recent bowling outing and beach barbecue Rolontz arranged for her staff. “She cares so much about her people and so much about her team,” Gay says. “People just die to work with Lee.”
And when Gay, whose office is next door to Rolontz's, recently told her that his daughters were fans of American Girl dolls, he found a bag of dolls on his desk the next day. The were from Rolontz, who said her kids had outgrown them.
“You have no idea how much that helps the environment at a place like this,” Gay says. “You can't put a price on that, and that's why I like to say that Lee is priceless.”
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