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Return of The Hit Man

He bought a house in New Vernon, N.J., and before moving in, he told his wife one Sunday that he had a surprise for her. When the two arrived at their home-to-be the next day, a wrecking crew promptly razed the building.

"I thought he'd lost his mind," says Sheila Kirshner.

"I feel sharper now than ever," says once-ubiquitous, then reclusive music impresario Don Kirshner, 70, who intends to start a global entertainment company. (Joshua Prezant For For The Washington Post)

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Her husband then set about building his own Xanadu. Twenty-five thousand square feet of house, with a disco, a home theater, a pool with underwater speakers, two tennis courts, a full-size basketball court and a dozen cabanas. It took four years of construction.

"It was folly, and I'm kind of embarrassed about it now," Kirshner says. "But I think I had to get it out of my system." He'd been the boy wonder for so long and now nobody was paying any attention. "I thought, hey, if you guys aren't going to recognize me, I'm going to recognize myself. I'm going to build my own monument."

But the New York Knicks never came by to play, as he'd hoped, and wild parties weren't really his style. The place seemed cursed, actually. Soon after they moved in, Kirshner's father took ill, his father-in-law passed away, and his son came down with hepatitis. Kirshner retreated and became paranoid. He fretted over a threatening, anti-Semitic letter he'd been sent years earlier, and now he hired guards to surround his home. He barely spoke to anyone outside his family. In 1982 he sold the place and relocated, to his wife's relief.

Coming Back for More

Exactly what Kirshner was doing through his many years of retirement is a mystery even to him. He doesn't play golf or tennis, or any other sport for that matter. He's also hopelessly unmechanical and he's never typed, let alone surfed the Internet. He doesn't drive and has never had a license.

"You're going to think I'm an odd duck, aren't you?" he says, a little sheepishly. "But if I drove, I'd probably daydream and go through three red lights."

Four years ago he met a local businessman named Greg Paige, who began advising him on investments and one day proposed that Kirshner return to the music business. Kirshner liked the idea, and the two cast around for projects, settling finally on the notion of a TV-style network -- complete with high-definition video -- designed for the Internet. The first bit of programming will be a combination of chat show and "American Idol," with Kirshner catching up with stars and auditioning unknowns, to be simultaneously aired on the radio and the Web.

"No, he's never been on the Internet," says Paige. "But he's never driven, either, and he gets around. And he knows what questions to ask and asks them over and over. He doesn't want his name on anything unless he's sure it's great."

"I love it," Sheila Kirshner says about her husband's reemergence plan. "I'm not worried a bit. He's bigger and better than ever."

Shares in Kirshner International, the public company he and Paige founded, currently trade at about 8 cents on the over-the-counter market. If those shares ever soar, it would be Kirshner's third or fourth successful reincarnation, depending on how you count it.

Whether any of it will enhance his legacy is anyone's guess. Seymour Stein, the president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and head of Sire Records, said in an interview two weeks ago that Kirshner deserves to be inducted, and he predicted he would be -- eventually.

"I've nominated him on numerous occasions," he said. "There's no animosity toward him, certainly. Unfortunately, I won't be able to argue for him this year because I've been nominated myself and because of that I'm not voting."

A couple days after that chat, Stein was inducted into the hall.

Even though Kirshner will denounce the organization for cronyism, you can't talk him out of caring about whether he's part of it. After dinner, he offers a tour of his house, which includes a glass-enclosed diorama sent by a fan that tells the story of Kirshner's life. It looks like an exhibit piece from a museum, about four feet wide and a foot or so high, sitting on a side table in his living room, loaded with photos of Bobby Darin and the Monkees and Carole King. For the time being, it will have to do.

"Look at this," says Kirshner, beaming. "Isn't it great?"

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