Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The end of an era

The sun sets behind an unfinished building on the Upper West Side (as seen from Central Park). 4:45 PM. Photo: JH.
February 10, 2009. Not so cold and very sunny Monday in New York.

The most notable event, most important event of the day in the city took place at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th Street beginning at one in the afternoon where more than 1000 invited guests attended the memorial for Gerald (Gerry) Schoenfeld, the Chairman of the Shubert Organization, who died suddenly of a heart attack last November 25th after attending a screening of the film, “Australia.” Our esteemed photojournalist Jill Krementz has recorded it with her camera on today’s Guest Diary.

Gerald (Gerry) Schoenfeld, 1924-2008.
Mr Schoenfeld was droll, a funny man with a Noo Yawk-style personality, and would rarely resist an amusing anecdote or a wry wisecrack. I don’t know what he personally thought of “Australia,” but I do know that he’d have a remark to make about some major theatrical figure dropping dead after seeing the picture. I also know that if it were his picture or his theatre, no matter what he thought of it, he’d also promote the hell out of it and with irrepressible passion.

The event yesterday at the Majestic (acquired by the Shuberts along with the Royale – now Schoenfeld, and Plymouth, now Jacobs) Theaters at the beginning of the Depression, brought out the stars who spoke, who listened, and who performed in the memory of this amazing figure of American theatrical history whose ebullient personality belied the enormous prestige of his place in the American theater of the second half of the 20th century.

I knew him not well but saw him often, sometimes almost daily at Michael’s, and had the pleasure of the company of him and his wife Pat a number of times. I’d first become familiar with him, as I’ve written here before, back in the late 1960s when I had a part time job working the dinner hour with Jimmy Molenski, the maitre d’ (he always referred to himself as the “headwaiter”) at Sardis.

Sam and JJ Shubert
Mr. Schoenfeld and his associate, Bernie Jacobs, were often in attendance beginning around late afternoon (early cocktail hour) and thereafter, until after-theatre, usually no more than a step behind a ruddy-faced gentleman in a hat and camel-haired coat named Lawrence Shubert Lawrence Jr. It was obvious even to this greenhorn that Schoenfeld and Jacobs were more than just aide-de-camps, for Mr. Lawrence Shubert Lawrence had the unmistakable air of an heir. Schoenfeld and Jacobs were the loyal attendants.

That time, I later learned, was a crucial moment for the family theatre empire. The Shubert Organization is America's oldest professional theatre company. Over the last century, it has owned hundreds of theatres and produced more than five hundred plays and musicals. Since the 1980s, its ticketing service – Telecharge.com -- has become the leading ticket provider in New York City's thriving theatre industry.

It was begun in 1900 when Sam and Lee, followed later by Jacob J., three brothers from Syracuse, moved to New York City and began acquiring theatres and producing shows. Among the stars featured in their productions during the early years were Richard Mansfield, Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, Maxine Elliot, Alla Nazimova, Eleanora Duse, Lew Fields, DeWolfe Hopper, Eddie Foy, Sir Johnston Forbes Robertson, and Lulu Glaser.

The Winter Garden, circa 1913.
The Shubert, 1919.
Broadway Theatre, circa 1954.
The Shubert Theatre.
Interior of the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
The Majestic interior.
By the 1960s, only JJ survived and he was in his dotage. His son John was heir-apparent but died suddenly in 1962. By the time of Lawrence, Schoenfeld and Jacobs, business was in somewhat of a delicate condition, partly because Broadway, hit from all angles of Show Business, was contracting.

Mr. Lawrence departed in the early 70s, leaving Schoenfeld and Jacobs in the drivers seat. Theirs was a very prosperous working partnership. When Mr. Jacobs died twelve years ago, Mr. Schoenfeld, by then a veteran in all aspects of the business, took on his duties and the business continued to prosper.

The death of Gerry Schoenfeld is significant in American theatre history. His tenure marks the end of an era in the history of American theatre culture that began more than a century before when the stage was the only venue of theatrical entertainment.

At the dawn of the 20th century there were more than 1000 theaters all over America, and they were occupied constantly by more than 400 touring companies. New York was the center of the entertainment world. Hollywood literally didn’t exist.

When the Shuberts arrived in New York in 1900 to compete with the major theater managers, especially Messrs. Klaw and Erlanger who ruled American theatre business with their producing Syndicate, technology was a remote idea; a whim of a dream. Broadway was the only game, and a tough one. The brothers could hustle, however, and they had moxie.

Their appearance on the scene came late -- film technology was just emerging. But by the mid-nineteen teens, as their theatrical competitors had begun to lose their hold, they were thriving. In their almost 60-year history (the eldest Sam, died prematurely in 1905 in a train accident on his way to Pittsburgh), they owned or built or managed or booked more than 1000 theaters across America.

In New York they had built several including some that are still part of today’s 17 theater inventory. Today the imprimatur of the Shuberts, which now includes the legacy of Schoenfeld and Jacobs, dominates Broadway’s profile and history.

Young Gerry Schoenfeld was hired by J. J. Shubert in 1956, out of Shubert’s law firm. He was 32, a nuts and bolts man with an executive’s talent for keeping the machine running smoothly and efficiently.

By then, the theatre on Broadway was said to be dying -- as they have so often said -- “The theatre is dying, the theatre is dying, the theatre is practically dead ...” goes an Oscar Hammerstein lyric from one of the R&H shows in the 1950s. He’d gone into a business then known as The Great Invalid. Throughout the 1960s, the Shubert Organization kept itself in business but not without rough patches threatening its future.
Dame Edna delivering her speech on the balcony of the Music Box Theater from the official opening of the “new” Schoenfeld and Jacobs theaters on June 10, 2005.
Gerry Schoenfeld, like the Shuberts and all great theatrical managers of the bygone era, understood that Theatre is also Real Estate. When he went to work for them, real estate in that part of town had begun to lose its luster, as had Broadway theatre itself.

However, after the departure of the Shubert heir in 1972, the winds of change were taking hold on Broadway. That great theatrical tradition of the three boys from Syracuse began a brilliant renaissance under Schoenfeld and Jacobs. The list of hits and long running shows that followed is stunning.

For Gerry Schoenfeld the task was a natural. It was his heritage. He was a child of that era of American entertainment. He had grown up with the theatre and the talent of his parents’ age -- American folklore; and it all came from the stage. When it began to unfold, to flourish and expand, under the radio, the motion picture and television, he was there. Booth, O’Neill, Mrs. Fisk, Vaudeville, Ziegfeld, the Gershwins, the Drews, the Barrymores, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Eugene O’Neill, Clifford Odets, Al Jolson, Merman, Fannie Brice, Eddie Cantor, Tennessee Williams. His was the last link to another age in our cultural history.

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