'King of Broadway' dies at 84

November 25, 2008 11:07:07 AM PST
Gerald Schoenfeld, the chairman of the Shubert Organization and frequently referred to as the "King of Broadway," died today. Schoenfeld, 84, died early Tuesday at his Manhattan home, said Sam Rudy, a Shubert spokesman. The cause of death was not immediately known.

As chairman of Broadway's biggest landlord since 1972, Schoenfeld ushered many plays and musicals to the Broadway stage and beyond. The Shubert Organization owns or operates 17 Broadway theaters and one off-Broadway playhouse, as well as theaters in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Schoenfeld, a jovial, outgoing man and a familiar figure at Broadway opening nights, had never been to the theater before going to work for the law firm that handled business for the Shuberts - the quixotic, combative dynasty that controlled much of Broadway's real estate in the 20th century.

"The only Schubert I had ever heard of was Franz Schubert, the great composer," Schoenfeld wrote in "The Shuberts Present: 100 Years of American Theater," a mammoth coffee table book published in 2002 that celebrated the centenary of the theatrical empire founded by three brothers - Lee, J.J. and Sam Shubert.

For more than 35 years, it was Schoenfeld's job as company chairman to fill the theaters, which range from the cozy, wood-paneled Booth to the splendidly opulent Winter Garden. It was a juggling act that required skill and shrewdness, not to mention a little luck and an appreciation for the stages he was booking.

Luck was what Schoenfeld needed in 1972 when he and another lawyer, Bernard B. Jacobs, assumed control of the tottering Shubert empire, taking over at a time when Broadway was in decline and more than a few Shubert houses sat empty.

Schoenfeld and Jacobs turned things around first with such hit productions as "Pippin" and "Equus," and then, in 1975, with "A Chorus Line."

"It was a bonanza," Schoenfeld recalled in a 2002 interview with The Associated Press. "A bellwether event because it was a product of the not-for-profit theater and the Shubert Organization.

That show really changed the perception of the Broadway theater as far as nonprofit theaters were concerned."

Schoenfeld worked out of an office above the Shubert Theatre, built in 1913, in what was once the private apartment of Lee Shubert.

Getting there is dramatic. Take the tiny elevator from an entrance on Shubert Alley, a mid-block passageway that links West 44th and West 45th Streets in the heart of the theater district. An elevator operator lets you out into a world of baronial, Citizen Kane splendor: plush carpets, dark wood and polished brass. A seemingly inaccessible balcony that would not be out of place in "Romeo and Juliet" overlooks the scene.

"A Chorus Line" was followed by "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Evita," "Amadeus," "Dreamgirls" and "Cats," the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that held forth at the Winter Garden for nearly 18 years. It was followed by another big hit, which is still running there, "Mamma Mia!"

"The object is to fill these theaters," Schoenfeld said, either by producing shows themselves or booking other producer's efforts. "And if you are not in a time of plenty, then you put in whatever you can find."

Schoenfeld used to pick the plays with Jacobs, who died in 1996.

"Our judgments and taste were the same," he said. "The rule between us was if he liked it and I hated it (or vice versa) we would not pursue it."

In 2005, the Plymouth Theatre was renamed for Schoenfeld and the Royale rechristened for Jacobs. The theaters are affectionately known as the Gerry and the Bernie.

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