A Life in the Theatre: Shubert Organization President Philip J. Smith

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Shubert Organization President Philip J. Smith
 
Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft.
Philip J. Smith
Philip J. Smith

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"It’s never boring here," Philip J. Smith says. "I come in here in the morning, and I have no idea what’s going to happen in the course of the day. It can just change, turn around, spin off in any number of directions. And that’s the way my entire life in the theatre has been.

Smith has been working in the theatre for more than a half century, the last nine years as president of the Shubert Organization, the largest theatre owner on Broadway — making him one of the most important and powerful figures in the world of theatre.

With Gerald Schoenfeld, the Shubert chairman, he runs 17 Broadway theatres. They include some of the most famous — the Majestic, the Imperial, the Cadillac Winter Garden, the Booth, the Broadway, the Music Box and, of course, the Shubert. The two men also book the theatres, deciding what Broadwaygoers will and won’t see. They sometimes produce shows and often invest in them. And they run TeleCharge, the huge telephone and Internet ticketer.

Smith was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and began working in theatres (the motion picture kind) while he was a scholarship student at Bishop Loughlin High School. "One day, a friend and I went to the RKO Orpheum Theatre after school to see a vaudeville show and a movie. There was a fight in the balcony and an usher got beat up. I said to my friend, ‘I bet he won’t be in tomorrow.’ I went to the manager of the theatre and asked if he had an ushering job available. He said, ‘Smitty, go downstairs and put on your uniform.’ I took the job, and I’ve never looked back." After finishing school he became the manager of the RKO Palace — now just the Palace — at 47th Street and Broadway. "Eight months after I started at the Palace," Smith recalls, "I was asked to take Judy Garland and her husband, Sid Luft, on a tour of the theatre. That led to Judy’s record-breaking engagement in 1951. I remember when she first brought Liza onstage to perform with her. After Judy there came a whole series of stars — Danny Kaye, Betty Hutton, Liberace, Jerry Lewis. And I was there for Judy’s second appearance."

Smith worked at the old Rivoli Theatre’s box office on Broadway for the reserved-seat movie version of "Oklahoma!" Later, one evening at a party, he was introduced to Irving Morrison of the Shubert Organization. "He gave me a temporary job in the box office of the Imperial," Smith recalls. "The Most Happy Fella was playing." Eventually temporary became permanent, and Smith began rising through the ranks — from box-office treasurer at the Shubert Theatre to general manager of all Shubert theatres, vice-president, executive vice-president and, in 1996, president.

So what is his day-to-day life like? "Booking the theatres is No. 1, and operating them is No. 2," he says.

"We negotiate the bookings contracts with the producers. We negotiate labor contracts with all the theatre unions. That’s done through the League of American Theatres and Producers, and I’m on those labor committees."

The Shuberts sometimes also produce. "The longest-running production we ever had was Cats," he says with a smile. "We did very well on that, financially and every other way. And of course the Shubert was home to Michael Bennett’s historic A Chorus Line, and I’m very proud of that. And there were many plays along the way. We also invest in a lot of shows."

And then there are the theatres themselves – keeping them going every day, caring for the audience and supervising the staff – in the box office, the stage areas, the audience areas. "Some of the theatres are approaching 100 years in age," he says. "Most were built in the early 1900’s and are landmarked. So they have to be maintained with landmarking in mind, which creates some limitations on what you can do. Any change requires it be restored to its original condition, and any change you contemplate requires approval. But the theatres are kept in pristine condition. We’re very proud of them."

Much has been written, positive and negative, about the state of Broadway. Smith has no doubts about where he stands on the issue. "It’s a wonderful time," he says. "For the last six seasons or so, it’s been just terrific. You couldn’t ask for better. In addition to all the new shows, we’ve had our old standouts. Phantom of the Opera is about to replace Cats – in January – as the longest-running show in the history of Broadway. Mamma Mia! continues to do sensationally at the Cadillac Winter Garden. And then there’s Spamalot, which won the Best Musical Tony this year and is, quite frankly, a dream." One show he is particularly pleased about is Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, coming to the Broadhurst in April after winning the major theatre awards in London.

With all that, and all Smith has done, is there something he still wants to do in the theatre? He responds: "I’m always looking for the next challenge."

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