Merle Debuskey, Dean of Theatrical Press Agents, Dies at 95

Obituaries   Merle Debuskey, Dean of Theatrical Press Agents, Dies at 95
 
Mr. Debuskey was one of the most prominent press agents ever to ply his trade on Broadway, and Joe Papp’s right-hand man.
Merle Debuskey
Merle Debuskey

Merle Debuskey, one of the most prominent press agents ever to ply his trade on Broadway, and Joe Papp’s right-hand man during the New York Shakespeare Festival’s first decades, died September 25 at the age of 95. According to his executor and friend Philip S. Birsh, “Merle died from the infirmities of old age.”

For a man whose profession is usually kept to the shadows of the theatre world, Mr. Debuskey cast a remarkably long shadow himself. He represented more than 500 Broadway and Off-Broadway shows over the course of a half-century-long career. And he was president of the press agents’ union ATPAM, a position he held for 25 years. Along the way, he carved out a unique role as a sort of all-around consultant and moral compass, offering advice and counsel for clients that ranged from the theatrical (producers Alexander H. Cohen and Joseph Papp) to the political (Civil Rights leader Julian Bond).

Though in demand by commercial producers on Broadway, Mr. Debuskey also had a strong history with the nonprofit theatre. He was the front man of the influential theatre troupe Circle in the Square, both during its Off-Broadway infancy and after it graduated to Broadway respectability. When a floundering Lincoln Center Theater was reignited by the leadership of Gregory Mosher and Bernard Gersten, he was selected by former Mayor John V. Lindsay as the revived nonprofit’s press conduit.

But perhaps no relationship, profit or nonprofit, more defined his career than that with Papp. Mr. Debuskey had his first dealing with the flamboyant impresario when he did press for an unsuccessful Sean O’Casey staging Papp directed in 1952. Later, Papp invited the publicist to take a look at the bare-bones Shakespeare workshops he was holding in an East Village church.

Mr. Debuskey worked with Papp to get press and money for the fledgling enterprise, nudging reluctant members of the press—significantly, Arthur Gelb and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times—to cover their scrappy doings. On one occasion in 1956, Mr. Debuskey accompanied Papp to the Times building, where the producer basically conducted a sit-in, refusing to leave the premises until Gelb agreed to attend a make-or-break performance of Twelfth Night at the East River Amphitheatre on the Lower East Side that night.

Mr. Debuskey stood side by side with Papp at other critical junctures: When the producer moved into spacious new digs in the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street in Greenwich Village; when he prepared Papp to appear in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee; and, most famously, when Papp took on Robert Moses, the all-powerful Parks Commissioner, in early 1959.

Moses’ deputy Stuart Constable, in charge while Moses was on vacation, declared an end to the aborning Shakespeare in the Park tradition unless Papp charged admission (funds necessary for grass upkeep, Constable argued, none too convincingly). Papp was then largely unknown. But asking attendees for money defeated the his company’s egalitarian cultural mission. Still, facing the Goliath of Moses, Papp considered giving in. Debuskey balked.

"I’ll do anything in the world for free Shakespeare," he told Papp, "but I can’t work for cheap Shakespeare."

Papp stood firm, and he and Debuskey went on to wage a press battle with Moses, a war they won. The headlines made Papp’s name and solidified Shakespeare in the Park as an inviolable New York tradition. (Like most things Debuskey did for the New York Shakespeare Festival, the park fight was conducted pro bono. Debuskey didn’t accept a salary until the late '60s, after the success of Hair. Even then, it was union scale.)

Merle Debuskey was a Zelig-like figure around New York. During the latter-half of the 20th century, he was seemingly everywhere and met everyone. As a young apprentice, he ran curious errands for the erratic showman Mike Todd, ferrying bags of cash to a secret bank account in Irvington, N.Y., where his creditors couldn’t get at it. Marilyn Monroe—who had converted to Judaism when she married Arthur Miller—hooked him up with a rabbi to instruct his Christian fiancée in her own conversion. He and Melvin Van Peebles babysat children in the Hotel Edison’s bar while their parents attended Van Peebles’ play, Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death, across the street.

He kept star Paul Muni’s eye surgery a secret from the press during the run of Inherit the Wind. He navigated the great cultural divide between Madonna and the theatre press during the pop star’s one and only Broadway turn in Speed-the-Plow. In 1960, when Zero Mostel was run over by a bus, his leg shattered, Debuskey persuaded his old high school pal, Joe Wilder, then chief of surgery at the Hospital for Joint Diseases, to take the case. The leg, and Mostel’s career, was saved. He once manhandled George C. Scott, who was drunk and late for a show. And, he answered the verbal abuse of Mort Sahl by throwing the comic against a wall. (Sahl left the production; the producers thanked Debuskey.)

Once, while out of town with producers who, despairing of low sales, were contemplating changing the show’s tongue-twisting title, Debuskey threw a fit, insisting the name stick. And so How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying kept its title.

Beyond his professional successes, connections, and accomplishments, however, Mr. Debuskey stood out as a personality. He conducted himself with an upright dignity almost wholly out of tune with his chosen profession. Critic Clive Barnes compared him to a Senator. He insisted on playing it straight with the press, thereby earning their trust and loyalty—something that came in handy when he was pitching Papp’s regular front-page gambits for financial survival.

His reputation for acumen and integrity proved attractive to a certain kind of producer. He had long professional relationships with Philip Rose, the progressive showman behind A Raisin in the Sun, Purlie, and Shenandoah; Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, the powerhouse producing team of the '50s and '60s; and Alexander H. Cohen, the cultured, independent showman who brought Beyond the Fringe, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Richard Burton’s Hamlet to New York.

Basil Merle Debuskey was born on March 24, 1923, in Baltimore to Robert Debuskey, a wine salesman, and Freda, who was related to the wealthy Louis Blaustein, who founded AMOCO. He attended City College, the third-oldest public high school in the nation and quickly distinguished himself as an athletic hero. A three-letter man, he excelled at football, basketball, and, especially, lacrosse, his exploits covered by the local papers.

His athletic experience proved an asset once he was thrown into the rough and tumble world of theatrical ballyhoo. "If football can’t knock me down," he once told Shubert executive Lee Silver, "this can’t."

His continued his athletic career and education at University of Virginia, where he suffered from rampant anti-Semitism. His schooling was interrupted by World War II. He served with the Navy in the Pacific Theatre. Upon his return, he finished his schooling and graduated from Johns Hopkins, where he was an All American lacrosse player.

Moving to New York in hopes of becoming a journalist, he fell in with a group of young theatre people. He joined a troupe called the Interplayers, which included such future theatre stars as Gene Saks, Michael V. Gazzo, and, most notably, Kim Stanley, the to-be Method actress darling and "female Brando," with whom Mr. Debuskey had a brief, tumultuous affair.

At the time, he lived in Greenwich Village above a Russian restaurant run by the Nemiroff family. He socialized with the clan, which included young Robert Nemiroff's petite, pretty wife, Lorraine Hansberry. Debuskey would later publicize Hansberry’s first play, A Raisin in the Sun. Years later, during the run of Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, he kept a copy of the ailing playwright’s obituary in his pocket. He soon formed a partnership with press agent Seymour Krawitz, and together they enjoyed a long relationship with producers Feuer and Martin, working with them on How to Succeed... and Little Me.

Working with Joe Papp was never boring. Mr. Debuskey had a separate phone in his office dedicated to Papp’s constant calls. Frequently, Papp would fire him. Other times, Debuskey would quit.

The separation never lasted long, and the camaraderie between the two men—as well as associate Bernard Gersten, who joined the Festival in the ‘60s and knew Debuskey from way back—was thick.

“There was a lot of joking, playing, riffing off each other’s lines,” recalled Gail Papp, Joe’s widow. "Joe used to kid Merle about his speechifying and the florid vocabulary that he employed. I loved the way Merle talked. He was the only person I knew who talked in Edwardian phrases."

In all his relationships with producers, Mr. Debuskey was notorious for offering up the unvarnished truth, even if it cost him work. (A sign in his office read, "No is also an answer.") Once, after being berated by the migraine-suffering famous producer Herman Shumlin, he gave as good as he got and walked out.

Eventually, as the New York theatre world became more industry, less artistry, more corporate, less collaborative, his independent style would work against him. Always busy with other shows and other projects, he refused the entreaties of Papp and Ted Mann of Circle in the Square to work in-house. Both men would eventually replace their old associate with scant ceremony. In 1983, with the theatre looking to cut expenses, Papp quietly stopped paying Debuskey his $18,000 annual salary. The two men subsequently had a confrontation, after which Debuskey left in a rage. They never met again, and spoke only once, after Papp contracted cancer, in a failed attempt at reconciliation. Papp died in 1991.

Debuskey retired in 1995, stepping down from his post at Lincoln Center Theater. The following year, he was paid tribute to in an event attended by Feuer, Gersten, Paul Libin, Gene Saks, and many other theatrical luminaries. He kept his hand in the business, however, as a consultant to Theatre for a New Audience.

In 2009, the Public Theatre honored Debuskey’s place in the company’s history with a plaque in the theatre’s lobby. He was also the subject of the biography The Gentleman Press Agent.

To the very end of his career, Debuskey remained transfixed by the artists he represented, and never lost his love of the theatre.

"They have persisted in pushing themselves to the outer limits of their capabilities, never satisfied with the results, always trying to get better," he said, "in an area that's not particularly welcoming or provident. They are special... There are people who excel at finance, at real estate, but they don't transform their very being. That's very mystical to me."

Debuskey is survived by three generations of loving nieces and nephews.

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