Remembering 'Shubert' Bernard B. Jacobs

Remembering 'Shubert' Bernard B. Jacobs When Bernard B. Jacobs died at age 80 on August 27, the American theatre lost not only one of its most powerful and influential figures. It lost a friend. Jacobs was for 24 years the president of The Shubert Organization, Broadway's biggest theatre owner; he was also, in the words of Bernard Gersten of Lincoln Center Theater, "the grandfather of the Broadway theatre."

When Bernard B. Jacobs died at age 80 on August 27, the American theatre lost not only one of its most powerful and influential figures. It lost a friend. Jacobs was for 24 years the president of The Shubert Organization, Broadway's biggest theatre owner; he was also, in the words of Bernard Gersten of Lincoln Center Theater, "the grandfather of the Broadway theatre."

He was first and foremost a businessman, negotiating contracts and keeping a firm eye on the bottom line; but he also had a love for the theatre, an instinct for the artistic process, and was widely known for his ability to work effectively with the great artists of his day. First among these was Michael Bennett, director of A Chorus Line. "Michael regarded me as his godfather," Jacobs once fondly recalled.

Jacobs, together with Gerald Schoenfeld, the Shubert chairman, ran an empire that comprises 17 Broadway theatres and legitimate theatres in Boston, Phila., L.A. and Washington. Known to their colleagues as Bernie and Gerry, they were also called the Shuberts, although they were no relation to the three brothers who built the original Shubert dynasty.

Working from their adjacent offices behind a set of golden doors in Shubert Alley, Jacobs and Schoenfeld influenced everything that happened on Broadway. They produced such classic shows as Cats, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Amadeus, Passion, Jerome Robbins' Broadway and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park with George and The Heidi Chronicles.

The two men took over The Shubert Organization in the early 1970's when it and Broadway had come on hard times, and they are credited with turning things around, for both their company and the New York commercial theatre. "We changed the business from a loser to a winner," Jacobs once said. "Of course, we were very lucky. We ran into A Chorus Line" which ran for 15 years at the Shubert, becoming Broadway's longest-running musical.

Jacobs was known for his gruff exterior, but also for his impeccable fairness. "He tells people what he thinks, even if it sometimes hurts," Rocco Landesman, a Broadway competitor and sometimes production partner, once observed. "When a person is that direct with you, you know you can have confidence in him." And the toughness, Landesman said, was only on the surface: "Beneath the gruffness, he's really good-hearted. Actually, he's a softie."

Jacobs graduated from Columbia University Law School and served in the Army in World War II. He was best friends in high school with Schoenfeld's older brother, and it was actually Schoenfeld who in 1958 offered him a job with The Shubert Organization. Among his many accomplishments were the introduction of computerized ticket sales, by telephone and through Ticketron outlets. Through The Shubert Foundation, he and Schoenfeld provided support for nonprofit theatre and dance companies across the nation. He was also a vice-president of The League of American Theatres and Producers.

A private man, Jacobs rarely sought publicity; he preferred to work behind the scenes. His family -- Betty, his wife of 50 years; their children, Steve and Sally; and grandchildren, Jared and Matthew Jacobs and Amanda Baker -- were of paramount importance. "I think I've had a fair and decent life," he once said. "I'm proud of what I've accomplished. I'm very happy with my family life. I'm very happy with my grandchildren. All in all, I'm quite pleased with the way things have turned out."-- By Mervyn Rothstein