For nearly a half century, from the Golden Age of the stage to the mid-1990s, Merle Debuskey was a top theatrical press agent, representing over 550 plays and musicals. He worked with Arthur Miller on the original production of The Crucible, with Lorraine Hansberry on A Raisin in the Sun, and with Michael Bennett and Joseph Papp on A Chorus Line.
Debuskey, now 87, was more than a press agent. He is a fervently political being, eager to express (and battle for) what he thinks is right. "My occupation provoked me into deepening my understanding, my knowledge of people, of the world, of life," he says.
The tale of Debuskey's life is now being told in the new biography "The Gentleman Press Agent: 50 Years in the Theatrical Trenches" by Robert Simonson.
Eugene Wolsk, a Broadway producer and general manager for more than 40 years, once said: "Merle is one of the most principled people I know. He would work and fight for those things in which he believed. He is a remarkable man."
Bernard Gersten, executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater and a longtime colleague of Debuskey, once called him "a nonpareil of the species." In the 1950s, Debuskey was part of the struggle against the ugly specter of the blacklist. He was press agent for Off-Broadway’s The World of Sholom Aleichem, which used actors who, because of their political beliefs, had been denied employment in movies and TV. He fought for civil rights in the '60s, against the Vietnam War and for gay rights.
Before Debuskey decided on a life in theatre, he was a star athlete in his native Baltimore. He served in the Pacific during and after World War II. When he moved to New York, in 1948, he became a key figure in the postwar Off-Broadway movement. For more than 30 years, from its beginnings in a Lower East Side church, Debuskey was press agent for Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater, which brought free Shakespeare in Central Park.
One of Debuskey's proudest moments came in 1959, during Papp's battle with Robert Moses, the city's all-powerful parks commissioner, over whether to charge for Shakespeare in Central Park. Debuskey, one of Papp's closest aides, insisted it was crucial that the performances remain free. "I really felt that this thing had to continue on in the fashion in which it was begun."
Finally, "in the wee hours of the morn," Debuskey says, Papp agreed, and eventually Papp, and Debuskey, won the day.
Debuskey feels nothing but gratitude toward the stage and the opportunities it gave him. "Had I not been part of the theatre," Debuskey says, "I never could have met the breadth and depth and wealth of fascinating and good people I encountered. It has made me feel that my life has been more than passing through and not touching anything."