Gerald Schoenfeld, Longtime Chairman of Shubert Organization, Dies at 84

By Robert Simonson
November 25, 2008

Gerald Schoenfeld, the longtime Chairman of the theatre-owning powerhouse known as the Shubert Organization and a man routinely referred to as the most powerful man on Broadway, died suddenly Nov. 25 at his home in Manhattan. He was born in 1924 and was 84 years old.

The Shubert Organization is the owner and caretaker of 17 Broadway theatres. It is the proprietor of more houses than any other company in the theatre. Along with his late partner, Bernard Jacobs, who died in 1996, Mr. Schoenfeld ruled over this real-estate empire, as well as the adjoining Shubert Foundation. If you were a producer and regularly presented on Broadway, you had no choice but to do business with Jerry and Bernie. So closely were the two men associated with the organization that they were regularly referred to as "The Shuberts," even though they were no blood relations to the family of three brothers who first founded the dynasty.

Mr. Schoenfeld was a familiar sight at every Broadway opening, standing in the aisle endlessly greeting theatre colleagues with a solemnity and magnanimity that more than a few compared jokingly to the Pope handing out dispensations. With a mild, courtly manner, he was known to relish the theatre business, as well as his exalted place in its hierarchy.

The Shuberts functioned in a warren of rococo offices at the top of the Shubert Theatre, at the corner of 44th Street and Shubert Alley (a thoroughfare that the organization actually owned). Access was only by a small, doorman-guarded private elevator. The outfit operated without a press agent or public relations department. Mr. Schoenfeld occasionally granted interviews, offering overviews on the state of the theatre, but rarely revealed too much. Even as Mr. Schoenfeld grew older, topics such as a line of succession were rarely, if ever, discussed. Philip J. Smith currently serves as President of the Shubert Organization.

The current marquee at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
photo by Matthew Blank
In 2004 the Shubert-owned Plymouth Theatre on 44th Street was named after Mr. Schoenfeld.

Mr. Schoenfeld, a lawyer by trade, was brought into the Shubert fold in 1950. When Mr. Jacobs was drafted by Mr. Schoenfeld in 1958—Jacobs was a high school friend of Mr. Schoenfeld's brother—it was run by J.J. Shubert. The Shubert brother died in 1963; his will turned over the bulk of his estate, including the theatres, to the Shubert Foundation. At the time, the foundation was a little-known arm of the theatre company. In the years to come Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Schoenfeld emerged as the new leaders.

The theatre was suffering through hard times during New York's economic crisis in the 1970s, and many credit Mr. Schoenfeld and Mr. Jacobs with turning the situation around. The men helped to right the then-foundering organization, not only acting as efficient landlords, but influencing the influx of product by investing money in new plays and acting as producers.

Over the years, Mr. Schoenfeld backed such productions as A Chorus Line, Sly Fox, The Gin Game, Dancin', Children of a Lesser God, Division Street, Amadeus, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Dreamgirls, Cats, 'night Mother, Sunday in the Park With George, As Is, Big Deal, Lend Me a Tenor, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, A Few Good Men, Spamalot, Dirty Blonde and Amour. (This last was a particular sentimental favorite of Mr. Schoenfeld's.) The producers were particularly close with Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett and helped foster their projects. In recent years, the Shuberts' producing activities lessened.

Tony Award-winning Shubert productions include Ain't Misbehavin', Children of a Lesser God, Amadeus, Nicholas Nickelby, Cats, The Real Thing, The Heidi Chronicles, Jerome Robbins' Broadway, The Grapes of Wrath, City of Angels and Passion.

An unusual tax ruling in 1979 gave the Shubert Foundation an exemption to Federal tax laws that declare that private charities generally cannot own a controlling stake in a profit-making business. The ruling, for which Mr. Schoenfeld was largely responsible, allowed the Shubert Foundation to retain its theatre buildings while simultaneously awarding large grants of money to numerous theatre organizations over the years.

Over the years, Mr. Schoenfeld oversaw the refurbishing of many of the Shubert Theatres, which included the Ambassador, the Ethel Barrymore, the Belasco, the Booth, the Broadhurst, the Broadway, the Cort, the John Golden Theatre, the Imperial, the Jacobs, the Longacre, The Lyceum, the Majestic, the Music Box, the Schoenfeld Theatre, the Shubert and the Winter Garden. The Shuberts also own an Off-Broadway theatre, the Little Shubert, which was built during Mr. Schoenfeld's tenure. "I'm proud to be able to sustain these old theatres, renovate them and adapt them so they function in today's world," he told Playbill.com in 2002.

Gerald Schoenfeld was born Sept. 22, 1924, in New York City, the son of a manufacturer of fur coats. He graduated from the University of Illinois and served in the Army in World War II. His father suggested his son go to law school: He did, attending NYU. His association with the Shuberts came almost immediately; after graduating, he joined a firm that named the organization as one of its clients.

"Over a period of about seven years, people in the law firm grew older, one died, another went off on his own and I ended up being the only one left," the Times quotes Mr. Schoenfeld as saying. "So J.J. Shubert asked me, as he put it, if I wanted to 'take care of our affairs.' I said 'Yes.' I was 32."

Mr. Schoenfeld is survived by his wife of 58 years, Pat; a brother, Irving; a daughter, Carrie Schoenfeld-Guglielmi, and two grandchildren.

A private funeral will be held per the family's request, and a memorial service will be announced at a later time.