Remembering "Mr. Broadway," Gerald Schoenfeld

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02 Jul 2012

Cover art for
Cover art for "Mr. Broadway"

On the occasion of the posthumous publication of Shubert Organization chairman Gerald Schoenfeld's memoir, "Mr. Broadway," his widow Pat Schoenfeld reflects on a theatrical life well-lived.

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When you enter the House of Schoenfeld in the East 70s, it's like walking on to the stage set of The Royal Family, where three generations of an acting dynasty cavorted and made clever talk among themselves from curtain down to curtain up.

You can see from the doorway a huge sunken living room, accessible by a small spiral staircase. The walls are done up in rich mahogany and dotted with photos and pottery that could be the European haul of Charles Foster Kane were they not really the work of the lady of the house. Resting between pillows on the centerpiece sofa is a puppet facsimile of the late lord of the manor, Gerald Schoenfeld — a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift from the Avenue Q gang at the Golden Theatre when the Plymouth and the Royale next door became the Schoenfeld and the Jacobs in '05.

There is no question that Mr. Broadway lived here, although (as The New York Times noted Nov. 25, 2008, in the first line of his obituary) nobody ever called him that in his 84 years — even though he had earned (and lived!) that title for almost 35 years. Consequently, no one's squawking that Applause Books named his memoir "Mr. Broadway: the Inside Story of the Shuberts, the Shows, and the Stars."

Rebuttal? I think not. For two dozen of those years, he shared the presidency of The Shubert Organization with Bernard B. Jacobs, a fellow lawyer he had brought aboard eons earlier. Together, they ran the largest theatre-owning enterprise in the country, rescuing their Broadway houses from the encroaching sleaze of Times Square and fortifying their Main Stem hits with hits from Off-Broadway and abroad.

Gerald Schoenfeld (top) and Jimmy Nederlander
photo (c) Anita & Steve Shevett, courtesy of the Shubert Archive.)

Late in life, Schoenfeld had (or took) time to reflect on his life in the theatre and write it down, finishing his autobiography a month before his death. It lay dormant for six months of grieving. Then, the keeper-of-the-flame gene kicked in for his widow, Pat, who promptly took a hands-on, pro-active part getting the manuscript to market, overseeing its editing, accuracy, picture selections and production.

"Partly, I guess I didn't want to face it after his death, but also I really didn't know what to do with the book," she confesses. "I knew that it was in manuscript form and I knew that he'd been talking to editors about it, but I never read it while he was alive. He'd say, 'You want to read it?' And I'd say, 'Sure' — then he wouldn't leave it out for me. I'd hear him reading pieces of it, like when he'd speak to Tim Rice over the phone. I knew I'd read it eventually. I knew I'd get around to it, but he wasn't ready for me to be involved with it. He didn't want me involved in show business.

"The important thing was that he got it down on paper. People kept urging him to write it. 'Don't worry about it. Just write it. You can dot the i's and cross the t's later.' So that's exactly what he did. It's all his writing, his words, too. Anything that we edited or added is in his voice. I certainly know his voice well enough to do that.

"When I did start to read it, I realized I had to get an editor. I must have spoken to 100 people before I found Jeffrey Robinson. I read some of his books, and he was perfect. He knew nothing about theatre, but he really loved learning about it."

Schoenfeld and Angela Lansbury
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Reviews were good, as they say in the trade. Pat can only carp about the critic who always knew her husband was Gerry. "His name was Jerry with a J, because, when we grew up, Gerry with a G was for Geraldine," she firmly remembers.

"I can't imagine him spelling his name with a G, or even letting it go out that way at the office. That's why, when I helped edit the book, we did Jerry with a J. Some people see it with a G, and some people don't. Every time I'd see it, I'd say 'Jerry, that is not your name.' He never bothered to correct anyone. He'd say, 'What do I care?'"

What Schoenfeld did care about was work. Pat ran the homefront. "One thing he always gave me credit for: When people entered our house, he'd say, 'It's all Pat.'

"We were Upper West-Siders for 30 years, but I was afraid he'd leave me with a rent increase every two years, so we bought this place. It's small but was perfect for us."

Somehow, this so-called "smallness" doesn't register for the first-time visitor — only the theatricality of it all. Could it be that vast chandelier that dangles and dazzles over the sunken living room? "I got that from Indiscretions," says Pat with no small measure of pride. "We were furnishing this apartment at the time the play happened to be on so I asked Jerry what happened to props after a play closes. He told me sometimes there are auctions, and you can bid on them. That's what I did."

Another prize acquisition from the 1995 Indiscretions, also designed by the Tony-nominated Stephen Brimson Lewis, is the massive, rococo bed where Jude Law and Kathleen Turner once romped like puppies. Back then, it was queen-size. Pat chose to bring it up to King-of-Broadway-size. "I had a craftsman carve all that intricate stuff and match it and make it bigger. The chandelier didn't have those crystals. It was all painted gray, but we scratched it and saw that wonderful bronze.

"Jerry would never have thought of doing something like that, although" — the idea seems to suddenly enter her head — "he did buy me some original Cats costumes once. They were being auctioned off for Broadway Cares, and he brought me home two of them: the Siamese and the very sleek cat with the stripes."

Other little theatrical bric-a-brac around the apartment include 15 Tony Awards, which line the shelves of the Schoenfeld study in no particular order — plus a lonely Olivier Award (for Heroes, a Tom Stoppard-Gerald Sibleyras play that arrived on these shore Off-Broadway). On the wall is a bronzed replica of a full-page New York Times ad: "In memory of Jerry Schoenfeld," it reads. "They ran that the day after he died, the only time they've done such a thing. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving."

Schoenfeld (right) and Hal Prince

The study served as a kind of office-away-from-the-office for Schoenfeld. "He never walked into this house, no matter what time of the day or night we got home, that he didn't go into his study or the kitchen to do some work that he didn't have a chance to do during the day. Some nights, he'd come in, drop his bag and go back to the office.

"He liked making the theatre rounds. Little showgirls would come off the stage. 'Hi, Jer. Where've you been?' Sometimes we'd be together, and they would come up and kiss him on the lips. I'd say, 'Jerry, not nice,' and he'd say, 'Well, what do you want me to do?' I'd say, 'Turn your face.' But they didn't bother me, really. He loved smart women. I'll tell you who he was really in love with: Jessica Tandy. He loved Jessie."

The secret of their 58-year marriage was the parallel universes they juggled: he had his world (work), and she — very much at his encouragement/insistence — had hers (pottery and photography). "Jerry was very outgoing and very charming, but he liked to work alone. That's why he encouraged me so much to do my own thing."

Schoenfeld with Hugh Jackman
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Al Hirschfeld's caricature on the book's cover catches Schoenfeld's jovial, avuncular exterior while, considerately, keeping his private demons and depressions at bay.

"He probably wouldn't have liked the caricature just because he wouldn't have wanted his picture on the book. I'm not even sure he would have gone for 'Mr. Broadway,' either. It wasn't that he was shy — he certainly wasn't that — but he didn't like to call attention to himself. Believe it or not, we couldn't find a picture of Gerald Schoenfeld alone. He was always with somebody. Any of the pictures that the archives had, any of the pictures that I had — he was always with somebody."

Well, there is one picture. "Jerry needed some press photos made, so he says to me, 'Since you're so involved in photography, who's going to take them?' I knew Robert very well so I said, 'Robert.' Robert turned out to be Robert Mapplethorpe, and the resultant shot was intensely dramatic and artful. "I just had it framed after he died because Jerry wouldn't let me put it up while he was alive."

Pat Schoenfeld

A wife with style, dignity and contained elegance, Pat Schoenfeld never expected to wind up Broadway royalty. At the outset, Jerry was just the boy next block. "We lived on West 78th Street, between West End and Riverside, and Jerry lived on 79th Street and West End. We were neighborhood kids. He was in my sister's group. I used to see him on the subway, going down to law school."

Her love of theatre began at home and with her very first brush with Broadway, The Barretts of Wimpole Street with Katharine Cornell and Brian Aherne. In time, Jerry took a sharp theatrical turn, entering the sacred Shubert fold via the law office of William Klein. A Shubert family feud (Lee vs. J.J.) was in full swing, requiring some artful dodging of bullets, and the next generation of Shuberts — a bigamist, a litigious opportunist and a drunk — was no month in the country, either. When the dust cleared, circa 1972, Schoenfeld and Jacobs were the last men standing.

"Betty Jacobs and her kids, me and my daughter, Carrie — we are the only ones who lived through those first years. I was asked, 'Do you think Jerry was a little harsh in the book?' I said, 'No, I don't. I lived through it. I knew every word of it.' It was awful. The only way we could get through it was — I don't know, we were very young."

As Schoenfeld grew with the organization, so did his pay and his perks. "When Jerry was first there, we would not go to openings. I would say that started in the '60s. I think Becket with Laurence Olivier may have been our first opening night."

She doesn't hesitate a beat when asked what was her worst opening night: "Via Galactica! He would never let me walk out so I just sat down in the ladies' room. I'll never forget it. I'd get his list of opening nights from Madeline from the office, and I'd say to him, 'Do you really have to go to such-and-such?' 'Pat, I have to go.'"

Ironically, Schoenfeld's last night out on the town was not spent at a play but at a movie, "Australia," which starred The Boy From Oz. "I'm still very close to Hugh Jackman, very close. He adored Jerry and still does" — and it shows in the affectionate foreword he contributed to the book. (Alec Baldwin seconds that, too.)

"On the way home from the movie, Jerry said, 'Do I have anything to eat?' I said, 'Tuna fish.' It was pouring down rain, and we didn't want to go to the party. He went into the kitchen, and I went on my email and saw an email from my granddaughter that she'd gotten an accolade from her college. I printed it out, took it in to Jerry, and said, 'Don't forget to call Julia tomorrow morning and congratulate her.' 'Don't worry, don't worry,' and I went to bed. He was doing his work. In the middle of the night, he woke and didn't feel well. He always said, 'They'll take me out feet first.'

"He was really just this small moment in the history of The Shuberts — consequently, everything went to the archives," she lightly laments. "I used to say to him, 'You know, I'll have to leave in my will that my grandchildren and great-grandchildren can go to the archives to see their grandfather. Now, they can go to this book."