Broadway theater power headed Shubert org

Gerald Schoenfeld, the longtime chairman of the Shubert Organization and a major influence on the legit biz, died of a heart attack Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.

A friendly man with an air of formal civility that seemed a nod to a more genteel era, Schoenfeld was often referred to as the most powerful figure in American theater. From 1972 until his death, he served as chair of the Shubert Org, which owns and/or operates 17 of the 39 theaters on Broadway plus one venue Off Broadway and others in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Since the 1996 death of Bernard Jacobs, who co-topped the org as its president, Schoenfeld had been the company’s primary leader. He was a key player in determining which shows scored a coveted slot on Broadway.

Schoenfeld and Jacobs are largely credited with helping to pull Broadway out of the slump of the 1970s and 1980s, in part by investing in and co-producing many of the shows that occupied their theaters. In 2005, the board of the Shubert Org named two adjacent Shubert theaters on 45th Street after the men.

“This is a loss for the American theater,” said James M. Nederlander, chairman of the Nederlander Producing Co. of America, which owns nine Broadway venues. “His lifelong dedication to this industry and his position as one of its most celebrated leaders will remain as a testament to his capacity to love and nurture this business.”

During Schoenfeld’s tenure, the Shubert Org was involved, in various capacities, in notable productions including “A Chorus Line,” “Cats,” “Amadeus,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Dreamgirls” and “Sunday in the Park With George.” More recent offerings include “Amour” (a personal favorite of Schoenfeld’s) in 2002, “Passing Strange” last season and “Equus” this season.

Schoenfeld also was a vocal activist on issues affecting the industry: He supported the rehabilitation of Times Square and opposed the 2004 city plan, eventually scuttled, to build a football stadium on the West Side. He was also a strong supporter of arts education, including the creation of a “Blueprint for the Arts” curriculum for New York City schools.

“Gerry Schoenfeld devoted his entire adult life to fight for and preserve these theaters,” said Nina Lannan, the Broadway general manager (“Billy Elliot,” “Mamma Mia!”) who’s also chair of the Broadway League, the trade association of legit producers and presenters. “With his death, we really are seeing the passing of an era.”

Lannan spoke Tuesday morning at a press conference announcing a green initiative for Broadway theaters and producers. The event went ahead with the blessing of the Schoenfeld family.

“Gerry’s massive contributions to our city will be remembered,” said New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the news conference.

Schoenfeld was born in Gotham and received a B.S. from the U. of Illinois and his LLB from the NYU School of Law.

He became the Shubert Org’s primary lawyer in 1957. After the 1960s, when the company faltered under Shubert family leadership, Schoenfeld and Jacobs deposed Lawrence Shubert Lawrence to take over as heads of the company in 1972.

Over the years he became known not only for his gregarious nature but also for his iron will.

“A gentleman in every way, he was also a fair but tough bargainer at the negotiating table,” said Actors’ Equity prexy Mark Zimmerman and exec director John P. Connolly, on behalf of the thesps’ union.

Schoenfeld was no stranger to controversy, including a public spat in 2000 with actor Patrick Stewart about publicity for the Arthur Miller play “A Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” in which Stewart starred. (The hatchet was apparently buried last season when Stewart played the title role in “Macbeth” in the Lyceum, a Shubert theater.)

Even the naming of the Jacobs and Schoenfeld theaters raised eyebrows, as no Broadway venue, often christened in honor of creatives and critics, had previously been named after an exec.

Speculation about who would succeed Schoenfeld as chair of the Shubert Org has long been a topic along the Rialto, although the company and Schoenfeld himself famously kept mum about the topic. Philip J. Smith is currently prexy of the company.

Schoenfeld is survived by his wife, Pat, as well as a brother, a daughter, a son-in-law and two grandchildren.

He died shortly after attending the New York premiere of the pic “Australia,” starring Hugh Jackman, who got to know Schoenfeld during his tenure toplining “The Boy From Oz” during the 2003-04 season.

“Broadway’s lights will never shine quite as bright with him gone,” Jackman said. “This is a great loss to the theater community and beyond.”

The marquee lights of Broadway were to be dimmed Tuesday evening in memory of Schoenfeld. Funeral arrangements will be private, and a memorial service is being planned for a later date.

(Sam Thielman contributed to this report.)

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