New Shubert duo making safe bets

Co-CEO's are steady act on Broadway

With its Dec. 2 announcement that Philip J. Smith and Robert E. Wankel would become the new co-CEOs, the Shubert Organization signaled its embrace of stability in uncertain times.

Despite industry speculation about outsiders who might be brought in to run the company after the Nov. 25 death of Gerald Schoenfeld, the pair ultimately seemed the most likely choices in an industry that often puts a premium on tradition and history.

Smith and Wankel are longtime Shubert vets, but their co-ascendance carries on tradition in another sense: It mirrors a time when another duo — Schoenfeld and his late co-topper, Bernard B. Jacobs — took control of the Shubert Org in the 1970s.

Then, as now, Broadway was struggling with economic uncertainty. Investors are becoming more cautious, and in January, a raft of shows will shutter in what some suspect marks the beginning of an epidemic of dark theaters.

“I’m sure we’re going to put our own stamp on things, but I don’t think there should be any drastic changes,” Smith says. “Jerry ran a tight ship.”

The Shubert Org owns or operates 17 of the 39 theaters on the Rialto and has co-produced a string of stage offerings.

As owners of the largest number of Broadway theaters — ahead of the Nederlander Org, with nine venues, and Jujamcyn with five — Shubert is generally considered in a strong position.

“The power in this industry is in the hands of the realtors,” says Emanuel Azenberg, the vet producer (“The Odd Couple,” “The Iceman Cometh”) gearing up for 2009 revivals of Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound.”

Also bolstering the Shubert Org’s standing is its ticketing division, which operates Telecharge, the dominant Rialto box office service. The sole shareholder of the org is the Shubert Foundation, a private entity that doles out coin in support of nonprofit legit and dance companies, valued at more than $300 million.

Still, landlords are not immune to economic woes.

“If this economy means dark theaters, the three theater operators will start scrambling for product and getting in each other’s way,” says Elizabeth I. McCann (“Hair,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”), who last season co-produced the Broadway transfer of “Passing Strange” with Schoenfeld and the Shuberts. “They’ll need leaders with the skill and talent to get the right projects in the right theaters at the right time.”

Like the Schoenfeld-Jacobs pairing before them — and like the nation’s new top exec — the duo have their work cut out for them.

“Not unlike Barack Obama, they’re inheriting a tough economy,” says Nancy Coyne, head of Broadway ad agency Serino Coyne.

Smith had been prexy of the Shubert Org since 1996, while Wankel, who has worked with the Shuberts for 33 years, was previously exec VP and chief financial officer.

Both men share the title of co-chief executive officer, with Smith as chairman and Wankel as prexy.

They are well-liked in the industry, and no one seems to doubt they have the intelligence and the chops to handle the gig. Neither, however, has yet cultivated a public persona like Schoenfeld, whose friendly civility was a fixture along the Main Stem.

Schoenfeld and Jacobs are generally credited with rejuvenating the industry in the 1970s. They did so in part by becoming an unorthodox combination of producer and landlord, co-producing and investing in several of the shows in Shubert venues.

Over the years they were involved, in various capacities, in such milestone productions as “A Chorus Line,” “Cats,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Dreamgirls” and “Sunday in the Park With George.”

More recently, Schoenfeld co-produced and championed shows including “Amour” in 2002 and last season’s “Passing Strange.”

Jacobs, who died in 1996, had a rep as the one with his eye on artistic concerns, while Schoenfeld, the org’s public face, concentrated more on landlord issues.

But those who worked with Schoenfeld say that divide was not absolute.

“To say ‘Oh, Jerry just ran real estate’ undervalues his talents in the creative area,” McCann says. “Because of the length of time he was around, he had experience in so many areas. I don’t know anyone who has as well-rounded a background as Jerry did.”

Schoenfeld joined the Shubert Org in 1957 as its primary lawyer, with Jacobs coming aboard soon thereafter. Following a period in the 1960s when the company struggled under Shubert family leadership, Schoenfeld and Jacobs unseated Lawrence Shubert Lawrence to take over as heads of the company in 1972.

Schoenfeld also is remembered as an integral force in the rehabilitation of Times Square, pushing to clean up an area that had become a seedy porn kingdom and helping it become the glittering tourist mecca it is today. In addition, he was a strong supporter of arts education, including the creation of a “Blueprint for the Arts” curriculum for New York City schools.

With the promotion of Smith and Wankel, the mantle passes to two men who spent years working closely with Schoenfeld.

Smith says the Shuberts will continue to produce, but hasn’t indicated whether he and Wankel will divide creative and business duties as Schoenfeld and Jacobs did.

There also likely will be some shuffling of staff in the wake of the promotions, according to Smith.

Few in the industry foresee the changeover heralding much disruption over at Shubertville. But in confronting persistent economic worries, it’s not yet clear how much Smith and Wankel will follow the model hammered out by Schoenfeld and Jacobs.

Smith himself offers no specifics, likening the economy to a bouncing ball that keeps changing direction. “We’ll stay on top of it,” he says.

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