In the spring of 1995 I had the opportunity to present Playbill Online to the members of ATPAM, the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. Since 1928 this organization has represented theatrical press agents working on Broadway and off. Getting the theatrical community to take the web seriously was a tough sell. Shirley Herz had set up this meeting to present the potential of the web as a marketing tool; I was using Shirley’s office for press on several off-Broadway productions I was producing and general managing. While my recollection of the events of that meeting are blurry, one thing I do remember is legendary press agent Merle Debusky.
While I don’t specifically remember Mr. Debusky’s exact response, I do recall thinking to myself that he was a man who could recognize a powerful tool when he saw one. He asked several questions and then nodded appreciatively as I answered them.
In his latest book, my former co-worker at Playbill, Robert Simonson, has written a thoroughly engaging, page-turning book about the life of Merle Debusky called “The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debusky”; the title refers to an affectionate moniker given to Debusky by a fellow press agent. Debusky led an exciting life that had its humble beginnings living as the son of an immigrant Jew in a segregated community in Baltimore. Before retiring in 1986 Debusky would become an all-star athlete, a soldier in WWII and one of the pioneering forces behind the New York Shakespeare Festival, now better-known as The Public Theatre. Debusky worked on some of the most legendary Broadway shows of his day, including: The House of Blue Leaves, Dreamgirls, A Chorus Line, Ballroom, Dancin’ and The Sisters Rosensweig.
If there is one thing that theatre folks love, it’s a good story; Simonson’s book is full of good stories. The “characters” in these stories are some of Broadway’s patriarchs and myth-makers, including: Bernard Gersten, Gerald Schoenfeld, Bernard Jacobs, Mike Todd, Jed Harris and Joe Papirofsky, also known as Joe Papp.
I took this book with me on vacation because I was midway through it and just couldn’t put it down; I loved this book.