“I want to promote Broadway.” That’s Paul Libin, Vice President of the Jujamcyn Theaters and chairman of Broadway Cares/Equity fights AIDS, speaking about his passion—the theater in general and and Broadway, in particular. This past January, Libin, who has maintained a summer home on Gardiner’s Bay in East Hampton with his wife Florence for over 40 years, was appointed to Chairman of The Broadway League, marking an ironic twist in his career that began Off Broadway in 1956 as a gofer working for Jo Mielziner on the musical Happy Hunting with Ethel Merman and Fernando Lamas. He has done it all during his illustrious career and for 30 years was the President of the league of Off-Broadway Theaters. Now, as the Chairman of The Broadway League, he wants to get the word out about Broadway, a billion dollar business last year with an expanding 12 million fans on Twitter.
Libin is a charming, down to earth, sort of regular guy who admittedly is “handy.” So handy in fact that as a young man in 1968, when the second contractor he had hired to build his house ran off with a young gal, abandoning the construction job along with his wife, Libin finished the house himself. He acted as sub-contractor/laborer, and with the assistance of Florence and their three children they completed the job. He proudly brought out pictures from that time of him and his son working on the structure. “Everyone pitched in,” he said. And although he looked grumpy in the image, today he was blissfull.
Libin began his professional career in the theatre as an actor. “I was a kid growing up in Chicago, and I was attending the University of Illinois and my interests were in international relations,” he said. “I was always interested in what was going on around the world. My ambition was that I would get involved in some sort of international relations, but I went to see a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman starring Thomas Mitchell as Willy Lowman. After the play, I was waiting in front of the theater with my date. My friend had gone to get the borrowed car, when Mitchell came out on this cold evening with his collar turned up and his hat pulled down. I said, ‘Oh my God Willy Loman is alive,’ and I knew at once that (acting) is what I had to do. I went home and told my mom and dad. And my father, God bless him, kind of chuckled and said ‘a couple of months ago you wanted to be a sailor. You have got to decide what you want to do and do it.’ I said acting is what I have to do. And the first part I got was in a community theater production of Miller’s All My Sons as the next door neighbor and I got the bug.”
Arthur Miller would be a reccurring theme in the unfolding of Libin’s career. Even screen legend Marilyn Monroe, when she was married to Miller, would play a part in his destiny.
Libin began acting with no training, but later transferred to Columbia to study his craft. “They had a theater department where Gertrude Lawrence taught a class, while starring on Broadway in The King and I. I was the recipient of the $500 Gertrude Lawrence acting award in 1951,” he recalled. “I worked in summer stock for three years but at the tail end of the Korean War, I was drafted. In the army I started a theater group in Fort Hood, Texas. And that really defined me. While I was working in summer stock and when I was in the army, I kept coming back on furloughs to New York, where all my friends were making rounds and waiting for things to happen. Well, I decided I would go crazy if I had to wait for things to happen, so I decided to get involved in production.
“The other conclusion I made when I was in the army was to realize that life was much more than just Saturday night,” he continued. “When I got out with the GI bill I finished Columbia. And then I took a lighting class with Eddie Kook, who offered me a job and told me there was always room at the top. But I told him I didn’t want to be involved in lighting I wanted to be involved in production. And he picked up the telephone and called Jo Mielziner, who was a famous designer of the time.”
“Jo interviewed me in his studio in the Dakota. He talked to me for about 45 minutes and then he said ‘when would you like to start?’ And I said right now, and I started working for him. About two or three weeks later Florence asked me what I was getting paid. I didn’t know. She thought it would be a good idea to find out, so the next day I asked Mr. Mielziner. He said I was going to get $40 a week.”
Libin started as a gofer and advanced to stage manager, working with Ethel Merman, who was “a pure professional, but she was also as tough as nails, so you didn’t want to mess with her,” Libin said. “We got along well and she liked me.”
At that time, Libin and some colleagues decided to put on an Off Broadway show, choosing Arthur Miller’s, The Crucible. Libin found a place to do the show and they built a theater there. The show was a big hit. “I signed a lease for 20 years on this space—an abandoned ballroom—and made a theater-in-the-round at 32nd and Broadway, The Martinique, where I did about 10 of my 100 Off-Broadway shows.”
The story about how the play came about is fascinating. When the group approached Miller’s agent about doing The Crucible, she said Miller was going to have to approve the theater.
“Well the guy that had the building was a tough cookie from Brooklyn and said, what do you mean you want to have a theater?” Libin recalled. “You mean like a night club? And I said no a theater-in-the-round.”
But Libin had another card to play. He knew that if Miller came in with his wife, Marilyn Monroe, the building’s owner would go nuts. On the day Miller came to look at the theater, Marilyn was with him.
“I said ‘Oh my God my prayers are answered.’” They went to get the landlord, a “rough kind of guy—when he shook your hand you had to count your fingers to make sure they were all there.” Libin introduced him to Miller and then said, “I would like you to meet his wife Marilyn Monroe.”
“I thought Foreman [the landlord] was going to plotz,” said Libin. “He could hardly lift his hand. By the time I got back to the Dakota, I had a call from Foreman saying let’s make a deal. Marilyn was the clincher. She was very charming and very nice. She had a kind of innocence to her persona yet glamorous and beautiful. She was Marilyn Monroe, very complex.”
Once Libin started producing Off-Broadway, “that was it,” he said The rest was destiny. To date he has worked as a director, lighting designer, technical director, stage manager, managing director, general manger and company manager. He is the recipient of many awards, including seven Tonys. And as Chairman of The Broadway League for the next two years his mission is to make Broadway bigger than ever. For more information on their activities and numerous upcoming events go to BroadwayLeague.com.
By: Patrick Christiano