Phil Smith (1931-2020): The Chairman of The Shubert Org . . . and perhaps all of Broadway.
I didn’t know exactly who he was when I first met him.
But I could tell he was a titan.
It was early in my career. I wasn’t even a Company Manager yet. I was still an Assistant. And I was in a Broadway box office signing the nightly performance statement for some show, when in he came. He looked me over, smiled and said something like “Looks like this show is in good hands.”
It was all a wanna-be-theatermaker and wanna-be-mover-and-shaker needed to hear from Phillip J. Smith, the Chairman Emeritus of The Shubert Organization, who passed away yesterday, due to complications from Covid-19. (Yeah, that nasty bug just took another one of our best.)
And here’s the thing . . . those kind of random, steroid shot affirmations didn’t stop coming from Phil over the last twenty years.
While I’d see him at opening night parties, or when I was asking/begging for a Broadway theater, it was the unplanned meetings that I’ll always remember.
And often they were what kept me going.
Like the time he got the invitation we sent to all the Tony Award Voters for Alan Cumming’s Macbeth. Rather than sent the standard invite, we did a little something-something to the invite – made it on burnt parchment paper, dripped “blood” on it, sealed it with wax . . . you know, made it spooooky.
Two days after they went in the mail, my assistant said, “Ken, Phil Smith is on the phone!”
Honestly, my first thought was, “Oh crap, what did I do?” 🙂
I picked up the phone and heard, “Ken! You are a Producer!”
He got the invite. And I think he liked it.
He applauded my crowdfunding of Godspell, when others looked down on it, even telling me stories of Broadway Producers from back in the day that did something similar.
And one day, when I was in that ornate office of his, and I told him my dream was to be one of those Producers who had five shows with my name on them running at once, he bellowed, “YOU WILL BE!”
I don’t know that anyone has ever been that supportive of me in this business. And he was the Chairman of the Mother-Effin’ Shubert Organization.
And it’s not like we were besties or anything. And I’m sure he did this for many of us that he saw come up through the ranks from Assistant Company Manager. Especially since he started from the bottom and worked his way to the most powerful chair on Broadway.
I’ll miss seeing him at opening nights. I’ll miss asking him for the keys to one of his Broadway theaters for one of my shows. Shoot, I’ll even miss him saying, “Sorry, Ken, no theaters available.”
Farewell, Mr. Smith. And thank you. Those doses of your support are part of the reason I’m still plugging away at that dream of mine.
And I promise, I not only won’t stop, but I’ll do what you did for me to the next generation of Assistant Company Managers.
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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.