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Jacobs, Bernard B.

Jacobs, Bernard B.

(b. 13 June 1916 in New York City; d. 27 August 1996 in Roslyn, New York), lawyer and president of the Shubert Organization, the largest theatrical firm in the United States.

Bernard Jacobs was born in the neighborhood of Harlem, then largely Jewish, to Russian-Polish Jewish immigrants. His father and grandfather worked on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the woolen waste business. Jacobs and his two older sisters and brother were raised in an Orthodox home, and his father was president of the leading Jewish-Polish synagogue in Harlem. Although not religious, Jacobs was active in Jewish organizations and philanthropies throughout his life. He attended New York City Primary Schools 10 and 184. His family moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan when he was thirteen. He attended DeWitt Clinton High School, graduated from New York University’s Bronx campus in 1937 and received a law degree from Columbia University in 1940. He then went to work with his brother as his partner in a general law practice that mainly represented jewelers.

During World War II, Jacobs was sent to the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ electronics school at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he became an expert in VHF, or Very High Frequency, a fighter command control system. He then shipped to the South Pacific to help operate VHF equipment, but because there was no VHF equipment where he was stationed, he worked as a cryptographer and company clerk for three years in Australia.

After the war, Jacobs returned to work with his brother. He married Betty Shulman in 1946. They moved from Manhattan to Roslyn, Long Island, and had two children. The Jacobses helped organize the first synagogue in Roslyn. They would return to Manhattan in 1980.

In 1958 Gerald Schoenfeld, the younger brother of one of Jacobs’s closest college friends, invited him to become his partner as house counsel to the powerful Shubert Organization, which owned and operated sixteen theaters in New York and others in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles. In March 1958 Jacobs joined Schoenfeld in a partnership that was to last for nearly forty years.

Although from 1958 until 1972, Jacobs and Schoenfeld were the lawyers for the Shuberts, they were deeply involved in the day-to-day operations of the business. Both J. J. (Jacob J., the surviving Shubert brother) and his son and successor, John, worked closely with their attorneys. After John died suddenly in 1961, a distant relative, Lawrence Shubert Lawrence, Jr., took over the organization. Lawrence was an alcoholic and erratic, so Jacobs and Schoenfeld were, in effect, running the business. In 1972, with the help of the Shubert board of directors, they ousted Lawrence. At that time, Jacobs became president, and Schoenfeld chairman, of the largest and most powerful theater organization in the country. They disbanded their law firm in 1978.

Despite its influence and reach, the Shubert Organization in 1972 was close to bankruptcy, and Broadway was in decline. Denied a credit line from Morgan Guaranty Bank, which considered theater properties too specialized and theater productions to be speculative, Jacobs and Schoenfeld realized they needed to make major changes. Among other innovations, they computerized the box office operations and used television and radio advertising, which had not been done in the past. Most significantly, as Jacobs said in an interview in 1993, “When we became the controlling forces, we resolved that if you’re not involved in production, you’re going to have a lot of dark theaters all of the time.”

Pippin, produced by Stuart Ostrow, was their first success, opening at the Imperial Theater in October 1972 and closing in June 1977. In 1975 Jacobs saw the off-Broadway production of Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival. Spotting a hit, he arranged for the production to move to the Shubert Theater. It opened in October 1975 and ran nearly fifteen years, the longest run of a Broadway show up to that time.

In the 1980s, buoyed and financed by the success of A Chorus Line, the Shubert Organization produced or housed a string of commercially successful musicals, from Cats at the Winter Garden Theater, which opened in October 1982 and passed A Chorus Line’s long run record (before finally closing in September 2000), to The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, and Miss Saigon. They also produced many less commercial but critically praised works, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glenn Ross by David Mamet, Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim, and The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein.

From 1961 until his death, Jacobs led all union negotiations for the League of American Theaters and Producers. During that time there were no strikes. He believed strongly that people were entitled to decent working conditions, a pension, and a fair wage. Management accused him of “giving away the store,” but he was chosen to lead negotiations year after year. He was awarded a lifetime membership card from the Stagehands Union in 1992, the first person in management ever to receive this honor.

Although dour in appearance, Jacobs was warm and generous. He spoke bluntly and honestly and was respected for his integrity. Michael Bennett, creator of A Chorus Line and Dream girls, considered him a father figure. His contributions to the theater were significant: He was an adjunct professor of theater at Columbia University and the Yale School of Drama for many years; he initiated a program with New York City public schools to bring students to Wednesday matinees; and the philanthropic Shubert Foundation, under his presidency, gave millions in unrestricted grants to regional theater and arts organizations.

In 1986 Jacobs was diagnosed with global transient amnesia, an almost total but temporary loss of memory. For the next ten years there were rumors that his health was deteriorating, but he attended performances and remained active with the Schubert Organization and Foundation. In 1994 he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame. He died at Saint Francis Hospital in Roslyn, New York, of complications following heart bypass surgery. A tribute was held at the Majestic Theater on 15 October 1996, and he was posthumously awarded the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award for lifetime achievement in 1997.

As president for more than forty years of the largest and most powerful theater organization in the United States, Jacobs truly shaped American theater and quite possibly saved it. Although many found the crowd-pleasing, techno-fabulous shows of the 1980s and 1990s to be shallow and vacuous, it is clear that Broadway would not have survived without them. Jacobs defended these shows as good entertainment, and millions of theatergoers agreed. At the same time he used the foundation to make sure that quality theater flourished throughout the United States. He believed that all who worked in the theater deserved a living wage and made sure they had it. Jacobs was completely dedicated to the theater and those who made it possible.

There are no biographies of Bernard Jacobs. An interesting interview with Jacobs and Schoenfeld was printed in the Dramatists Guild Quarterly 25 (summer 1988): 13. The New York Times published a two-part series about the company’s unusual tax status (10 July 1994 and 11 July 1994). There are tributes to Jacobs in Daily Variety (28 Aug. 1996), the New York Times (15 Sept. 1996), Theatre Week (16 Sept. 1996), and Newsday (8 Oct. 1996). An obituary is in the New York Times (28 Aug. 1996). On 8 Apr. 1993 Jacobs was interviewed for the American Jewish Committee Oral History Project on Jews in the Theater. The transcript is in the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library. He was also interviewed for the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Archive on 1 Nov. 1995. The videotape is located at the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts Library.

Sara J. Steen

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