Bernard Gersten, for more than half a century a major behind-the-scenes player in New York’s nonprofit theatre world, died peacefully in his sleep April 27. He was 97. Lincoln Center Theatre shared the news on Twitter.
As first the associate producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival under Joe Papp and then as executive producer at Lincoln Center Theater from 1985 until he stepped down in 2013, Mr. Gersten was an unseen leader at what were arguably the two most significant nonprofit theatres in postwar New York history. Along with artistic directors Papp and, at Lincoln Center, Gregory Mosher and Andre Bishop, he helped bring to the stage some of the most prominent and influential productions of the era.
Mr. Gersten was known as a consummate administrator, equally adept at handling artists, currying political favor, and smoothing the feathers of restive board members. Friendly and gregarious, yet smoothly efficient, he could easily charm a board into letting him have his way. Press agent Merle Debuskey, who worked with him for a total of 20 years, first at the New York Shakespeare Festival and later at Lincoln Center, called him “the apogee of what an executive producer should be. He was born to the task. He was a well-grounded stage person...I don’t know anyone who handled a board better than Bernie did. He was personable, affable, highly intelligent, and he related well to all kinds of people.”
He was born January 30, 1923, in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Jacob Israel Gersten, a garment worker, and Henrietta Henig.
Like many of the theatre leaders of his generation, he began his career backstage, working as a stage manager. He was assistant stage manager on the 1945 Broadway staging of Maurice Evans’ famous G.I. Hamlet; he had previously worked with Evans in the Army’s Special Services, bringing the play to troops around the world. Mr. Gersten functioned as stage manager, production manager and general manager on various shows throughout the 1950s, including City Center revivals of Guys and Dolls, South Pacific and Finian’s Rainbow, as well as Mr. Wonderful and Do Re Mi. (His brother Leon Gersten was also a stage manager in the 1950s and 1960s.)
Mr. Gersten first connected with Joe Papp in 1948 at the Actor’s Lab in Los Angeles. They teamed again in New York on one of Papp’s first directing gigs, a trio of Sean O’Casey plays at the Yugoslav Hall in 1951. (Mr. Gersten, like Papp, was once a member of the Communist Party. Those associations caught up with him in 1958, when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee—the same time Papp was called, as chance would have it. He invoked the Fifth Amendment.) In 1960, with the New York Shakespeare Festival well established, Papp brought Mr. Gersten in as an associate producer. By the late ‘60s, he was a permanent fixture at the Festival, a rational, highly competent right arm to the volatile, visionary Papp. “Joe was making the headlines,” said critic Clive Barnes, “but it was in fact people like Bernie who were actually doing the hard slogging work.”
Under the team of Papp and Gersten, the Festival reached its highest heights, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for No Place to Be Somebody and That Championship Season; and sending Tony-winning productions of David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones and the musical Two Gentleman of Verona to Broadway in the early ‘70s. When Papp was inclined to cut loose a forever-gestating idea of director-choreographer Michael Bennett’s called A Chorus Line, Mr. Gersten became the show’s most fervent champion, convincing his boss to support the production. In doing so, the Public became the first non-profit theater in history to fully finance a Broadway transfer and therefore receive 100 percent of the profits. The show became the most famous Festival production of all time, moving to Broadway for 15 years. It filled the Festival’s usually-wanting coffers for years, allowing the company to increase their number of productions in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Eventually, Mr. Gersten’s importance to the Festival drove a wedge between him and Papp. In June 1978, he planned a titanic birthday party for Papp at the Delacorte Theater, inviting hundreds of people. Papp was pleased, but disquieted that such an enterprise could be executed without him knowing about it. Soon after, Mr. Gersten pressed Papp to produce Bennett’s newest work Ballroom. When Papp refused, Mr. Gersten, citing a moral obligation to Bennett—who had given the Public Theater A Chorus Line—said he planned to work on the show anyway. Papp fired him, a move that shocked the theatre community.
Mr. Gersten would later describe the next few years as his time “in the wilderness.” After Ballroom failed, he worked for a time at Radio City Music Hall, and found employment in the office of producer Alexander Cohen. When Papp was diagnosed with cancer, the two men reconciled, with Mr. Gersten even allowing the ailing producer to live in his Manhattan apartment. Papp died October 31, 1991. Mr. Gersten helped to execute the funeral arrangements.
A glorious second act to his career came when he was invited in 1985 to join Gregory Mosher at Lincoln Center Theater as executive director. The theatre arm of the Lincoln Center arts complex, it included the large Vivian Beaumont Theatre. The program seemed jinxed. It had been manned by many different leaders, including Papp. None had managed to make a success out of the venture. But Mosher and Mr. Gersten found a winning formula, transforming it from the theatrical backwater into the leading nonprofit in American theatre, producing from the start a steady string of award-winning and highly polished productions, including significant revivals of John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves, The Front Page, and Anything Goes, as well as the premieres of Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation and David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow. They also abandoned the usual subscription model of selling tickets, opting instead for a membership program in which patrons would pay an initial membership fee and then have the option of choosing which shows they wanted to attend at discounted rates. Mr. Gersten initially opposed the system, which was pushed by Mosher. But it proved a wild success.
When Mosher left in 1991 and was replaced by Andre Bishop, Mr. Gersten—in a rare example of management continuity under different artistic directorship—remained. He and Bishop built on Mosher’s base, producing a polished assortment of musicals, new plays and lush revivals, while upping the number of British imports, particularly productions from the National Theatre and new plays by Tom Stoppard. Bishop brought with him artists he had cultivated at his previous home, Playwrights Horizons, such as playwright Wendy Wasserstein. And downtown solo auteur Spalding Gray was brought into the Lincoln Center fold, performing his works on the off nights of other productions.
Highlights of Mr. Gersten’s time with Bishop included Nicholas Hytner’s London revival of Carousel, which introduced Audra McDonald to the New York theatregoing public; Wasserstein’s The Sisters Rosensweig, which transferred to Broadway; a 1995 revival of The Heiress that transformed Off-Broadway actor Cherry Jones into a bankable Broadway star; Stoppard’s Arcadia, The Invention of Love and the ambitious three-play marathon The Coast of Utopia; Jason Robert Brown’s musical Parade; Susan Stroman and John Weidman’s dance musical Contact; Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza; and the 2008 revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. It was a rare season when Lincoln Center productions were not nominated for Tony Awards.
Critics sometimes carped that the roster at Lincoln Center was too safe and audience-friendly, and didn’t tap deeply enough in America’s deep well of young writing talent. They complained that the main stage was too frequently filled with lavish musical revivals and proven hits from London.
Mr. Gersten always took such jibes in stride, answering with a boyish ebullience he retained even into his 80s.
“I don’t despair of the theatre as some people do,” he said in 2004. “I allow that the end of the theatres may happen sometime in the future, but Doomsday is not imminent. I have worked continuously in the theatre for an extraordinarily long time. I know how unusual that is. It’s hard to earn a living. But I have a core belief that people don’t work in the theatre and hate it.”
He is survived by his wife, Cora, and daughters Jenny and Jilian.