What the spectacular but hidden hand of ALEXANDER H. COHEN is doing to Canadian show business

Richard Gehman July 27 1963

What the spectacular but hidden hand of ALEXANDER H. COHEN is doing to Canadian show business

Richard Gehman July 27 1963

What the spectacular but hidden hand of ALEXANDER H. COHEN is doing to Canadian show business

The man above, in the box office of Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, is an American producer so busy he needs two telephones in his car. Largely through his energy, Canadians now see some of the best and nearly all the most spectacular productions of the New York season — and New York depends partly on Canada to keep its ailing theatre alive

Richard Gehman

IT IS AN IRONY of the world of the theatre that the men in it with the most vision, imagination and drive often look more like bankers than entrepreneurs. Richard Rodgers can walk from his house to his office along New York's crowded Madison Avenue without being recognized. People who meet David Merrick, the most prolific producer on Broadway, sometimes called I he Abominable Showman, mistake him for a lawyer, which he was. originally. A stranger meeting Alexander C ohcn at a party might well mark him as a cloak-andsuiter, which is what his father was. Cohen, forty-three, is of medium height with a just - noticeable paunch, short dark hair receding on both sides of an Iroquois fore-

lock, and a face he habitually carries in a semi-scowl.

At the mention of anything having to do with the theatre, this face gradually breaks into a beatific smile, for Cohen is a man so incurably stage-struck that he has been known to travel all the way to Prague, Czechoslovakia, to spend twenty minutes seeing an act that a friend has told him might do well on Broadway.

For a long time Cohen's special form of insanity kept him broke and unsuccessful, but of late it has begun to reward him. He is now well on his way to becoming one of the most notable theatrical figures in North America—a successful producer on Broadway, and a figure of increasing importance to continued overleaf

A billboard of nimm booked into Canada by Cohen—who wa

Some of these Broadway and West End hits were even bigger hits in Toronto. One of them, Becket, drew $100,400 in one week, a world’s record for a dramatic program

Canadian show business as well.

Cohen is now, and has been for the past four years, the man who books all the Broadway attractions into the O'Keefe C entre, Toronto's t h i r t y -1 w o - h u n d r ed - sea t theatrical warehouse. He is the man most responsible for putting Canadian cities on the list of try-out stops for plays and musicals heading for Broadway. During the coming season, the musical version of The Sleeping Prince. now titled The Prince and the Showgirl (but subject to change), by Noel Coward and Harry Kurnitz, will audition in Toronto before going on to New York; so will Wilfrid Hyde White or Robert Morley in The Doctor's Dilemma and Alec Guinness in Dylan, both imports from London;

and so will two of Cohen's own shows, Baker Street, based on the Sherlock H o I m e s stories, and Barman, both musicals.

Cohen is not content merely to use Canada as a crucible. He also uses it as a kind of state bank from which American and British theatrical producers can draw money they need to cash in on their outside efforts. Laurence Olivier in Becket did not break even in New York, where it was a critical success. Cohen suggested to its producer, David Merrick, that it be sent to Toronto. Merrick persuaded Olivier to agree to do five or six additional weeks. The play grossed $100,400 in its Toronto week, thereby showing a profit for its entire North American tour and

setting what the O'Keefe people believe is a financial record for one week of straight drama anywhere, any time. Brendan Behan's The Hostage was losing in New York; Canada pulled it out in the same way. Cohen's New' York presentation of Flanders and Swann in At the Drop of a Hat also lost money in New' York but wound up in the black in Canada.

All in all, Canada has been most fertile ground for Alexander H. Cohen, and will continue to be in the future, although he denies vehemently that he has become, or intends to become, a major figure in the Canadian theatre, such as it is. When I wrote him about this article not long ago, he wrote back. "I wouldn't want to pose as any-

thing I am not. I am a Broadway theatrical producer who also books legitimate attractions into the O’Keefe Centre. I am the same guy who signed Marian Grudeff and Ray Jessel (two Toronto revue writers) to write Barman and also do the score of Baker Street."

This show of modesty, apparently incongruous coming from a man who lives and behaves as grandly as Cohen does, might strike some as poor-mouth posturing. It actually is simple denial, for Cohen does not hesitate to posture with the best when the demands of show'manship dictate, and is not above hiring people to help him posture. "He has overtones of Barnum." the press agent Richard Maney once wrote of him, not entirely spon-

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For a premiere: new chandeliers, champagne in the water coolers

taneously, since he was in Cohen’s employ at the moment of creation. Some of Cohen’s friends agree, and believe that his desire, practically a lifelong one, to produce a musical based on Barnum’s life comes from a secret identification with, or envy of, the legendary producer. The actress Hildy Parks, whose principal role these days is Mrs. Alexander H. Cohen, mused one recent afternoon, “I think Alex may think of the show as kind of a Second Coming

Cohen also identifies with other free-spending, free-swinging, extravagantly hedonistic showmen of the past, such as the original Oscar Hammerstein, Florenz Ziegfeld and Mike Todd. The only way in which he differs noticeably is that he no longer brandishes a cigar, the traditional sceptre of the big-time ballyhooer; at one time he smoked eight Monte Cristo No. Is per day, but now he chews gum because a Toronto doctor told him he was a victim of nicotine poisoning. It is hard to wave a stick of gum imperiously, but Cohen's customary aura of command more than makes up for that.

Like his spiritual ancestors, he does not simply produce and present a show. He regards each production as a gem to be set in a dazzling coruscation of hurrah and elegance. For the opening of At the Drop of o Hut he brought over a troupe of English buskers and had them perform atop the marquee before the show, at intermissions, and afterward. He put the chandeliers in the Golden Theatre into storage and substituted more glittering ones. The water coolers spurted champagne, which he had piped in at considerable cost. When the customers left the theatre they were handed airmailed copies of English newspapers. “His only disappointment,” says Richard Maney, “was that he had planned to envelop the theatre and its accesses and abutments with an ersatz fog so that a proper London atmosphere might validate the opening. He was stayed in this design when the police frowned on its potential for traffic incidents and foul-ups.”

Cohen is equally lavish in his personal life. He lives in what at first appears to be a modest white-frame roadside house in Pound Ridge, New York, but which upon being entered turns out to be a magnificent collection of levels and rooms filled with all-but-priceless antiques. From it he commutes daily by chauffeured Lincoln the fifty-odd miles to New York, arriving in his office promptly at 8 a.m. before any of his staff of twelve has come in (most producers hire staff only when they have plays in production and running, but Cohen keeps his dozen people employed on a year-round basis). Before getting in he will have made a half-dozen telephone calls from the Lincoln, and occasionally will have paused in the midst of one to say apologetically, “Would you mind holding on a min-

ute? My other telephone is ringing.”

A man with two telephones in his limousine is, as one might expect, incapable of making a commonplace utterance in an ordinary way. Last year he took his wife to dinner in New York on the eve of her birthday. On the way to Sardi's, the theatrical restaurant, where his monthly bill is an enduring joy to the management, he led her past the corner of Fortyfifth Street and Eighth Avenue, where previously he had hired men to paint a wall that said HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HILDY.

Sometime after she had recovered from the delighted shock that gave her, Hildy Parks Cohen said reflectively to me, “You know, I think Alex is the last of the Bourbons. Assuming the monarchy ever comes back, they may ask him to take over the throne of France. He has definite Louis XIV tendencies.

“Last week we went to a friend's house in New York for dinner. They had very good steak. Alex asked them where they got it. They said it came from right around the corner. The next day he sent the chauffeur to the market, and we now have $375 worth of steak in our freezer. In fact, he had to buy me a second freezer to hold it all.”

Cohen would have been more at home in The Mauve Decade, as Thomas Beer once described the I 890s. One of these days, he says, he is going to build a theatre in New York that looks the way he feels a theatre should, done in warm reds and rich golds, with lighting fixtures of the finest Victorian cut glass. Possibly as a foretaste of what he will wear when lie arrives there on opening nights, he now goes about in winter in a cashmere coat that cost more than eight hundred dollars, principally because it has a nutria lining.

Cohen is not selfish about his concern for creature comfort. He dispenses it directly to those who make him able to luxuriate in it, i.e. his customers. Out of it has grown his Nine O'Clock Theatre, one of the few innovations Broadway has seen in the last half - century. “Going to the theatre in New York is tiresome,” he explains. “You get involved in traffic,

you get pushed around. One night Hildy and I were at dinner around seven forty, and she said, 'Come on. hurry up. we've got to get a taxi. I said. 'Oh. the hell with it. We’re sitting here, it's nice, we'll have a leisurely dinner, and we'll go to a movie. And that was what we did.

"So then I began to brood about the fact that I. who make my living in the theatre, would rather go to a movie. And I decided to do something about it. which 1 did. The Nine O C lock Theatre curtain goes up at nine, when people can get there comfortably. Its been lucky, this pattern — I've had Flanders and Swann, Yves Montand. Nichols and May. and Beyond the Fringe. Of course, one lousy show and it’s out of business. It will come to a crashing halt until 1 can find something to bring it back again."

Cohen's recklessness with his own money, as well as his genuine enjoyment in seeing that others have a good time when giving it to him. have made him a well-liked figure on his native heath: “The />e\s7-liked," said Richard Maney recently. Maney no longer flacks for Cohen, and therefore is not bound to compose compliments. "He’s refreshing because in a business w'here everybody is crying, you never hear him squawking," Maney added. And Walter Slezak. the actor, told me: "He's one of the nicest, decentest. most honest guys I've ever worked for. I don't know a single person who’s worked for him who hasn't the highest regard. I did a show for him. The First Gentleman, which was not a success. If you are working in a flop it is agony. Alex would come in and say. ‘Don't worry, children, everything w'ill be all right.' "

This affectionate attitude toward Cohen, echoed by everyone who has done business w ith him ( I interviewed more than forty people to write this article, and found not one with anything cruel to say about him), was what caused Hugh Walker, the managing director of the O'Keefe Centre, to bring him to Canada. Walker started out in his business career as an accountant, went into chemical industries and shoe manufacturing, and readily admits that he knew nothing whatever about show business w'hcn he was hired in his present job. “I interviewed a number of producers in New' York, seven or eight of them, and spoke to a great many people to try to find out about those I w'as interviewing, and presently decided that Alex was most qualified to act as our representative for booking shows. He is highly regarded, and he is, of course, just full of energy and enthusiasm, and those are the qualities I was looking for.” The Centre pays ( ohen a flat fee for his services, rather than a commission on the gross of each attraction he books in. Walker will not disclose this figure, but it can be said that it is in excess of twentyfive thousand dollars per year.

Cohen earns every penny of whatever he gets. During the theatrical season just past he flew to Toronto forty times, to London fifteen, to California eight, and to Washington and Boston at least once each every two weeks. He also made several train trips to Philadelphia, plus a number of trips by limousine to New Hope, Pennsylvania, to see his friend and

associate. Michael Ellis, the director of the Bucks County Playhouse. During the summer. Ellis is trying out five new plays, and he and Cohen plan to bring some or all of them to Broadway. next season. ("We'll be lucky if we get one in." Cohen says.)

Ellis and Cohen have been friends for nearly twenty years, but Ellis still shakes his head over Cohen's need to keep moving. "He came up to visit me at my mother's house at Wilkes-Barre. Pennsylvania, for the weekend." Ellis

recalls. "He arrived Friday afternoon at four o'clock, was on the telephone from then until six. and by eightthirty was on his way back to New York. It was too quiet there for him.” When Cohen is not in motion he is telephoning. One day I asked his secretary. a continually harassed lady named Annette Segal, to make a list of his calls. He took calls from twentysix people and made calls to twentytwo. Cohen's telephone bill runs to fifteen hundred dollars a month in

hts office and around two hundred dollars a month at home. He diligently calls back everybody who calls him, whether he knows the caller or not. He also makes a fetish of answering every letter that comes to his desk the same day it comes in.

A man of such panting, ambitious meticulousness, and such flamboyance. might he marked by those lay analysts, including the ones who turn up at parties Cohen throws ("He gives the best parties of anybody in

the theatre," Alfred Drake has said), as a man carrying around boyhood traumas and anxieties. Cohen asserts that this is not so. His boyhood was happy, he says. Born July 24, 1920, he was the son of a man who died when he was four years old. The elder Cohen left his family in comfortable circumstances, and Mrs. Cohen subsequently married a hanker. Cohen went to private schools and on to New York and Columbia universities, which he left w'hen he was twenty.

"1 was not a good book student, but I just loved the stage." Cohen recalls. "I loved spectacle. I just knew I wanted to be in it.” After leaving Columbia in 1940, he heard of a small theatre on Long Island that was vacant. He drove out one afternoon, rented it, ordered it repainted, and more or less as an afterthought began recruiting local actors and third-raters out from New York. The theatre w'as by a railroad track; the curtain could not be raised at the evening performances until the eight forty-one w'ent by. The Barnum already was stirring in Cohen. Ele repainted the place five or six times that summer. He also tried out an original play, The Sainted Scarecrow, and somehow induced Robert Coleman and Burns Mantle, first-string Broadway critics, to come on opening night. They hated it. Cohen recovered gaily and irreverently, and the next day sent them condolence cards. This caused Mantle to write a piece in which he called him a showman, anti from then on Cohen was incurable.

The Long Island venture cost him twenty thousand dollars. Cohen nevertheless moved his company to New York for the fall season, renting (and, of course, repainting) Daly’s Sixtythird Street Theatre and mounting something called Ghost for Sale, an-

other tryout. Louis Kronenberger, writing in the short-lived PM, headed his review' "A Curse Has Been Laid on the Theatre.” Richard Watts, Jr., then working for the Herald Tribune, observed. "The kindest thing I can say about Mr. Cohen’s production is that it took place indoors.” Cohen w'as all but bankrupt after that, but when he heard that Shepard Traube, the producer, needed an additional five thousand dollars to open Angel Street, he managed to turn up with that sum in hand, asking only that he be billed as co-producer. It ran three years, and more or less established him.

Almost at once, Cohen went about trying to disestablish himself. He spent a year in the army, after which he w'as discharged because of a suspicion of Burger's disease, a circulatory ailment. He then returned to Broadway and began to cast about for new shows to produce. His instinct for picking failures w'as unerring. They Shoulda Stood in Bed, Jenny Kissed Me (Jean Kerr’s first play), The Duke in Darkness, The Magic and the Loss, Be Your Age, Make a Wish, Courtin' Time, King Lear and The hirst Gentleman all opened and closed. So did a marriage to Jocelyn Newmark, from which Cohen now has a daughter, nineteen. He and Miss Parks, who were married in 1956, have two sons, six and three.

Though not entirely voluntarily, Cohen was making himself into a legend. Louis Calhern was his Lear; after a performance one night, the late actor asked his friend Harry Kurnitz how he had Iikeel the show'. "Fine," said KLirnitz. “Didn't you hear me laughing?” This became Broadway's attitude toward all Cohen efforts. He and Michael Ellis used to have a running joke that went:

ELLIS: Alex, you like the show?

COHÉN: I love the show.

ELLIS: Oh, God—the kiss of death.

Cohen kept going broke but also kept employed, mainly as public relations man for the late Arde Bulova, the watchmaker. The two w'ere drawn together by their extravagance. "One night we were in Manhattan and wanted" to stay at a hotel but couldn’t get a room.” Cohen recalls. "Arde said, ‘Buy it.’ and next day I bought it for him." In this period Cohen could be seen around town giving away watches to theatre people and other conspicuous types. Occasionally he supplemented his income, as well as his knowledge of the theatre, by companymanaging show's for more successful producers. After leaving Bulova he produced a number of show's for industnal firms, packaged theatrical tours, and served as advertising consultant for various products, including a deodorant. His energy saw' him through until last season, when he hit big at last as a producer, with four solid Broadway successes: Beyond the Fringe. Sir John Gielgud in The School for Scandal. The Ages of Man. and An Evening with Maurice Chevalier — all of which also did well for him in Toronto. As though unable to kick the habit, he also had one flop: Lorenzo, with Alfred Drake.

Cohen would be a rich man today, even if it were not for his highly profitable ventures into Canada. Money now means less to him than it ever did. “I’ve been flat broke five or six times." he says, “and never worried about it. The excitement is what keeps me going." He finds Toronto exciting because the audiences are tasteful and appreciative — and independent. "If Nathan Cohen of the Toronto Star doesn't like a show, they’ll say. ‘Oh, there’s that crank Nathan Cohen again,’ and rush down and buy tickets. The average ('anadian is far more alert and informed on cultural and political levels than the average American. The newspapers are better.” It is for the latter reason. Cohen (Alexander) adds, that he plans to go on using Toronto as a tryout ground. "In Toronto you have three guys who write on the theatre who are very hip, well-informed, firstclass writers and first-class citizens," he says. “Nathan Cohen of The Stalls in my opinion one of the three best critics in North America. Herbie Whittaker ot the G lohe and Mail runs him a close second. Ron Evans of the Telegram has a very keen intuition about what's good and what’s bad. What this means is if you go to Canada with a tryout you're not wasting your time because you can learn something from the critics."

Cohen has big plans tor bringing more new shows to Canada. Hugh Walker of the O'Keefe is mainly in favor ot the new pieces, but his accountant s mind sounds a small chime spf warning. He believes that Canadians would rather wait and see a Play, after it already has been proved a hit — “Unless it's a very big show with very big stars." If this sounds to theatregoers as though Walker may attempt to restrain Cohen, they have the consoling knowledge that nobody and nothing, neither damning critics nor his long string of flops, ever have restrained him in the slightest. ★