Philip J. Smith, a power on Broadway, is dead at 89

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Philip J. Smith, a power on Broadway, is dead at 89
From left: Robert Cole, Philip Smith, Robert Wankel, and Frederick Zollo of Shubert Organization in New York, Nov. 19, 2009. Smith, chairman of the powerful Shubert Organization, whose empire of Broadway theaters and showcase productions made him one of New York’s most influential real estate and cultural entrepreneurs, died on Friday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 89. Chad Batka/The New York Times.

by Robert D. McFadden

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Philip J. Smith, chairman of the powerful Shubert Organization, whose empire of Broadway theaters and showcase productions made him one of New York’s most influential real estate and cultural entrepreneurs, died Friday in a Manhattan hospital. He was 89.

A statement released by Shubert and his daughters, Linda Phillips and Jennifer Stein, said the cause was complications of COVID-19.

From a baronial suite in Shubert Alley in the heart of the theater district, Smith, a low-key businessman who started as a movie usher, presided for more than a decade over the nation’s oldest and largest theatrical company, an archipelago of 17 Broadway theaters, many of them historic landmarks; six off-Broadway stages; and other properties, including a theater in Philadelphia.

For much of his six-decade Shubert career, Smith was the protégé of the creative giants Gerald Schoenfeld, the chairman, and Bernard B. Jacobs, the president. They were widely credited with reviving a moribund Broadway — and Shubert too — in the 1970s with hits like “Pippin,” “Equus“ and “A Chorus Line,” the 1975 Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that ran for 15 years.

In those days, Broadway theaters shared Times Square with prostitutes, derelicts and sex shops. But as crowds flocked to “Cats” (1981), “The Phantom of the Opera” (1988) and other hits, the scene became the family-oriented entertainment district that it is today. Schoenfeld and Jacobs expanded Shubert’s role as few theater owners had before, investing in shows they presented and often producing or co-producing them.

After 17 years as executive vice president, Smith became Shubert’s president when Jacobs died in 1996 and its chairman when Schoenfeld died in 2008. He also became chairman of the Shubert Foundation, the largest private funder of nonprofit theater and dance companies in America.

Robert E. Wankel, who succeeded Smith as president, had been Shubert’s co-chief executive officer with Smith from 2008 until June, when Smith retired and was named chairman emeritus. Wankel at that point was named chairman and chief executive.

In contrast to the showman Schoenfeld and the more reserved and artistic Jacobs, Smith was a detail-oriented businessman who worked largely behind the scenes during their heyday. After succeeding them, he continued to play the hidden hand, negotiating booking contracts with producers and labor contracts with theatrical unions.

But like his mentors, he also began to wield enormous power over Broadway’s offerings, deciding which musicals, dramas and comedies millions of theatergoers would see in Shubert theaters each season, fixing their venues, setting ticket prices and determining when each show would open and close.

Privately held, Shubert does not report finances, but its reach and Smith’s influence were undoubted. As the owner of 40% of Broadway’s 41 theaters, the organization had hefty shares of their audiences and revenues of about $1.5 billion before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the industry for most of last year and into this one.

Shubert also contributed a major share of the $12.5 billion that Broadway generated yearly to the city’s economy, including production costs, ticket prices, tourism and ancillary spending, according to the Broadway League, the industry trade group.

Smith joined Shubert in 1957, and 60 years later he recalled his first day on the job as the box-office manager of the Imperial Theater, a 1,400-seat musical venue on West 45th Street.

“Frank Loesser’s hit, ‘The Most Happy Fella,’ was playing,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2017. “The show was about a May-December romance. It was nearing the end of its run, and by the time ‘Jamaica,’ with Lena Horne, replaced it, I had been moved to the box office of the Majestic Theater. Ethel Merman was playing there in ‘Happy Hunting.’”

Rising through the ranks to general manager of all Shubert theaters in 1970, Smith made a midcareer name by devising new ways to sell tickets to Broadway shows. With American Express, he introduced the use of credit cards for ticket sales in 1971. He was then instrumental in helping Anna Crouse, a former actress, establish the discount TKTS booth in Duffy Square in 1973. (She died in 2014.)

Victoria Bailey, executive director of the Theatre Development Fund, recalled in 2013: “Phil Smith was there from day one, working with Mayor Lindsay and the Parks Department to get the construction trailer that became the first TKTS booth, complete with four ticket windows. It seems only fitting that 57.5 million admissions later, as we prepare to celebrate the 40th anniversary of TKTS, we tip our hat and give thanks to one of its greatest boosters.”

Named Shubert’s executive vice president in 1979, Smith became the architect of the organization’s computerized ticketing and seating system, which was made available to all Broadway theaters. In the 1980s, with Wankel, he helped found Telecharge, Shubert’s national ticketing service, which began with phone sales and later incorporated internet sales.

“Before Telecharge, all ticketing was through mail order or sales at the box office,” Smith said. “We started with our own telephone system, six or eight phones in each theater. People called in directly to the theater for tickets. It was an awkward system.”

Smith was a familiar figure on Broadway. “He attended almost every opening night for over 60 years,” Wankel said. “He mingled with the First Nighters and attended the parties at Sardi’s and other places. He knew everybody in theater, and everybody knew him.”

Philip John Smith was born in Brooklyn on July 29, 1931, the eldest of four sons of Philip and Mary (Kilcoyne) Smith, Irish Catholic immigrants. His father was a stove mechanic for Brooklyn Union Gas. Philip and his brothers, Patrick, Thomas and Joseph, attended St. Ambrose School in Brooklyn. (It closed in the 1970s.)

Philip dropped out of Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn in his senior year to work as an usher. It was a fistfight that had led to that first job.

“One day, a friend and I went to the RKO Orpheum Theater after school to see a vaudeville show and a movie,” he told Playbill in 2005. “There was a fight in the balcony and an usher got beat up. I said to to my friend, ‘I bet he won’t be in tomorrow.’ I went to the manager of the theater and asked if he had an ushering job available. He said, ‘Smitty, go downstairs and put on your uniform.’ I took the job, and I’ve never looked back.”

He later became manager of the RKO Palace (now the Palace) in Times Square, a 1,740-seat former vaudeville flagship that was continuing to book live entertainment.

“Eight months after I started at the Palace, I was asked to take Judy Garland and her husband, Sid Luft, on a tour of the theater,” he recalled. “That led to Judy’s record-breaking engagement in 1951. I remember when she first brought Liza” — her daughter — “onstage to perform with her. After Judy, there came a whole series of stars — Danny Kaye, Betty Hutton, Liberace, Jerry Lewis.”

At a party one night in 1957, Smith met Irving Morrison, a Shubert executive, who hired him for the Imperial box office. His career was launched.

He married Phyllis Campbell, a dancer, in 1960 and had his daughters Linda and Jennifer with her. His first wife died in 1994. A second marriage, in 1999, to Tricia Walsh, ended in divorce in 2008. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Smith, who lived in Manhattan, was vice chairman of the Actors Fund and a trustee of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. In 2011, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. In 2015, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and named by the New York Landmarks Conservancy as a Living Landmark.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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