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Bernard Gersten, Offstage Star of Nonprofit Theater, Dies at 97


Bernard Gersten, a canny executive who helped turn two of New York’s nonprofit theater companies into powerhouse producers and presenters of award-winning plays and musicals, died on Monday at his home in Manhattan. He was 97. The cause was pancreatic cancer, his daughter Jenny Gersten said.

Mr. Gersten was Joseph Papp’s top deputy at the New York Shakespeare Festival for 18 years in the 1960s and ’70s, a time when the two worked together to build the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for free summer productions of Shakespeare, and to turn the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street in the East Village into the Public Theater, the original home of such notable plays as David Rabe’s Vietnam drama “Sticks and Bones” and Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, “That Championship Season,” as well as the landmark musicals “Hair” and “A Chorus Line.”

The two men championed the work of Mr. Rabe, Vaclav Havel, Ntozake Shange, John Guare and other playwrights and helped propel the careers of actors like James Earl Jones, Meryl Streep, Martin Sheen and Raul Julia.

For 28 years beginning in 1985, Mr. Gersten was executive producer — the chief business officer, with responsibility for management, marketing and budgeting — of Lincoln Center Theater.

Working first with Gregory Mosher as artistic director and then with André Bishop, Mr. Gersten took a theater that had almost been completely dark for eight years and a failure for 20 and helped turn it into one of the nation’s leading nonprofit stage organizations.

Its successes have included Mr. Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”; “The Sisters Rosensweig,” by Wendy Wasserstein; Tom Stoppard’s vivid intellectual dramas “The Invention of Love” and “The Coast of Utopia”; Tony-winning revivals of “Carousel” and “South Pacific”; the Tony-winning best musical “Contact”; and the Tony-winning play “War Horse.”

Though Mr. Papp was the driven public face of the Shakespeare Festival, many theater people have said that Mr. Gersten was an almost equal partner. The two men were complementary, to be sure, with Mr. Gersten willing to take on the tasks that Mr. Papp hated — accounting, advertising, dealing with agents — and mending the fences that the quick-to-anger Mr. Papp was prone to tear down.

In 1971, after pleading with New York City to help solve the Public Theater’s financial crisis, Mr. Papp stormed out of a meeting with the all-powerful Board of Estimate rather than respond to criticism about the way he ran his theater. Only Mr. Gersten’s swift apology, witnesses said, persuaded the board to approve the city’s purchase of the theater’s building, giving Mr. Papp the relief he had sought.

It was Mr. Gersten who brought the work of the director and choreographer Michael Bennett to Mr. Papp’s attention. Mr. Gersten had seen Mr. Bennett’s work in the Broadway musicals “Follies” and “Seesaw,” and when a musical about Vietnam, “More Than You Deserve,” was struggling in previews at the Public in 1973, Mr. Gersten recommended that Mr. Bennett be brought in to help. Mr. Papp rejected the idea, but not long afterward Mr. Bennett said there was something else he wanted to talk to Mr. Papp about: He had been making some tapes, and he had a crazy idea for a musical.

“And the next day he came down to the theater with the tapes,” Mr. Gersten recalled. “He had been a gypsy, a chorus dancer, and he had taped hours and hours of interviews with dancers just like himself, the kind who would journey from show to show, never become stars, never even get speaking roles. They talked about their lives, their careers, their doubts, their hopes, their frustrations, their desires, their fears, their love of the theater. He played some of the tapes for Joe and said he thought they could be the basis for a musical. He said he needed time to create it and shape it, and wanted to use the Public Theater as a home for a workshop to make it work.”

Mr. Gersten urged his boss to go along with the idea, and Mr. Papp was won over.

The musical, “A Chorus Line,” opened to ebullient reviews on May 21, 1975, and with its move to the Shubert Theater on Broadway, it eventually grossed almost $150 million for the New York Shakespeare Festival. Its 6,137 performances — the last one was on April 28, 1990 — made it the longest-running show in Broadway history until “Cats” surpassed it.

During the run Mr. Bennett died of AIDS-related lymphoma, in 1987.

“The overwhelming point is the shadow that AIDS cast on the show,’’ Mr. Gersten said after its closing-night performance. “It’s so painful to sit there and think of the innocence of the show 15 years ago, when there was no shadow of AIDS, and to the think of the number of people connected with the show who have fallen to AIDS, Michael most notably.’’

Mr. Gersten was born on Jan. 30, 1923, in Newark, N.J., to Jacob and Henrietta (Henig) Gersten. His father was a garment maker and active in his neighborhood synagogue, and his mother was a homemaker.

Bernard graduated from West Side High School in Newark, spent a year at Rutgers University and went into the Army, passing much of World War II in a special services entertainment unit in Hawaii. There he became friendly with a fellow soldier, an actor named Robert Karnes, who after the war invited Mr. Gersten to join his troupe, the Actors Laboratory in Los Angeles, as technical director. Mr. Papp had joined the company a year earlier and become managing director.

The Actors Laboratory was known as a center of Communist Party activity, and in 1948 Mr. Gersten and Mr. Papp campaigned for former Vice President Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president. Both men later left for jobs in New York.

Ten years later, in 1958, Mr. Gersten and Mr. Papp appeared before a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Questioned about past Communist Party membership, they invoked the Fifth Amendment. Mr. Papp was fired from his production job at CBS, although he was later reinstated by an arbitrator. Mr. Gersten, by then working as a stage manager at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., did not lose his job, because Katharine Hepburn, a member of the festival’s board, and the director John Houseman said that if Mr. Gersten were ousted, they would quit.

Two years later, Mr. Gersten joined Mr. Papp as associate producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, beginning an 18-year tenure in which he also helped Mr. Papp run Lincoln Center’s theater company from 1973 to 1977.

In 1978, their partnership ended abruptly in a dispute over whether the Public Theater should co-produce Mr. Bennett’s follow-up to “A Chorus Line,” the musical “Ballroom,” a bittersweet tale of a late-in-life romance.

Mr. Papp didn’t like it. But Mr. Gersten felt that they owed it to Mr. Bennett to be involved because of all the money “A Chorus Line” had made for the festival. Mr. Papp fired him, and even removed Mr. Gersten’s name from the “Chorus Line” credits, restoring it only several years later, when the two men reconciled. Mr. Papp died in 1991. (Mr. Gersten co-produced “Ballroom,” which opened on Broadway in December 1978 and closed in barely four months.)

Mr. Gersten subsequently worked for Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios and the Radio City Music Hall.

Then, in 1985, Lincoln Center’s board, seeking to revive its moribund theater program, chose Mr. Mosher, formerly of the Goodman Theater in Chicago, as artistic director and Mr. Gersten as executive producer. To attract audiences to the center’s two theaters — the Mitzi E. Newhouse, for Off Broadway work, and the Vivian Beaumont, for Broadway — they offered a $25 season membership that allowed members to buy a ticket to any production for $10. In the first three years, they oversaw more than 20 plays and 2,100 performances, including a smash revival of Mr. Guare’s “House of Blue Leaves,” and took in $35 million. Mr. Bishop replaced Mr. Mosher in 1992.

Over all, during Mr. Gersten’s tenure, Lincoln Center Theater produced more than 120 shows, many winning Tony and Drama Desk awards.

In addition to his daughter Jenny, Mr. Gersten is survived by another daughter, Jilian Cahan Gersten; his wife, Cora Cahan, a former dancer who became the founding president of the nonprofit development agency the New 42nd Street and is now the president and chief executive of the Baryshnikov Arts Center; and grandchildren.

In 2010, on the 25th anniversary of his joining Lincoln Center Theater, Mr. Gersten reflected on the nature of theater as having four elements: a building, artists, money and an audience.

“How you mix them, how you adjust them, how you administer them is the secret of success or failure,” he said.

“We have taken a place that was considered to be an impossible theater,” he added, “and made it into the most likely theater one could want for, long for, hope to have.”

Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.

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