Arthur T. Birsh, during whose 50-year publishing career a half-billion Playbills were graciously handed out by Broadway’s ranks of ushers, died April 14, 2021, at his home in Key Largo, Florida. He was 88.
His death, following a short illness, was announced by his wife, Joan Alleman Birsh, Playbill’s retired editor-in-chief, and his son, Playbill President and CEO Philip S. Birsh.
In his long tenure at the company, Arthur T. Birsh’s job titles included publisher, president, chairman, and chairman emeritus. He started work for Playbill in 1961 as manager of the magazine’s printing plant in Manhattan, a few avenues west of the Broadway theatres, and upheld the reputation of Playbill, established around 1884, for never missing a performance. Not long after his hiring, the company’s owner promoted Mr. Birsh to overseeing all the aspects of publishing Playbill.
Although his own theatre career was limited to summer-stock operettas in his youth, at Playbill he became a respected and beloved citizen of the theatre community, not least for his generous, witty, diplomatic way of doing business and his tenacious belief that Playbill could be available to serve all shows and audiences, some of the proof being that press-shy stars on Broadway, including Elizabeth Taylor, would happily consent to an interview for Playbill.
In his mid-career, Playbill was acquired by Metromedia, a Fortune 500 conglomerate that soon decided it liked Mr. Birsh's mind for management and his talent for solving problems and made him a corporate second-in-command, assigning him an assortment of company divisions to run or repair, including Playbill. While working for Metromedia, he flew around the country dealing with business issues in third class mailings, country music, mass-transit advertising, and more, but Metromedia was a good fit neither for him nor for Playbill. In 1973, they both left Metromedia, and Mr. Birsh realized his dream of becoming Playbill’s sole proprietor.
Jujamcyn Theaters Executive Vice President Emeritus Paul Libin, whose relationship with Mr. Birsh dates back to the late ‘50s, said, “Arthur was a great pal, a great supporter of the theatre. From the day he bought Playbill, the company was transformed, absolutely, unquestionably, always making sure that the programs were there. Always innovative, extraordinarily accomplished, very aggressive about his fulfillment as the Playbill boss. He was a great supporter of The Actors Fund, and all the things that make our industry special. He was just one of the great guys of our theatre, an extraordinary man, innovative, adventurous, and a great loss, obviously. Happily, his son has carried on his wonderful business.”
When Mr. Birsh purchased Playbill, it was a particularly lean time for Broadway and the American theatre. Week after week, a number of Broadway houses stayed dark (without a show either running or booked to move in). Producers considered British musicals and plays to be their best investments. Mr. Birsh and his editor-in-chief, Joan Alleman, scrambled to keep Playbill going, as the cultural desire for live theatre seemed to be dimming out.
Then, as Mr. Birsh often recalled, came 1975's A Chorus Line, an entirely American musical that was itself about the very hard work of the theatre. It reignited a sense that theatre can be electrifying and important (it both launched one of the all-time great pop ballads and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama). Audiences filled the Shubert Theatre, eventually for over 6,000 performances, and advertisers filled Playbill to be a part of the excitement, and, on the whole, they stayed.
Nonetheless, Playbills themselves were still mostly produced using increasingly antiquated typesetting, platemaking, and printing equipment in the company’s relocated printing plant in SoHo. Mr. Birsh took pride in relying on older technology, that had so firmly established the way Playbills looked, believing that to change the machinery could change a part of the theatregoing experience. Also behind the enduring look of Playbill were theatrical union contracts stipulating that every show had to provide its attendees with the names and short bios of its cast, stage managers, and creators. While in 1978 the New York Times had shut down and discarded its rows and rows of loud, clanking Linotype machines, fed with molten lead, Mr. Birsh’s were still running 15 years later.
Joan Alleman and Arthur Birsh were married in 1983, and in 1984, they led the celebration of Playbill’s centennial (although 1884 was not definitively the year of its founding). Amid a series of festivities, the Museum of the City of New York mounted a commemorative exhibition. Mr. Birsh had, in a way, taken his enterprise back to its origin: a family business serving the leading New York theatres, which at that moment were, essentially, still family businesses: the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, and the Jujamcyn (Binger family) group.
Nederlander Organization President James Nederlander told Playbill, “Arthur Birsh was a visionary, who was a friend and a man of his word. Playbill plays a role in theatre all over the country.”
The Actors Fund President and CEO Joseph P. Benincasa added, “He was a prince and so good to me when I started at The Actors Fund. He was gratefully direct, and that was a big help. … He understood The Fund’s financial position better than anyone and appreciated its emotional role in the community.”
Arthur T. Birsh was born October 6, 1932, in Englewood, New Jersey, to Abraham Solomon Birsh (called “A. S.”) and Mary E. (Levinsohn) Birsh. His British-born father was a garment industry executive and a U.S. Army veteran of World War I. His mother, herself the daughter of a garment factory owner, passed along to her son her wit, warmth, capacity for organization, and a weakness for canny sayings and jokes that led to a nugget of wisdom for a punchline.
He was raised in Mount Vernon and, later, Scarsdale, New York. He was drawn by his nature to tools, building, and fixing things and was somewhat put off by schooling and nearly all shows of solemnity. He graduated from the Lawrenceville School and Yale College (class of 1954). After college he enlisted in the Army and served his nation for two years by doing clerical work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
While still serving, Mr. Birsh married Judith C. Rosenberg of Passaic, New Jersey (Vassar College, class of 1957), and after the birth of their first son, Andrew, moved to Dutchess County, New York, where Mr. Birsh was trained in printing sales at Western Publishing in Poughkeepsie and his wife finished her undergraduate degree. Around the time their son Philip was born, Mr. Birsh went out on his own and opened Cross Roads Press, a printing business, in Hyde Park. The failure of this endeavor was a fine example of how much a first-rate businessman can learn from a never-to-be-repeated series of mistakes.
It was then that he started his real career, at Playbill, and moved his family down the Hudson to the Riverdale section of the Bronx. His daughter, Joanne Hope, was born during his early years with the company.
By the early 1990s, Mr. Birsh began a process of entrusting his responsibilities at Playbill to son Philip, who brought the company into the world of advancing technology, set up its lively presence on the internet, and managed a vast expansion of the company’s services by replacing a counterpart, Stagebill, to publish programs for leading performing arts centers, concert halls, and opera companies, as well as for prominent regional theatres, and touring Broadway show destinations in many U.S. cities.
Arthur, a very early adopter of both the home computer and working from home, advised, strategized, and shared his wealth of experience with his successors at Playbill and gradually shifted full-time to what he called “pursuing joy” with Joan, his extended family, and a large cast of friends. He wrote private memoirs, interspersed with sayings and jokes, and had them printed and bound for his intimates.
Pursuing joy always included being a member of live theatre audiences, on Broadway and away from Broadway, and, for four years, until 2020, he volunteered as a producer, along with Joan and some friends, of annual one-night appearances by Miami’s Zoetic Stage company at the cultural center near their home in Key Largo. They sat in the front row, as the evening’s crowd read special-edition Playbills, and still thrilled when the houselights went down and the show started.
"Our father was a very special man who touched countless lives with his caring, insightful, and timely advice. He was a great mentor to me and helped me understand so many aspects of business, human nature, and life. I will think of him every day,” said son Philip.
“It’s hard to put into words just how special our relationship was, heightened even more in the last five years of his life when we could include talking shop about Playbill and the theatre. As a grandchild, I was incredibly lucky to have him in my life for as long as I did, and I am so thankful for that. I will always feel honored, humbled, and incredibly fortunate to carry on the legacy he set out for us," added grandson Alex Birsh, Playbill Vice President and COO.
In addition to Joan, Andrew, Philip, Joanne, and his former wife, Judith, he is survived by his stepsons Tom and Andrew Rubin, his brother-in-law Richard Alleman, and six grandchildren and four step-grandchildren: Alex, Mark Plakotoris, Neena Plakotoris, Charlotte Birsh, Nikolai Birsh, Abby Birsh, Stephanie Rubin, Kevin Rubin, Isabel Rubin, and Henry Rubin. His other immediate survivors are his sisters, Claire Kroll, an author and television writer, and the Broadway and film director-choreographer Patricia Birch.
Donations in his memory would be gratefully received by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, The Actors Fund, and Zoetic Stage.