Philip J. Smith, who rose from usher to a position in the box office to the top office in the theatre-owning dynasty, the Shubert Organization, died January 15 at the age of 89. His daughters, Linda Philips and Jennifer Stein, have confirmed that his death was due to complications COVID-19.
Mr. Smith began his career as a box office treasurer at the Shubert-owned Imperial Theatre on Broadway in 1957. He was brought into the Organization’s administrative offices in 1965 as Shubert president Bernard Jacobs’ chief aide and steadily rose through the ranks, to vice president and then executive vice president. It was during his tenure in that role Mr. Smith helped usher the company into the digital age and increase accessibility to theatre, including the launch of Telecharge and the opening of the TKTS ticket booths (operated by TDF).
Following the death of Jacobs in 1996, he was named by Gerald Schoenfeld as Jacobs’ replacement. He said at the time that succeeding Mr. Jacobs was humbling. “It’s a very happy moment but a very bittersweet moment,” he told The New York Times. “The loss of Bernie was a loss for me on both a personal and a professional level. On the other side of it, if Bernie were here, I’m sure he would be delighted.”
Asked if he was going to move into Mr. Jacobs’s old office, however, the modest Mr. Smith balked: “It’s too soon for that.”
The Shubert Organization never publicly discussed lines of succession, but it was assumed by most that Mr. Smith would eventually take Schoenfeld’s place at the helm. As expected, after the November 2008 death of chairman Gerald Schoenfeld, Mr. Smith was elevated to the role of chairman of The Shubert Organization, becoming the senior man at the Shuberts. Mr. Smith and Robert Wankel were named co-chief executive officers of The Shubert Organization in December 2008. Mr. Smith was also chairman of the board of The Shubert Foundation until his retirement, which he announced in June 2020, taking the title chairman emeritus.
“The current COVID-19 crisis has pushed the business of Broadway into uncharted territory," he said upon his departure. "It seems an appropriate time for me to step down and turn over my leadership responsibilities to my friend and colleague, [Robert E. Wankel].”
Wankel says Mr. Smith "influenced every aspect of the professional theatre and earned the respect and admiration of everyone—from the stage doormen to the greatest performers and creative talents of our time. He was devoted to his work, his friends, his colleagues, and above all, his family."
Well-liked and respected by the theatre community, Mr. Smith—in contrast to his colleague, the ebullient and gregarious Schoenfeld—was known as a quiet and private man.
Mr. Smith was born July 29, 1931, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and began working in movie theatres while he was a scholarship student at Bishop Loughlin High School. One day, he spied an opportunity for early advancement. “A friend and I went to the RKO Orpheum Theatre after school to see a vaudeville show and a movie. There was a fight in the balcony and an usher got beat up. I said to my friend, ‘I bet he won’t be in tomorrow.’ I went to the manager of the theatre 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.”
After finishing school he became the manager of the RKO Palace—now just the Palace—at 47th Street and Broadway. “Eight months after I started at the Palace,” Smith recalled, “I was asked to take Judy Garland and her husband, Sid Luft, on a tour of the theatre. That led to Judy’s record-breaking engagement in 1951.”
Mr. Smith worked at the Rivoli Theatre’s box office on Broadway for the reserved-seat movie version of Oklahoma!. Later, one evening at a party, he was introduced to Irving Morrison of the Shubert Organization. Morrison gave him a temporary job in the box office of the Imperial. Eventually, temporary became permanent. Mr. Smith’s long career with the Shuberts had begun.
Additionally, Mr. Smith sat on the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors and on the Tony Awards Administration Committee of the Broadway League. He was an active board member for two of the theatre’s most important charitable institutions: The Actors Fund and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Mr. Smith also served as the first vice president of the former. He was a member of the Knights of Malta and the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.
Mr. Smith was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 2011, and in 2015, was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame and recognized as a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.
Mr. Smith was married to Phyllis Campbell from 1960 until her death in 1994 and to Tricia Walsh from 1999 to 2008. In addition to his two daughters, he is survived by sons-in-law Martin Phillips and John Stein, plus grandchildren Grant, James, Kate, Michael, and Peter.