Having relied on Merle Debuskey professionally and known him personally, I was especially interested in reading Robert Simonson’s new biography of him and I was generously rewarded. The portrait in “The Gentleman Press Agent—Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches with Merle Debuskey” (Applause Theater & Cinema Books, an Imprint of Hal.Leonard)) not only does justice to the man and his work but given the many years during which Debuskey was exercising his admirable skills, the book becomes a treasure-trove of behind the scenes information as well as a lively helping of nostalgia for the era and its shows.
The mention of Debuskey and his one-time office in the long-gone Playhouse, a theater on West 48th Street, stirred personal memories. Debuskey was helpful in my getting an office on the same floor, and we saw a lot of each other in those days, as was the case with his staff and then partner Seymour Krawitz. I cite this affirmatively, not for feeling any need for disclosure. Until his retirement Debuskey was a titan among press agents, and I’m hardly the only one who enjoyed knowing him and learned that the best thing about him in relation to work was that one could rely on his integrity, professionalism and appreciation for the finer aspects of theater.
The credits of shows he represented is staggering. Among them were many in which he especially believed, particularly if they had something important to say about our society. Debuskey asserted himself as a person of conscience as well as a skillful publicist. He stood firm against McCarthyism as it affected theater people, among others, and did more than one man’s share of pro bono work to help those under attack.
He could also be candidly acerbic, and as the biography shows, sticking by his principles and his strong desire for independence could result in severing of connections, professional and personal. This is a sad nature of the business of theater, as can be the case in the business world generally. Debuskey ran into situations in which he was disposed of after helping to build the very same institutions that shunted him aside. Simonson delineates these triumphs and disappointments, but through it all—the subtitle word “trenches” says a lot—Debuskey emerged with reputation and integrity solidly in place.
I wasn’t aware of a lot that one finds in Simonson’s account, including Debuskey’s early prowess as an athlete in lacrosse and boxing. Perhaps the combativeness contributed to his mental stamina as a press agent required to be assertive in dispensing advice that a producer may not want to hear. Such a press agent is to be valued above a yes-man, and Simonson gives various illustrations of Debuskey speaking his mind.
The book is brightened by Debuskey’s extensive comments, anecdotes and insights. The theater is rich in lore, and Debuskey as a source for the time covered is invaluable.
The theater and the business of it have changed considerably over the last half century. The old-style producer has been replaced by a battery of people who call themselves producers by way of investment and one can note that any number of shows have a small army of producers listed above the title. By reading this volume one can experience the trajectory of what has happened along the way since Debuskey began his career.
It is always a pleasure to run into Merle and his savvy wife Pearl Somner and discuss shows that we have seen. Somner has had her own career as an actress, dancer and eventually a costume designer, and the book details intriguing aspects of the couple’s relationship.
Among Debuskey’s triumphs: There would not be free Shakespeare in Central Park if not for the battle Debuskey waged along with Joe Papp against Robert Moses, who was opposed to the idea Although later differences with Papp emerged, there is a plaque at the Public Theater acknowledging Debuskey’s important contributions, and the text is reproduced in the book.
I heartily recommend this biography both for what it tells us about the “Gentleman Press Agent” and what it reveals about theater history in our time. It’s a brisk, entertaining and delightfully informative read.