David Geffen on His Playhouse Turning 20: "I'm Only the Benefactor"
Joe Pugliese

David Geffen on His Playhouse Turning 20: "I'm Only the Benefactor"

The philanthropist mogul is leading the charge to build an endowment for the beloved Westwood theater as Hollywood stars (Chris Pine, Annette Bening) and writers (Beau Willimon) add to the 522-seat venue's industry pedigree. Says David Mamet of what late founder Gil Cates created: It's a "happy oasis in the arid pesthole we know as the entertainment industry."

This story first appeared in the Feb. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Back in 2009, an unheralded playwright named Beau Willimon brought his political drama Farragut North (the basis for the George Clooney film The Ides of March) to Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, after premiering it off-Broadway in New York. A year later, Willimon got a call about a project with similar themes. "I firmly believe that the production at the Geffen very much had to do with me ending up doing House of Cards," says the departing show­runner of the Netflix drama that's garnered 33 Emmy nominations. The production (which co-starred Chris Pine, hot off his first Star Trek outing) sealed Willimon's reputation as a sharp political dramatist. "It kept the play alive in the minds of people in the industry," he says, "who tend to jump from script to script, writer to writer, story to story very quickly."

From a theater that was started out of thin air in 1995 — after David Geffen made a naming-rights gift of $5 million — the Playhouse has worked itself into the fabric of Hollywood, first by luring stars to its stage (including more than a dozen Oscar nominees, from Annette Bening and Laura Linney to Ed Harris and Demian Bichir) and later by launching film careers, working with playwrights who straddle stage and screen, and commissioning new works.

Now, as it celebrates its 20th season, the critically acclaimed nonprofit theater in L.A.'s Westwood is facing challenging market shifts familiar to its entertainment-industry supporters: L.A. suffered a 47 percent decline in the number of professional plays produced from 2004 to 2014, according to a study by the nonprofit L.A. Stage Alliance.

At the same time, the Geffen, which became the only theater of any size on L.A.'s Westside after the 2002 demolition of the Shubert in Century City, doesn't have the area to itself anymore: Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theater opened in Culver City in 2004, Santa Monica's Broad Stage debuted in 2008 and the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts bowed in Beverly Hills in 2013. And like its competitors throughout the city, the Playhouse forever must contend with second-class-citizen status relative to New York when it comes to theater, even as it has sent nine productions to Manhattan, including Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still, which earned two Tony nominations from its Broadway run. "There's a certain amount of elitism that takes hold" among theater critics and cognoscenti, says Margulies, who penned the 2015 film The End of the Tour. "It's a distrust of what is anointed and celebrated in L.A."

But the Geffen's biggest obstacle has been the loss of its charismatic founder, Oscar producer Gil Cates, who died in 2011. Only recently has it fully rebounded, with Cates' son, director and producer Gil Cates Jr., 46, stepping up as executive director, sharing responsibilities for the theater's future with Geffen's longtime artistic director (formerly of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater) Randall Arney. "I always thought Gil Jr. was the answer," says the theater's board chairman, former Paramount chairman Frank Mancuso. "He loves the theater and he has a personal reason to make certain that it will always continue."

The red-brick Mediterranean in Westwood didn't start life as a theater. Built in 1929 by Stiles O. Clements, the architect behind the Egyptian Theater, it originally was the Masonic Affiliates Clubhouse, where students who were freemasons or children of freemasons could socialize. It's also where actor Lloyd Bridges met his future wife, Dorothy, when the two were students at UCLA. After the Bridges family patriarch died in 1998, the Geffen, which almost never leases out the theater for outside events, agreed to hold his memorial there.

By the '60s though, the social life at the clubhouse had become moribund and in the early '70s, a Swedish couple, Donald and Kirsten Combs, purchased the building and opened the Contempo Westwood Center, a seller of imported Scandinavian furnishings. "They loved the theater though," recalls Arney. Within two years, the couple converted the space into the Westwood Playhouse, with a retail twist. "They had furniture in the lobby and they'd try to do plays with two intermissions, so that would give patrons a chance to shop more," says Arney. Shows there included some of Peggy Lee's late-career performances and P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, the last play to star actor Sal Mineo — on Feb. 12, 1976, the Rebel Without a Cause star was stabbed to death by a robber near his West Hollywood apartment after leaving rehearsals for the show.

When Kirsten Combs, who outlived her husband, was ready in 1993 to sell the property, it was Gil Cates who convinced UCLA to purchase it for an estimated $5 million. (The Geffen now rents the building from UCLA for $1 a year.) A beloved Hollywood figure whose résumé included tenures as president of the Director's Guild and as dean of UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television, Cates directed dozens of TV movies and films, including 1970's I Never Sang for My Father, which earned three Oscar nominations. His passion for theater, says his son, dated from his undergraduate days at Syracuse University. "More than producing the Academy Awards, his ultimate dream was to start a theater, and it's super hard to do that from scratch," Cates Jr. recalls. "He really gave it everything."

While the name on the building is Geffen — the mogul whose philanthropic imprint on L.A. spreads from MOCA's Geffen Contemporary (a $5 million gift) to UCLA's Geffen School of Medicine ($300 million to date) and the Academy's in-progress film museum ($25 million pledged) — the theater was Cates' creation. "He was synonymous with it," says Margulies. Producing the Oscars as many times as he did — a record 14 telecasts in a span of 18 years — was a boon. "He used to joke about how for three months of the year everybody took his phone calls," Margulies says. "That really did put him in an advantageous position."

Associates recall Cates as a big-hearted impresario — "a tremendous mensch," says Mancuso — who was a genius at packaging a season with the right mix of crowd-pleasers and risk-taking works. He also was adept at fundraising: Geffen's $5 million founding gift came with no conditions beyond naming rights. "It was all Gil Cates. I'd known him for years and he had the passion and the vision and sold me on it. He knew my love of the arts and the importance I placed on them. It was not a hard sale," recalls Geffen, 72, whose golden-touch career has included Broadway investments in such shows as Cats, Dreamgirls and Miss Saigon, and who made headlines last year when he gave $100 million to New York's Lincoln Center, which renamed Avery Fisher Hall for him.

Cates' opening show in fall 1995, John Patrick Shanley's Four Dogs and a Bone, set the tone: serious theater presented with a Hollywood sheen. A satire about the movie business (directed by Lawrence Kasdan and starring Parker Posey, Brendan Fraser, Martin Short and Elizabeth Perkins), it drew the industry audience, "which pretty much lives on the Westside," says Mancuso. The 1996 season opened with the Marquis de Sade tale Quills, in which the lead, WKRP in Cincinnati's Howard Hesseman, bared all on stage. "It became the talk of the town, which is what Gil certainly wanted to make," recalls the theater's first director of publicity, Gary Murphy.

The Geffen since has staged more than 120 productions, including one-woman shows, developed in-house, from Carrie Fisher (Wishful Drinking) and Joan Rivers (A Work in Progress by a Life in Progress). In 2013, the theater set a city record when the top seats for Bette Midler's one-woman show I'll Eat You Last soared to $400 apiece. "What they do is really what nonprofit theater is all about, and that's why I love going there," says Bening, who's appeared in three productions at the Geffen. Says Blythe Danner, who recently starred at the venue in Margulies' The Country House, "It's like a little jewel."

There's no denying the 522-seat venue's geographic advantage when it comes to luring talent: Playwrights as well as actors (such as Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn, who's done two plays there) fluidly move back and forth between the Geffen and the screen. Before he did Farragut North, a then-little-known Pine starred in Neil LaBute's drama Fat Pig in 2006; after a Paramount exec saw the play, Pine ended up getting cast as Captain Kirk in the Star Trek franchise. Last year, Rolin Jones' These Paper Bullets!, a musical with lyrics by Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, was running at the Geffen at the same time that he was inking a two-year development deal with 20th Century Fox TV.

The Geffen, which has a yearly operating budget of around $10 million and boasts 12,000 subscribers (members pay anywhere from $150 to $10,000 annually), also lures the famous, including its patron, to see equally famous friends perform. The billionaire mogul-philanthropist's favorites over the years? "I thought Bette [Midler] was brilliant in I'll Eat You Last. It also had special significance because of my relationship with Sue Mengers," Geffen tells THR of the show about the late talent agent. "Annette [Bening] was fantastic in Ruth Draper's Monologues; Steve Martin's The Underpants; and of course Rita [Wilson] has been great in everything she has done there."

The Geffen gets high marks from charity watchdogs for the small amount spent on fundraising relative to program investments. A second $5 million from Geffen almost a decade ago helped drive a $17 million capital campaign, which funded extensive renovations and the addition of a smaller black-box theater, the 117-seat Audrey Skirball Kenis. For eight years running, the theater's books have been in the black, thanks partly to its annual Backstage at the Geffen benefit, which consistently draws an A-list roster of stars and executives and brings in north of $1 million a year; this year's event is set for May 21.

A few years ago, the Playhouse's future didn't seem so assured, after Cates died unexpectedly at age 77, just across the street from the theater and minutes after leaving work on a Monday evening in October 2011 (the cause of death was never determined, but he had been recovering from recent heart surgery). "We all said it at the time and it's true — Gil was always so quick and vivacious, he just tricked us into thinking he would live forever," says NBC Entertainment senior vp corporate communications Allison Rawlings, who headed publicity at the Geffen at the time. Says Cates Jr., "He never thought he was leaving so soon. He was ready to keep building it."

Moving forward from Cates' death was a slow process — Mancuso stepped in as interim producing director and named Cates Jr. to the board — which includes Quincy Jones, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, Leslie Moonves, CAA's Fred Specktor, Steven Spielberg and 2 Broke Girls star Beth Behrs (a former Geffen usher). Cates Jr. became interim managing director when Ken Novice, who held the No. 2 management post, left last spring, and took on the executive director role a few months after. "I didn't know until after that Frank [Mancuso] was basically grooming me," says Cates Jr. "It took me a while to realize what he was doing."

Cates Jr. already is distinguishing himself by programming the smaller new theater with works geared toward younger audiences (Thom Pain, a Beckettian solo show with Rainn Wilson, ran through Feb. 14) and innovative pieces like Rita Wilson's Liner Notes last fall, in which songwriters told stories behind legendary songs. "We did it in the round and made it feel like a nightclub," says Wilson, whose self-titled second album comes out this spring. "Gil Jr. and Randy were really open to treating the space in an unconventional way."

Now with its leadership firmly in place, the theater is launching a "Legacy Fund" to create a long-term endowment. And for a third time, Geffen has stepped up to the plate, providing a challenge grant (the theater won't comment on its size) to kick off the fundraising. He agreed to make the donation over lunch at The Grill on the Alley with Mancuso. "I have to tell people constantly that I'm only the benefactor," says Geffen. "I have nothing to do with what gets produced, but that doesn't stop them from telling me how much they enjoyed what they saw at the Playhouse."

The Geffen partners with 44 charities to make nearly 20 percent of its seats available gratis each season to veterans, seniors, students and people transitioning out of homelessness and foster care. It also runs a year-long writing and performing program for veterans and has developed an education program with UCLA that teaches literacy to sophomores at Mendez High School in Boyle Heights. LaBute sees the Geffen's community work as a natural extension of its artistic mission: "They are a huge advocate of playwrights and a great cheerleader for theater in Los Angeles, rather than being just a showcase for actors to be seen to get other work." Or as David Mamet, who's done five plays there, describes it: "The Geffen is a happy oasis in the arid pesthole which we, its citizens, know as the entertainment industry."