Bernard Gersten, Pivotal Figure of New York's Public Theater and Lincoln Center Theater, Dies at 97

Bernard Gersten - 58th Annual Tony Awards - Getty-H 2020
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Starting out as a stage manager in the 1940s, Gersten became a prominent administrator in two of the city's top-tier nonprofit theater companies, helping to foster influential work for more than half a century.

Bernard Gersten, one of the most significant behind-the-scenes figures of nonprofit theater in New York over a career spanning more than 50 years, has died. He was 97.

Lincoln Center Theater, where Gersten served as executive producer from 1985 until his retirement in 2013, announced Monday on Twitter that he had died peacefully in his sleep that morning at his home in Tribeca, New York. A spokesperson confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that the cause was pancreatic cancer.

"Bernard Gersten's intelligence, innate sense of goodness, bravery, wisdom, generosity, elegance and wit, and most important, deep knowledge and love of the theater, made him a giant in our profession and a beloved friend to many," Andre Bishop, producing artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, said in a statement. "LCT would not be here today were it not for the talent and love of this extraordinary man."

Tony-winning actress Kelli O'Hara, who had personal triumphs in LCT productions including The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific and The King and I, wrote on Twitter: "What a life! And what a generous and helpful producer he was to me at Lincoln Center Theater. I am forever grateful to him."

After being stationed in Hawaii during World War II, Gersten transitioned from the quartermaster corps to special services following a performance of Macbeth that starred Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson. He gained his initial experience as a stage manager and producer working on productions in the military, and obtained his Equity card after the war when Evans recruited him to work on the U.S. tour of G.I. Hamlet.

Affectionately known as "Bernie" to his many friends and colleagues, Gersten first rose to prominence in the New York theater community as the right-hand man of visionary artistic director Joseph Papp at the Public Theater, his calm capability and diplomatic manner in dealing with board members and city officials helping to rein in the brash Papp's more volatile temperament. 

The two men met in Los Angeles in 1948, when both were members of The Actors' Lab, going out campaigning for former Vice President Henry Wallace together in the early days of their friendship. They left for jobs in New York, with Gersten acquiring experience as a stage manager both in the city and at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, where he worked alongside the likes of Katharine Hepburn and John Houseman.

In 1958, Gersten and Papp were questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee about Communist Party membership in the 1940s and '50s, but both pled the Fifth. Gersten also had been active on behalf of the plight of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was able to keep his Stratford position because Hepburn and Houseman threatened to quit if he was dismissed.

Two years later, Gersten joined Papp as associate producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, beginning an 18-year partnership during which the Public Theater was born. Under their joint leadership the organization consolidated the beloved tradition of free summer Shakespeare productions at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park and launched such musical milestones as Hair and A Chorus Line.

Playwrights nurtured by the Public during that period of dynamic transformation for American theater included David Rabe, Sam Shepard, John Guare, Ntozake Shange and Richard Foreman, while actors whose careers were propelled by lauded work in the company's productions included Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Raul Julia, Sam Waterston, James Earl Jones, Martin Sheen, Al Pacino and George C. Scott.

Gersten clashed with Papp in 1978 over the latter's refusal to produce Michael Bennett's Ballroom, a project that Gersten argued was owed the Public's support after the theater's record-breaking success with Bennett's A Chorus Line. Papp was intransigent, however, shocking the theater community by firing Gersten, who would produce the commercially disappointing musical independently.

Following his departure from the Public, Gersten took a position as executive vp creative affairs for Francis Ford Coppola at Zoetrope Studios in 1979, earning him an executive producer credit on Coppola's One From the Heart. He then worked in senior programming at Radio City Music Hall for a little over two years, overseeing productions including a massive Porgy and Bess revival with a 90-member company.

In 1985, Gersten began his tenure at LCT, where he remained for 28 years, working first with Gregory Mosher as artistic director and later with Bishop. The theater venues of the Lincoln Center campus had been a long-running failure, but the new management team turned the division around and made LCT one of the country's leading nonprofit stage entities.

Operating both a Broadway and an off-Broadway venue, as well as a smaller stage for its emerging artists program in recent years, LCT has spawned a long list of successful productions, including Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig, Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia and Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, among many others.

The company's shows have been nominated for countless Tony Awards and won 19 in top categories, with its lavish musical revivals becoming the gold standard in that field. Gersten is widely credited as a driving force in the hybridization of nonprofit theaters being able to double as successful commercial producers.

Bartlett Sher, who directed a string of Tony-winning LCT productions, wrote on Twitter: "Bernard Gersten was a devoted warrior for the theater, a great showman, and father to his family and to us all. Founder of the Public and LCT, he believed in American exceptionalism, and everything he did was exceptional. He lived up to his belief. A life perfectly lived."

Born in 1923 in Newark, New Jersey, in a traditional Jewish household to a father who was a haberdasher and a mother who was a housewife, Gersten won numerous distinctions during his long theatrical career, including a Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013 and a special Drama Desk Award for his role in revitalizing LCT in 2012. He was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2003.

He is survived by his wife, former dancer Cora Cahan; daughters, Jenny and Jilian; and four grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Gersten's memory to the Bernard Gersten Productions Fund at Lincoln Center Theater and to the E. O'Reilly Fund at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.