NEW YORK — What do Lena Horne, Richard Burton, Jerry Lewis, and Marlene Deitrich have in common? Along with dozens of other world-class performers, such as Liv Ullmann, Joan Rivers, Lauren BacalI, John Gielgud, and Vincent Price, they have appeared under the auspices of veteran producer Alexander H. Cohen.
For the last several weeks, the venerable Cohen has taken to the New York stage himself, tearing up audiences two nights a week in a one-man show called "Star Billing," where he sits on a stool and recounts his triumphs, tragedies, and misadventures in show business. His career, which began in 1941, has spanned every type of venue. He has picked up Tony and Emmy awards along the way.
And he isn't finished. "I want to go on doing what I'm doing. I like it. Besides, I don't know how to do anything else," he says decisively.
Settling into a director's chair in the office connected to his Manhattan apartment, Cohen says he knew nothing about the business when he jumped in feet first at age 19 after seeing the Broadway comedy "Hellzapoppin' " and falling in love with the theater.
Until the late 1960s, Cohen says, producers "were members of a fraternity, instead of just being in a business. We all knew each other." When he started out, "they welcomed this kid who knew nothing, and made me feel part of the community." His mentors included such fabled impresarios as Billy Rose and Mike Todd. Now Cohen has joined that group, having presented his 100th theatrical undertaking, the Broadway play "The Herbal Bed," last season.
Responsible for bringing audiences some of the world's greatest actors, including Ben Kingsley, Jason Robards, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and Sir Laurence Olivier, he has noticed a troubling development. "Until 1950, the actor had two choices: One was the theater, and the other was film. Now, the actor is predominantly employed by television, where you don't need vocal training." Pausing a moment, he adds, "You don't need anything. You have to photograph well, because all they're interested in, in most cases, is looking at good-looking men and women, but they're not required to train. So when we bring a television star to Broadway, they get laughed off the stage, which happens constantly." He points out that solid theater training does not have to be lost doing television work. "There are people you want to work with every day, like Angela Lansbury," who is known to most Americans as the TV sleuth in "Murder, She Wrote."
Forty years ago Cohen ventured into a new area, one that left a lasting mark on the theater scene beyond Broadway. The O'Keefe Brewing Company, headquartered in Toronto, was restricted by government regulation from advertising on radio, television, and in print. So the company decided to construct a first-class theater, called The O'Keefe Center. Theater professionals referred O'Keefe executive "scouts" to Cohen. After accepting the job of booking the new space, he plunged into a campaign to attract a show that would bring attention to the theater and begin the practice of shows opening beyond the traditional out-of-town cities. After months of negotiations, he successfully lured Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, along with director Moss Hart, to Toronto with a new musical called "Camelot." "That put us on the map, forever," Cohen says. He's pleased that "Star Billing" has received such a warm reception. The sold-out shows are laced with his riotous recollections, such as stumbling through his meeting with President Kennedy and fending off the involvement of Elizabeth Taylor when her husband Richard Burton was appearing in "Hamlet."
Looking at Broadway today, he says 95 percent of investors are only "interested in betting [on shows]. They've got a 'racetrack betting' mentality. They have money to gamble, and they want identification with the arts."
Cohen still forges ahead, with more energy and vitality than men half his age. "Star Billing" may have a future life as a book or TV special. And he is reportedly backing a theater on the newly revitalized 42nd Street, as well as a production of Noel Coward's "Waiting in the Wings."