A Half-Life in the Theater
Having breakfast with theatrical producer Jay H. Harris is like taking a quick trip to Broadway. We are noshing at Lester's, a retro diner in Fort Lauderdale, but Harris' rapid-fire delivery and wide range of show-biz subjects makes the place feel more like the Edison Hotel coffee shop on West 47th Street, the regular haunt of New York show folk.
Who, you might ask, is Jay H. Harris? His very name is a cause of some confusion (Harris uses his middle initial to distinguish himself from another Jay Harris who also happens to be a theatrical producer). The 65-year-old Boca Raton impresario -- whose production of the 1988 standard Frankie & Johnny at the Clair de Lune opened Saturday at GableStage -- keeps a low profile in South Florida, partly because he travels so frequently, managing far-flung projects that demand constant attention. At our breakfast appointment, Harris kept excusing himself to take phone calls -- the mayor of St. Joseph, Missouri, calls, then a producing partner calls regarding a show due to open in San Francisco, then someone calls from one of his basketball franchises (more on that later).
In his hectic producing career, Harris' shows have picked up an impressive array of awards, including nine Carbonell awards, a Helen Hayes (Washington, D.C.), and two Lucille Lortels (off-Broadway). His latest Broadway production, Say Goodnight, Gracie, which premiered at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, has enjoyed a 50-week run, garnering Tony and Drama Desk nominations. How many projects does Harris juggle at one time? That's hard to say, since he's involved in so many shows in many ways -- some as principal producer, some as an investor, some as a philanthropist, donating money to nonprofits.
It's as a philanthropist that Harris has been a major force in South Florida theater. "South Florida theater tends towards a lot of musicals and musical revues," Harris says. "I wanted to help provide some diversification, edgier material which might not otherwise get produced." He regularly supports GableStage and New Theatre productions with direct no-strings-attached cash subsidies, but he picks and chooses which shows he backs. "I usually go with projects that appeal to me, that I think will do well with local audiences, that are underfinanced and can have some significant cultural impact," he says. Harris seems to have the magic touch. He backed the New Theatre's breakout hit, Angels in America, a huge undertaking for the small Coral Gables theater, winning four Carbonell awards. Subsequently, Harris also backed a number of New Theatre hits including The Book of Ruth, Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics.
His collaboration with GableStage's Joseph Adler goes back more than a decade. "We met in 1992," recalls Adler, "when I was directing Mario Diament's Lost Tango for the Hollywood Boulevard Theater." The two clicked and have collaborated ever since. Now Harris is a regular GableStage sponsor, backing such recent successes as The Play About the Baby, Nixon's Nixon, Chinese Coffee, and Dirty Blonde.
Harris is a kind of one-man band. Though several family trusts and foundations give regularly to the arts, he is virtually alone in South Florida as a cash-to-the-arts individual donor. But his interest in philanthropy is balanced by a sharp commercial instinct, with a grasp of show-business minutia that is encyclopedic. He can not only rattle off a list of available theaters in, say, Detroit or Kansas City or San Francisco (and their capacities, potential grosses, and union restrictions) but he can also discuss the availability of parking at each and nearby restaurants. "He's like the old Broadway producers of a bygone era," Adler says. "He lives and breathes show business."
With no theatrical training, Harris backed into his producer role from the business world. After attending Hunter College and City College in New York and a stint in the U.S. Navy, Harris entered the electronics manufacturing sector in the 1960s. By the '70s , he was chief operating officer of International Controls Corp., a $1 billion-a-year electronics conglomerate. Part of his hectic schedule involved schmoozing clients, with frequent trips to the theater. This led Harris to get involved with stage productions in the Midwest, as well as to invest some of his own capital in Broadway shows and films. Upon his retirement from the electronics company in the 1990s, Harris jumped into theatrical producing full time.
Harris' South Florida activities are only part of the story. He has produced an eclectic mix of plays in 15 cities, 130 productions in all. With Los Angeles producer Caren Horowitz, Harris has begun a successful collaboration with writer/director Ronnie Lawson, whose gay- and lesbian-themed small cast productions play all over the country.
"Often we will take a show and move it around the country, drawing on a pool of performers who have already been in previous productions," Harris says. "For example, we have a gay show Making Porn which is closing in Boston. We are literally Fedexing the whole set to San Francisco, bringing in actors who already know the show and Ronnie has agreed to direct and appear in the show. We will put the whole thing up in three days."
Harris has been involved in, among other things, a summer theater festival at Florida Atlantic University; a Mikhail Baryshnikov dance event, Ocean Dance 2000, in Hollywood; and projects with WLRN and the City of Miami Parks Department. And, oh yes, there's his new career as a sports mogul. He is half owner of the Brooklyn Kings and sole owner of the St. Joseph (MO) Express, teams which play in the semi-pro United States Basketball Association, the equivalent of AA baseball. The league plays a spring schedule with ex-NBA players and up-and-comers seeking to break into the big time.
What's next for the peripatetic Harris? First up: Frankie & Johnny at the Clair de Lune at GableStage. Then Beauty of the Father, Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz' latest premiere at the New Theatre, in January. Then there are four shows in development in New York.
Harris pushes away from the breakfast table to handle another call. More deals, more dates, more shows. This diner booth is a long walk from Broadway, but Harris' talk is all show business. And a lot of theatergoers, especially in South Florida, are the better for it.
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