J. Press has impacted every aspect of my life, including my time as an actor off-Broadway and co-producer on Broadway.
My dear friend Jay J. Cohen, my bunkmate at Camp Winaukee from 1945 and summers thereafter, and graduating to adult companionship as a fellow member of the City Athletic Club. An advertising exec and Broadway co-producer, he talked me into assisting his theatrical partner Ashton Springer with getting the 1980 Yale Repertory Theatre Athol Fugard triumph, A Lesson From Aloes, Broadway bound.
James Earl Jones, Maria Tucci, and Harris Yulin in A LESSON FROM ALOES, written and directed by Athol Fugard, Yale Repertory Theatre 1980. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
“Hey Richard, with your Yale connections this is a natural,” they urged. The New Haven production garnered rave reviews both for the play and stellar cast headed by James Earl Jones. The weighty subject matter dealing with apartheid was written and directed by South African playwright Athol Fugard. It was also supervised by Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of The Yale Repertory Theatre, Lloyd Richards.
Lloyd Richards was a long time J. Press neighbor a couple of doors down York Street at the Yale Drama School. An occasional customer he was called a “pal” by my dad, Paul Press, who often labeled anyone buying shirt and tie or pair of socks a “pal.”
The production agreement specified partnership “in association with Yale Repertory Theatre, Lloyd Richards, Artistic Director.” Richards maintained final say over artistic rights.
Unfortunately, the contemplated move to Broadway was hindered by our financial resources, barely enough to turn on the lights and pay the cast. Fortunately, we were introduced to Louis Busch Hager Associates, Inc. and they expressed an interest to join the team. Lou Hager, a member of the Anheuser-Busch family and president of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts provided enough resources on top of our own for the Great White Way, although our meager resources roped us into the Playhouse Theatre, a low rent house blocks away from the big lights on Broadway between 8th and 9th Avenue.
We predicted the extraordinary appeal of James Earl Jones to grab audience word of mouth for what we knew would be a hard sell. To compound our difficulties, playwright/director Fugard delayed Jones’ entrance until the second act. My partners believed my so-called “likability” would allow me to talk Fugard into a vital change. After a lunch lubricated by many toasts for the play’s success, Fugard agreed to get James Earl’s character onstage at the end of Act I.
Lloyd Richards was adamantly unwilling to agree to the change. “It worked the old way in New Haven and it’s going to stay that way on Broadway.”
We sprinkled the house with standing Os at end of the first act helping the audience to greet James Earl in the second act. My hands grew raw from the excessive clapping. Reality intervened. Neither rave reviews, Tony Best Play nomination, nor the brilliant cast was enough to save the show. A Lesson From Aloe limped through ninety-six performances never returning the investment.
Curtain up, light the lights. Yours truly treasured the work’s significant artistic contribution despite its penniless reward. A different show that paid back its original investment also opened in New Haven. Name on the marquee—J. Press.