Cohen, Alexander H., 1920-2000

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Epithet: theatrical agent

British Library Archives and Manuscripts Catalogue : Person : Description : ark:/81055/vdc_100000001027.0x000308

Producer Alexander Henry Cohen was born on July 24, 1920 in New York City. He was the elder son of Alexander H. Cohen senior, a successful businessman, and Laura Tarantous Cohen. After his father's death, when Cohen was four, his mother married a banker and the family moved to Park Avenue. His younger brother Gerry committed suicide in 1954, at which point in time Cohen severed his relationship with his mother.

He was introduced to the theater, as a boy, by an uncle. Cohen attended Columbia University and New York University, but did not graduate. Willing to take risks, Cohen had spent most of his inheritance, by the time he was twenty-one, on mostly unsuccessful theater projects, such as running two summer theaters on Long Island. Martin Balsam, Irene Dailey, and Ronald Alexander worked at one of these, the Red Barn Theatre in Locust Valley, Long Island.

Cohen's first success came when he invested $5,000 in Angel Street (1941) by Patrick Hamilton, which later became the film Gaslight . He became known as "Broadway's Millionaire Boy Angel." He married Jocelyn Newmark in 1942 and they later had a daughter, Barbara. Cohen was drafted into the Army in 1943. He served in the 302nd Co. 94th Division in Salina, Kansas, and was discharged after one year because of a leg problem.

In the late 1940s, Cohen went to work for the Bulova Watch Company as Director of Publicity and Advertising, where his genius for marketing displayed itself. He conceived and developed Bulova's association with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, by creating the Bulova Academy Award Watch, the first licensed Academy Award merchandise. Meanwhile, after a series of eight flop productions, including The Duke in Darkness (1944) with Raymond Burr, and The First Gentleman (1957), directed by Tyrone Guthrie and starring Walter Slezak, Cohen continued to hone his producing skills under veteran Broadway producer Herman Levin, working as Company Manager for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949) and as General Manager for My Three Angels (1954).

In the mid-1950s, Cohen also began Theatre Tours, pioneering all-expense packaged tours to Broadway and out-of-town tryouts, as well as establishing his own public relations firm, Interscope, Incorporated. Cohen and his wife divorced, and in 1956, he married Hildy Parks, an actress, who would also become his professional partner, both as producer and scriptwriter. They had two sons, Gerald and Christopher.

Cohen set up the London Company in 1959 to develop productions for both Broadway and the West End. He maintained a London office for some ten years and presented some fifteen productions in London, including Arthur Miller's The Price (1968), Neil Simon's Plaza Suite (1969), 1776 (1970), Applause (1972), starring Lauren Bacall, and Mary Chase's Harvey (1975), starring James Stewart. Throughout his career, many of Cohen's productions would have a decidedly British flavor.

Seeking a more civilized way for theatergoers to attend shows without rushing through dinner, Cohen began his Nine O' Clock Theatre in 1959. The Nine O' Clock Theatre presented ten successful productions of intimate concert performances and revues, including At the Drop of a Hat, a two-person revue with Michael Flanders and Donald Swann, and including An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May (1960), Beyond the Fringe with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore (1962), At the Drop of Another Hat (1966), and Marlene Dietrich in her one-woman shows in 1967 and 1968. To celebrate the Nine O' Clock Theatre's first anniversary and the Nichols and May opening (while raising money for the Actors' Fund), Cohen transformed Shubert Alley into a carnival, complete with a Ferris wheel and celebrity volunteers, including Lucille Ball selling tickets in a booth.

Among Cohen's more than 100 productions are Hamlet (1964), starring Richard Burton, directed by Sir John Gielgud, The School for Scandal (1963), directed by Sir John Gielgud, and starring Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, Jules Feiffer's Little Murders (1967) and The Homecoming (1967) by Harold Pinter, which won the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play, Home by David Storey (1970), starring Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson, Ulysses in Nighttown (1974), starring Zero Mostel, Anna Christie (1977) starring Liv Ullmann, 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1982), Edmund Kean (1983) starring Ben Kingsley, and Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1984), starring Jonathan Pryce.

Cohen also produced a number of musicals such as Baker Street by Raymond Jessel and Marian Grudeff (1965), featuring Sherlock Holmes, for which he employed a colorful and massive marketing campaign, such as placing an animated billboard atop the Broadway Theatre, importing London street signs, an unprecedented two-page color ad in Playbill, and having actors dressed as Sherlock Holmes appearing around the city. Cohen also produced Richard Rodgers's final musical, I Remember Mama, starring Liv Ullmann in 1979, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (1980), and brought Peter Brook's production of La Tragedie de Carmen to New York (1983). He continued to produce on Broadway through the 1980s and 1990s, although with less frequency than in earlier years. Perhaps reflecting the changing economic climate of Broadway, Cohen's final production, Waiting in the Wings by Noel Coward (1999), featured an all-star cast, including Lauren Bacall and Rosemary Harris, as well as a list of co-producers.

In 1977, Cohen produced a revival of Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin starring Jerry Lewis, amidst great publicity, but decided to close the show in Boston, to significant financial loss, and against the advice of most of his staff. In his one-man show, Star Billing (1999), Cohen recalled that the then-CBS president William Paley, contacted him immediately after hearing of Cohen's Hellzapoppin decision, to ask him to produce the network's anniversary weeklong special ( CBS: On the Air, 1978), because he admired his integrity.

Television provided the opportunity, the budget, and the venue to give life to productions matching Cohen's sense of scale. Cohen conceived and originated the national Tony Awards telecast in 1967 and both he and Hildy Parks produced the awards until 1986, with Parks also writing the scripts. He and Parks also produced the three Night of 100 Stars programs, billed as "the greatest gathering of the greatest stars that we will ever see in our lifetime," (1982, 1985, and 1990) to raise money for the Actors' Fund of America. (Cohen also served on the Fund's board, and as Vice-President.) Cohen even exceeded the program's title, offering more than two hundred stars. The couple also produced the Emmy Awards in 1978, 1985, and 1986.

Among their numerous television productions are NBC 60th Anniversary Celebration (1986), the A.C.E. Awards, and specials for Liza Minnelli, Placido Domingo, Marlene Dietrich, and others. Happy Birthday Hollywood, a three-hour special produced by Parks and Cohen for ABC in 1987, raised funds for the Motion Picture and Television Country Home and Hospital. Cohen had plans for many other projects, notably ideas for stage, film, and television productions based on the life of one of his heroes, P.T. Barnum, the ultimate showman.

In addition to his producing activities, Cohen supervised the building of the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto and managed it for its first three years in the early 1960s. (The theater's inaugural production was Camelot with Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, but is not documented in the papers.) Here he presented such artists as Tony Bennett, Eartha Kitt, Beatrice Lillie, and Bob Newhart in concert, and revivals of Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, and The Most Happy Fella . He also managed the Erlanger and Locust Street Theatres in Philadelphia and set up the Playgoers Club, providing a subscription base for both theaters. In 1975, Cohen was hired to revitalize the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore for two seasons. He also undertook the opening and managing of the Rich Forum for the Stamford Center for the Arts in 1992.

Cohen also undertook a number of marketing projects, such as a weeklong travel package to the Laurence Olivier Awards in London with American Express in 1986. In 1974, Cohen convened the First American Congress of Theatre at Princeton University to identify problems facing every sector of the theater and to suggest possible solutions. He played the producer (possibly modeled after him) in the Woody Allen film, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and taught a course in producing for the theater at the New School in the 1980s. In 1999, he appeared in a one-man show Off Broadway, Star Billing, humorously recounting his life in the theater.

He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Tony Award, Emmy Award, the Oscar, Theater World Award, the Shubert Foundation Award, Drama Desk Award, the March of Dimes Award, and was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

Alexander H. Cohen died of respiratory failure at Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City on April 22, 2000. In a notebook that contains jottings probably intended for his memoirs, Cohen wrote, "I wanted to become the master of the grand gesture." His life is testimony to that wish fulfilled.

From the guide to the Alexander H. Cohen papers, 1880-2003, 1938-2003, (The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf U.S. Bicentennial World Theatre Festival. Correspondence with Eugene Ormandy, 1974. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
referencedIn Souvenir programs of theatrical productions, 1883-1965. Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
creatorOf Alexander H. Cohen papers, 1880-2003, 1938-2003 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Berkowitz, Gerald M. Transcripts of the New Broadways interviews, 1995-1996. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Karmon Israeli Dancers records, 1963 The New York Public Library. Jerome Robbins Dance Division.
creatorOf Coward, Noel, 1899-1973. Waiting in the wings / by Noël Coward ; as revisited by Jeremy Sams, 2000. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Papers of Robert Graves: Correspondence (arranged by subject), 1915 to 1996 St John's College, Oxford
referencedIn Transcripts of the New Broadways interviews, 1995-1996 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Alexander H. Cohen collection, [ca. 2000-ongoing]. Museum of Performance & Design
creatorOf Rattigan Papers. Vol. cxlvi (ff. 131). Notes and correspondence relating to 'Man and boy', 1961-1964. Partly typewritten, including copies.Hugh Beaumont, managing director, H M Tennent Ltd: Mary Herring, secretary to Sir T M Rattigan: John Perry, of ..., 1961-1964 British Library
referencedIn Souvenir programs for theatrical productions, 1906-2005. Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard College Library, Harvard University.
referencedIn Gore Vidal papers, 1850-2020 (inclusive), 1936-2008 (bulk) Houghton Library
referencedIn Zero and Kate Mostel papers, 1915-1986 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn Lucille Lortel papers, 1902-2000 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
creatorOf Herman, Jerry, 1933-. Jerry Herman collection 1950-2003 (bulk 1960-1990). Library of Congress
referencedIn Vern Calhoun production books, 1985-1990 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn White mss., 1932-1969 Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington)
creatorOf Cohen, Alexander H. Correspondence with Marian Anderson, 1976. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
referencedIn Interviews for the book New Broadways [sound recording] / Gerald Berkowitz The New York Public Library. Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound.
referencedIn Papers of Robert Graves: Correspondence (arranged by correspondent), c1909 to 2004 St John's College, Oxford
referencedIn Lillian Gish papers, 1909-1992 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
referencedIn New York Shakespeare Festival records. Series VI: Development Office, 1954-1989 The New York Public Library. Billy Rose Theatre Division.
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Actors' Fund of America corporateBody
associatedWith American Express Company corporateBody
associatedWith Barnum, P. T. (Phineas Taylor), 1810-1891 person
associatedWith Berkowitz, Gerald M. person
associatedWith Boucher, Anthony, 1911-1968 person
associatedWith Burton, Richard, 1925-1984 person
associatedWith Calhoun, Vern person
associatedWith Coward, Noel, 1899-1973. person
associatedWith Erlanger Theatre (Philadelphia, Pa.) corporateBody
associatedWith G.H. Mumm et Co corporateBody
associatedWith Gielgud, John, 1904-2000 person
associatedWith Gish, Lillian, 1893-1993 person
associatedWith Graves, Robert Ranke, 1895-1985 person
associatedWith Graves, Robert Windham, 1858-1934 person
associatedWith Grudeff, Marian person
associatedWith Herman, Jerry, 1933- person
associatedWith Holmes, Rupert person
associatedWith Jessel, Raymond person
associatedWith Karmon Israeli Dancers & Singers corporateBody
associatedWith Locust Street Theatre (Philadelphia, Pa.) corporateBody
associatedWith Lortel, Lucille person
associatedWith Morris A. Mechanic Theatre (Baltimore, Md.) corporateBody
associatedWith Mostel, Zero, 1915-1977 person
associatedWith New York Shakespeare Festival corporateBody
associatedWith O'Keefe Centre (Toronto, Ont.) corporateBody
associatedWith Papp, Joseph person
associatedWith Parks, Hildy, 1926- person
associatedWith Saddler, Donald person
associatedWith U.S. Bicentennial World Theatre Festival. corporateBody
associatedWith Vidal, Gore, 1925- person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Subject
Television producers and directors--United States--20th century
Tony Awards
Television broadcasting--Awards--United States
Women in television broadcasting
Theatrical producers and directors--United States--20th century
Theater--Production and direction--New York (State)--New York
Theater--Production and direction--England--London
Theater--Ontario--Toronto
Occupation
Television producers and directors
Theatrical producers and directors
Television writers
Function

Person

Birth 1920-07-24

Death 2000-04-22

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