Boston theater mogul Rosenfeld dead at 100

“I’ve done everything in the theater except act,’’ Jerome Rosenfeld, producer and publisher, told the Globe in 1993. “I’ve done everything in the theater except act,’’ Jerome Rosenfeld, producer and publisher, told the Globe in 1993. (Frank O’Brien/ Globe Staff/ File 1993)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / July 13, 2011

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Pausing in his early 80s to reflect on decades as a mainstay of Boston’s arts community, Jerome Rosenfeld looked back at his extensive efforts to keep theater vital and could find but one blank space on his resume.

“I’ve done everything in the theater except act,’’ he told the Globe in 1993. “I just love the theater. The people, the artists, and, most importantly, the audience.’’

Producing scores of plays that brought actors from Buster Keaton to Al Pacino to Boston was only part of Mr. Rosenfeld’s contributions to the arts in Boston, however. From publishing to opera to endowing concerts at the Museum of Fine Arts and a chair for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, his hand brushed across the city’s creative spectrum.

Mr. Rosenfeld was 100 when he died Monday in St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton of respiratory ailments after ill health slowed him the past couple of years. He had lived in the Chestnut Hill section of Newton for decades with his wife, Elaine, who died in 2009.

Guiding his family’s printing business out of the Great Depression and to prosperity, Mr. Rosenfeld built a reputation for business acumen and remained active into his 90s, only relinquishing control of Jerome Press a few years ago. His most significant legacy was in theater, however, even though publishing Playbill for theaters, the arts-oriented Panorama magazine, and other publications brought financial success.

“If you really look, over the last half century, at who were the top people who brought theater to Boston, who cared about theater, and who made a huge difference to the city of Boston, sometimes behind the scenes, you’d have to say Jerome Rosenfeld ranks at the top,’’ said Josiah A. Spaulding, president and chief executive of Citi Performing Arts Center.

“The thing that strikes me is just how much he achieved in his lifetime, and you know, he talked about it a lot, but he never boasted,’’ said Malcolm Rogers, director of the MFA and a longtime friend of Mr. Rosenfeld.

“It was just the manifestation of his enthusiasm. He loved everything he did, and I found that a most refreshing quality. He was as proud of the shows he backed that failed as the ones he backed that succeeded. They were all his children.’’

Renowned for his ability to make things happen, Mr. Rosenfeld joined with Nelson Aldrich in 1952 to found the Boston Arts Festival, which ran for 13 years in the Public Garden, drawing crowds from the city and surrounding area. As Mr. Rosenfeld prepared the second annual event in 1953, a business associate quipped that “a telephone is his right arm.’’

If anything, he could be even more persuasive in person.

“He was a gentleman, he was a mentor, he was a friend, but most importantly, he was the best negotiator I ever sat across the table from,’’ Spaulding said.

“Some of those negotiations were very intense, and not necessarily with the actors,’’ said Mr. Rosenfeld’s son, Donald, of Wayland. “There’s always high drama going on behind the scenes, the ins and outs. He looked at it as important to the success of the entities, but it was also important to the people who were attending the shows.’’

Indeed, for all the egos Mr. Rosenfeld encountered in the acting world and in business boardrooms, those he cared about most sat in theater seats, watching as the curtains parted.

“With ticket prices so ridiculously high, theater-going should be a memorable occasion, something that’s a pleasure and fun to do,’’ he told the Globe in 1981. Those who buy tickets, he said, “must be treated courteously from the box office to the ushers. They should feel warm and at home.’’

Along with creating that welcoming environment in Boston, Mr. Rosenfeld launched the Show of the Month Club, booking advance subscriptions to fill seats and ensure the financial viability of plays, and he expanded the club to cities nationwide.

“He loved the theater, he loved the business of theater, and he loved the people he dealt with,’’ his son said. “They were all genuine friends and everyone respected him and he respected them.’’

Mr. Rosenfeld, who had a younger sister, grew up in Roxbury and Brookline, graduating from Brookline High School in 1928.

At Brown University in Providence, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1932, he played saxophone in the band, studied theater and music appreciation, and prepared for his life’s work by serving as business manager of the Brown Daily Herald.

An avid fly fisherman, he guided expeditions in Maine during summers.

The family printing business, launched in the late 1800s by his grandfather, was doing poorly during the Depression when Mr. Rosenfeld stepped in.

“He saw all the big printing companies that had large equipment and huge numbers of employees go out of business,’’ said another son, Richard, of Gloucester. “The only ones that seemed to survive were the small businesses with very little overhead, very little debt, and few fixed costs. He retained that lesson and his business strategy was to always be in a position where he could adjust when circumstances required. The Depression left a profound impression on him.’’

In 1938, Mr. Rosenfeld traveled to New York City and went on a cruise to Cuba, meeting Elaine Ackerson along the way.

“He proposed to her within days of meeting her,’’ Richard said. “She had a boyfriend waiting for her on the dock when she got back, but by then it was all over.’’

The Rosenfelds married in 1939. Elaine was a painter and her interest in the arts inspired the couple’s philanthropy. They donated more than $1 million to the MFA, where the Elaine and Jerome Rosenfeld Concerts in the Courtyard are named for them.

In crowds at arts events, “you would see him talking to all sorts of people,’’ said Smoki Bacon, a Boston socialite and cohost of “The Literati Scene’’ on community television who was a longtime traveling and dining companion of the Rosenfelds. “He was very vivacious, effervescent, and was always so incredibly enthusiastic.’’

Mr. Rosenfeld’s appetite for a smorgasbord of humanity was counterbalanced by culinary tastes for unadorned food and drinks. Dining at the Ritz, he preferred chicken served without garnish, eggs with nothing on the side.

“I like the way he used to order a martini,’’ said Bacon’s husband, Dick Concannon. “He would always ask for whatever the most popular gin or vodka was at the time. And then he would say, ‘No olives, no fruit, no vermouth, and extra water.’ ’’

Services will be private for Mr. Rosenfeld, who in addition to his two sons leaves three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Few people, if any, will ever have as great an impact on theater in Boston or achieve Mr. Rosenfeld’s longevity in the city’s arts scene, but he noted that producing plays was largely a labor of love.

“While the publications are profitable, I can’t say I ever made any money in the theater,’’ he told the Globe in 1993. “I think I broke even. But I certainly had fun. And still do. And, believe me, fun matters.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at