Jay Harris, South Florida’s Theater Champion, Dead at 77

JayHarrislgBy Bill Hirschman

Businessman Jay H. Harris was not famous outside of theatrical circles in South Florida. But within that community, Harris was revered for his incalculable investment of time, advice and money that fueled its evolution from a region known for dinner theater into a significant center of theatrical excellence.

Harris of Boca Raton died Friday at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale at age 77 from complications during surgery to repair a prior hip replacement, publicist and friend Savannah Whaley wrote in an email late Friday evening

Harris quietly, often anonymously underwrote scores upon scores of productions in South Florida, sometimes at major institutional theaters with six-figure budgets, sometimes providing crucial support for companies operating on a shoestring in venues the size of a living room.

One company he helped was The Promethean Theatre in Davie. Co-founder Deborah L. Sherman wrote early Saturday, “Just say that without Jay Harris, South Florida theater could not have existed…. It would have collapsed without his patronage of the entire community.”

Funding often came with the hands-on unvarnished and even blunt input resulting from decades of experience as a producer on and Off-Broadway as well as across the U.S., Canada, England and Scotland. Among the best-known productions he developed were Say Goodnight, Gracie, Rupert Holmes’ one-man show about George Burns, and the world premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics.

The scope of his involvement ranged from donating money to more than a dozen shows in a season to buying old but comfortable chairs from University of Miami’s Ring Theater and donating them to the Hollywood Performing Arts theater which had been making do with uncomfortable wooden seats.

Often, his choice of shows to back were controversial in subject matter or tone, such as many shows at GableStage, thereby expanding the definition of mainstream theater in the region.

For instance, Rafael de Acha, artistic director at New Theatre in Coral Gables, told Christine Dolen of the Miami Herald in 1999 that the company’s award-winning production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America probably wouldn’t have happened without Harris.

“When we were going to do Angels in America, we approached every funding source we could think of, but people didn’t want to fund something that might be controversial,” de Acha told Dolen. “Jay gave us a loan on very generous terms, then forgave it.”

It was a sentiment repeated over and over this weekend. Richard Jay Simon, founder of Mosaic Theatre in Plantation, wrote, “I loved Jay and miss him already.  He was like a third grandfather to me and this is a devastating loss for so many individuals who were fortunate enough to know him.”

“It’s impossible to create metrics to evaluate his effect on theater but I will unequivocally say, that without Jay Harris, many theaters would not have survived as long as they did, if at all.”

“His greatest gift was not with his wallet but with his profound wisdom and guidance,” Simon wrote. “He was so smart, so savvy.  I had the honor of having dinners with him just about every Monday night at Pizza Time in Boca Raton for years.  We would strategize, bullshit, laugh, brainstorm and discuss everything about theater.  Other topics, too, but mostly theater.  He loved theater, he was and is theater.  He knew the theatrical landscape of this region and far beyond.  I learned so much from this man and am simply heartbroken.  He was my mentor.  He was my friend.  He was also blunt and I appreciated it.  It could be an opening night of a show and if he thought it sucked, he would tell you that.  You can’t pay for that type of honesty and I always welcomed it.  His spirit will forever be tattooed on my heart.”

In the spring of 2012, Harris received the highest award the local theater community can bestow: the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts from the Carbonells. In accepting that award, he spoke of how the theater had changed without highlighting his role in it:

“There wasn’t a theater scene like there is today when I first came down in 1973.  I came back in 1978.  The Carbonells were three years old then and the only two companies still around from those days are The Caldwell and M Ensemble,” he said.

“By 1980, South Florida became my permanent residence.  My involvement in local theater once again started with me in the audience.  I was dating someone from out of the area who would spend several days a month in South Florida and while she was here we would take in theater.

“By going to theaters, I became exposed to who I would call the pioneers who laid the foundation for what we have today, such as Zev Buffman, Brian C. Smith, Ruth Foreman, Vinnette Carroll, Jan McArt, Burt Reynolds and others.  They worked hard, developed audiences and gave many local actors and directors their starts.

“Today, South Florida theater is vibrant. It enriches our community and serves as a launching pad.  Local actors appear on TV shows and are cast in national tours.  Our colleges offer more theater courses and degrees. We have good, strong theater for musicals and straight plays. With the faster pace of licensing, our theaters are able to present newer work in good productions on an ongoing basis. Original new work also begins here.”

His straight-talking delivery of his opinions endeared him to some and alienated others.  Veteran actress Barbara Bradshaw wrote, “Jay could be blunt, irascible, and the best lunch date a person could ever ask for. He loved South Florida theater and his support was directly responsible for a large portion of it’s growth, survival and ongoing success… often quietly and behind the scenes… not for recognition, but for what he believed in. He also had a huge heart, blushed when hugged… and a wealth of knowledge that never ceased to amaze me. He had for a while, been a dear friend…. “

Harris had battled health problems as early as the late 1990s when he had chest pains on a trip to his other home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In recent years, hip problems and a series of surgeries often resulted in him doggedly hobbling to openings nights on a cane.

He was president of T & E Productions and Jay H. Harris, LLC of Boca Raton, and a founding member of JenKay, LLC of New York City. Harris also was a member of The League of American Theaters and Producers and a Tony Award voter. He was a full owner in the St. Joseph Express in the U.S. Baseball League in Missouri and a partial owner of another team.

He received the Dean Lott Spirit Award presented by the Arts & Business Council of Miami-Dade County, the 2000 Pro Bono Award presented by ArtServe of Broward County, the Curtain Up Lifetime Achievement Theater Award, The Remy “Pioneer Award” from the Theatre League of South Florida, the Jack Zink Spirit Award presented by the Mosaic Theatre and the 2002 Carbonell Howard Kleinberg Award.

Following the Carbonell Award-winning world premiere of his production of Say Goodnight, Gracie at the Broward Center, he took it to Broadway where it became  the third longest-running solo performance show and was nominated for a 2003 Tony Award for Best Play.  After providing assistance for Miami’s New Theatre world premiere of Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, Harris produced its commercial London premiere.

More recent productions include Stick Fly and Wonderland on Broadway, off-Broadway productions of Sistas and the revival of Say Goodnight, Gracie, the London productions of All About My Mother starring Diana Rigg, The Little Dog that Laughed and Three Days of Rain and the national tour of Little House on the Prairie with Melissa Gilbert.

Harris began working with the Carbonells as a judge in 1998 when he saw 103 productions, a figure that would rise to about 120 in subsequent seasons. Working with South Florida Sun-Sentinel theater critic Jack Zink, Harris helped transition the organization in 2001 from one dominated by journalists to a more community-based structure that brought theater professionals into the process. This involved field trips with Zink to study on site the work of similar awards programs including the Jefferson Awards in Chicago, the Barrymore Awards in Philadelphia and the Hayes Awards in Washington, D.C.

Leslie Feldman, a former Carbonell board chairman wrote, “Jay Harris had incredible love for theater and was… supportive and involved in all aspects of our South Florida arts community. Jay was both difficult and lovable but earned our respect, repeatedly, from his personal commitment.” Citing the road trips that he went on as well, Feldman said, “Our quest (was) to improve the experience and elevate the stature of the Carbonells to help shine the brightest light on our South Florida stages, and most of all, for those who labored on them.”

He and Zink also developed the current two-tier system of nominating and judging, which accommodated the increasing number of companies producing far more shows across three counties than when the awards were first conceived.

Harris began serving on the reorganized Carbonell board of directors, serving twice as president and providing the initial subsidies that paid for administrative employees, insisting on a fund for working capital, underwriting student tickets and pushing for an increasingly more sophisticated awards ceremony to be held at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. When Zink took ill in 2008, Harris and Whaley kept the organization operational.

Additional community involvement has included sponsoring Ocean Dance 2000 that presented a Mikhail Baryshnikov performance free to the public on Hollywood Beach to an estimated audience of 30,000, sponsoring six years of the Curtain Up Awards, providing numerous scholarships for students in the arts and presenting Shakespeare’s Dog on the Caravan Stagebarge in partnership with the City of Miami Parks Department and the Cultural Affairs Division of the State of Florida as a fund raiser for Shake-A-Leg Miami.

Raised in the Bronx, Harris later served in the Navy. He attended Hunter College and the City College of New York before graduating from RCA institute where he majored in electronics.  During a business career that spanned nearly four decades, he served in many executive leadership positions including COO of a public company traded on the New York Stock exchange.  At one time more than 25 individual corporate entities reported to him and he guided the acquisition, disposition, liquidation, or closure of some 20 entities.

It was his budding career as a salesman that led him to theater.  “I started out in the theater as an audience member,” he said in 2012. “Early in my business career, I had to entertain clients visiting the New York area.  This was before there were road shows in every major city and it seemed all of them wanted to see a Broadway show. So, I ended up seeing four or five shows a month.”

He began investing in theater in 1971 with an Off-Broadway repertory run of Claire Bloom in Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House.  A year later, he had money in a Broadway show that closed after one performance and three previews. But by 1998, he was a full-fledged commercial producer in New York.

He is survived by a brother, Alan Harris of Miami Beach, and his executive assistant and longtime friend of 30 years, Candice Dobin.  Services will be private and the family has requested that donations not be made.

In his Abbott speech, Harris closed with a sentiment echoes by dozens of his colleagues this weekend, “Over the years I have had unforgettable moments within the theater community, be it at the theater or sitting around chatting.  It has inspired collaborations and made dear friends.  I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

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3 Responses to Jay Harris, South Florida’s Theater Champion, Dead at 77

  1. Les says:

    Saddened to read that Jay is gone.
    Jay Harris had incredible love for theatre and was (as is reported here) supportive and involved in all aspects of our South Florida Arts Community. Jay was both difficult and lovable but earned our respect, repeatedly, from his personal committment. I too traveled to Chicago, Philadelphia & Washington with Jack and Jay, in our quest to improve the experience and elevate the stature of the Carbonell’s to help shine the brightest light on our South Florida Stages, and most of all; for those who labored on them.

  2. Barbara B. says:

    Jay could be blunt, irascible, and the best lunch date a person could ever ask for. He loved South Florida theatre and his support was directly responsible for a large portion of it’s growth, survival and ongoing success… often quietly and behind the scenes…not for recognition, but for what he believed in.
    He also had a HUGE heart, blushed when hugged…and a wealth of knowledge that never ceased to amaze me. He had for a while, been a dear friend…. May flights of angels, Dear Jay……………..

  3. Rafael and Kimberly de Acha says:

    South Florida theatre has lost a great patron and supporter, and we have lost a dear personal friend. Jay Harris gave so much, and helped to build a theatre community that was so much stronger and more diversified that it would have ever been without him.
    Jay supported so many productions in our theatre. When we wanted to produce Angels in America and Love! Valor! Compassion!, everyone who normally funded our theatre’s work was afraid to support theatre that might create controversy. Jay was there with a check to make it happen. He gave Rafael a very generous loan, which he later forgave.
    He was there to help fund a brand new play that no one had heard of–Anna in the Tropics– which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Steinberg Award, and went to Broadway. But, Jay didn’t know that when he agreed to be a sponsor. He just knew that he wanted to support new works and help South Florida theatre.
    And, when Kimberly needed scholarship money for high school students to attend PAI, her summer musical theatre program at the University of Miami, Jay was a phone call away. Years later, one of those students was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant, and another was just nominated for his second Tony. But, Jay didn’t know these young men would be such great successes. He just wanted those opportunities to be there for as many young people as possible.
    Jay Harris produced plays on Broadway, in storefronts, and in regional theatres. He loved it all, and the theatre community is so much better because he was a part of it. We need more people like Jay Harris in this world. He made a difference. Thanks Jay. You will be missed.

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