Playwright, Patron And Pillar Tony Finstrom Died Tuesday



A celebration of the life of Tony Finstrom, playwright patron and theater lover, is scheduled for Monday, Jan 21 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University where he served as associate producer of Jan McArt’s New Play Reading Series in which several of his works first appeared.

The event begins with a presentation at 7 p.m. followed by a reception in the lobby at 3601 N. Military Trail Road in Boca Raton. Free parking is available behind the building.

If possible, RSVP to

Finstrom, who died Dec. 18 after a long battle with cancer at the age of 71, earned virtually every local theater award — recognizing his fiscal philanthropy, his hands-on active involvement in organizations supporting theater and his ebullient cheerleading balanced by a clear critical eye.

By Bill Hirschman

Tony Finstrom was a prolific playwright, an arts journalist and a generous patron, but above all Tony Finstrom was a man who loved theater down through the marrow of his bones.

That love expressed itself in support for the arts in so many ways and to such an extent that he was inarguably one of the supporting pillars that helped enable the flourishing of South Florida theater over more than two decades.

Finstrom, who died after a long battle with cancer Tuesday night at the age of 71, earned virtually every local theater award — recognizing his fiscal philanthropy, his hands-on active involvement in organizations supporting theater and his ebullient cheerleading balanced by a clear critical eye.

It was a love that was reciprocated.

Impressario and actress Jan McArt, for whom he helped produce a new play reading series, said after visiting him last week, “How we could get along without that man in our midst is just a wonder. I don’t know how we’ll do it because there is nobody like him to take his place. And if we honor him every day with what he has done to promote South Florida or Florida theater period, it couldn’t be enough.”

From the moment he went into hospice December 5 and almost daily thereafter, friends and colleagues flooded Facebook with hundreds of posts containing prayers and praise.

Veteran actress Barbara Bradshaw wrote at the time, “Dearest Tony, for every show I do for the rest of my life, I will always see in my peripheral vision in the front row, bare knees peeking out of cargo shorts, sitting next to a lovely silver haired lady. I will smile with your smiles and I will hear her laugh. In my mind, with tremendous love and gratitude, those two front row seats will be forever ‘Reserved.’ ”

A small private funeral is pending, but a public celebration is being planned to occur after the first of the year at a time and place to be announced. In lieu of flowers, Finstrom told friends he would prefer contributions in his name to be made to South Florida theaters.

Easily recognizable for his broad grin, Finstrom was present at thousands of opening nights alongside his close friend, the late Iris Acker. After the show in private conversations, he proved to have the analytical skill of a theatrical insider, precisely identifying when and where a show had crippling flaws or did not meet its potential. But when he loved a show, his enthusiasm was boundless and he urged people on Facebook to rush to see whatever work he had enjoyed. Often he would post on Facebook a photograph of the show or a performer and simply stamp it with the image or the word “HEART!”

His contributions were far more extensive than that:

—Eleven years ago, he co-founded the Silver Palm Awards with Acker and Ron Levitt – a non-competitive version of the Carbonell Awards for excellence which he jokingly likened to the Golden Globes. Over the years, he served as its chairman and executive producer.
—He wrote an uncounted number of plays — comedies and dramas, full-length works and short vignettes.
—He saw plays over the entire map of South Florida as a judge for the Carbonell Awards, keeping meticulous notes about each production. He was still seeing plays at the end of October between hospital stays.
—He served as associate producer for Jan McArt’s New Play Reading Series at Lynn University in Boca Raton, which not only produced his own works but that of a score of other playwrights. Some of those staged readings resulted in full productions later including Michael McKeever’s acclaimed Daniel’s Husband and Finding Mona Lisa, Christopher Demos-Brown’s Stripped, and Dan Clancy’s At Home which opened this month.
—He served for years on the Executive Board of the South Florida Theatre, the Board of Directors for the South Florida International Press Club as Vice President, and was an associate member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

Much of his life was spent in arts journalism, formal and in his own informal way:

—He worked in New York at “After Dark Magazine” and at “The Soho Weekly News.” The offbeat experiences provided the basis for one of his plays.
—Across the country, Finstrom was known for his emailed “Tony’s Latest” newsletter recounting local and national theater news to what was likely a thousand friends, friends of friends and strangers recommended by friends.
—Among those reports were his personal detailed critical evaluations of current Broadway shows.

But his contributions were also monetary. His name could be found in the donors’ list in the playbills of a majority of theaters in South Florida – large institutions, small troupes, struggling theaters. He also contributed thousands of dollars year after year to sponsor a category at the Carbonell Awards gala which is a major source of the organization’s fundraising for scholarships.

In return, the community recognized his contributions with a shelf of honors:

—2018: The Carbonell’s Charlie Cinnamon Award “honoring an individual who not only contributes significantly to the support of the arts in South Florida, but also for dedicated service to the Carbonell Awards organization.”
–2018: The South Florida Theatre League’s Remy Pioneer Award, making him the first person in the history of the league to have received both “Remys,” for service and as a pioneer, the latter bestowed in 2006.
—2011: The Mosaic Theatre’s Jack Zink Spirit Award, named for the late Sun Sentinel arts writer and critic.
—2008: The Silver Palm Award for “his outstanding contribution to the 2008 South Florida Theatre Festival.”

His plays won local recognition. When his own Footlights company produced As Fate Would Have It (or The Famous Tragic History of Lady Jane Grey), the work won Best Play of the 2001 Season from City Link and earned a Carbonell nomination for Best New Work in 2001.

Knish Alley, to be produced at Broward Stage Door in 2009, won the Best New Play Award from Palm Beach Dramawork’s Playwright’s Festival in 2006. His one-act comedy The Happiest Couple won The Theatre League of South Florida’s 2003 Short Play Competition. It went on to be produced in a one-act play festival in 2003 at the Island Repertory Theatre in Cherry Grove, Fire Island.

Just a few of his other plays include Back Stage Story; Glamour Girl!; East Hampton, Last Summer; Murder on Gin Lane; House of Gabor; The Oldest Living Chorus Boy Tells All, The Last Time I saw Bathhouse Betty and The Diamond Girl. Several short pieces were featured in the annual City Theatre/ Island City Stage Shorts Gone Wild series focusing on LGBT themes. He also frequently participated in the marathon 24-Hour Theatre Project events supporting local theaters which involved staying up all night to pen a short script.

His voracious adoration of theater was evident in everything from an encyclopedic knowledge of the art form, to his frequent Facebook postings honoring the birthdays of famous theatrical figures, to a massive collection of memorabilia – some classic works, some recent: posters, signed photographs, playbills, plus souvenir magnets, baseball caps and T-shirts.

Finstrom was famous for those email reports about his crowded sojourns to see theater in New York City, ranging from plays to musicals to staged readings – usually sitting in the best seats in the house. Last June he saw 12 plays in seven days.  He started a similar expedition in September, but severe pain forced him to stay in his Manhattan apartment and skip some of the shows he had bought tickets for.

It had been a difficult emotional year for Finstrom in addition to his health issues that saw him hospitalized and undergoing treatment. His beloved dog Georgy died in April, and Acker, whom he drove and escorted to scores of shows while she battled cancer, died in September. He helped produce a memorial celebration for her the following month and attended in front row wrapped in a brace.

“He just a very sweet humble gracious intelligent gentleman the likes of which we don’t see around,” McArt said. But he also had a wicked sense of humor, a love of insider gossip and a prickly impatience with what he saw as inefficiency. Friends and acquaintances acknowledged that he could be “a handful” at times.

Anthony K. Finstrom was born August 24, 1947 and attended Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan.

His interest in theater grew out of a childhood love of movies, he told Mary Damiano in a 2011 interview published in South Florida Gay News.

(He) followed the making “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. His parents, who met when she was singing and he was playing trumpet in a big band, agreed to take him to New York City in June, 1963, to attend the film’s premiere engagement.

His life took a fateful turn when the family attended a Broadway show, “She Loves Me” starring Barbara Cook. It was the first time Finstrom had ever seen a stage show. Finstrom forgot all about “Cleopatra” and became riveted by the Great White Way.

“ ‘She Loves Me’ was the best thing I’d ever seen in my life,” Finstrom says, who also saw ‘Tovarich’ starring Vivien Leigh and Jean-Pierre Aumont on the same trip.

A theatre fan was born, and the She Loves Me program and ticket stubs—with the printed price of a whopping $4.50—became the first pieces in Finstrom’s extensive theatre memorabilia collection.

Finstrom received a B.A. in journalism and drama from Central Michigan University. He spent 1970-71 as a private and a Specialist Five in the Public Information Office of 2nd Armored Division in Fort Hood, Texas, and writing for its “Armored Sentinel.”

He took those skills to New York to write for and edit “After Dark Magazine” and “The Soho Weekly News.” At the same time, he studied screenwriting at the New School for Social Research, and playwriting at the Circle Repertory Company, at Primary Stages, and at Long Island’s Bay Street Theatre.

He told Damiano, “I got carried away with theatre, and that’s why I started writing… I can’t sing, I can’t act, I’m scared to death of getting up in front of people, but I could write something.”

At Circle Rep, he founded “The Canvas” Student Lab, and was Assistant to the Artistic Director.

His “After Dark” editor introduced him to Arthur Sussman, a former child actor and educator. The two men joined personally and professionally for the rest of their lives. They operated a chain of party supply stores on Long Island. A dozen years later, they sold the chain and retired.

That gave him a need to do something fulfilling and he became increasingly involved in the production and backstage aspects of theater. He worked at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York as box office, house and company manager. That produced endless dinner stories of interactions with a host of bold-face names including Elaine Stritch whose eccentricities served as the basis for another of his plays.

He also worked with the Reckless Theatre Company in New York City, the Playwrights’ Theatre of East Hampton in Long Island and the Oddfellow’s Playhouse of the Hamptons,

Finstrom and Sussman moved to the Fort Lauderdale area in 1989. Finstrom started working for Brian C. Smith’s Off Broadway Theatre in Wilton Manors and The Public Theatre of South Florida in Fort Lauderdale. In 1999, he and Sussman created the Footlights, Inc. theater company operating out of ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale. Sussman died of cancer in 2004, ending their 31-year relationship.

Finstrom passed away about 10:10 p.m. Tuesday. He is survived by a sister, Nola Niehaus of Michigan and a niece and nephew.

When friends posted Facebook notices that he was entering hospice treatment at Holy Cross Hospital, an avalanche resulted in the cyber equivalent of a standing ovation.

John Manzelli, veteran local actor and Barry University educator, wrote, “You are one of the really important and wonderful people in the history of South Florida theater. You reminded me ‘how lucky I am to do this’ every time I would see you. So much love.”

Alvin Entin, chairman of the board of Pembroke Pines Theater of the Performing Arts, wrote, “No one has more admirers and friends in the South Florida Theater Community than you. The love of all of us for you was done the old fashioned way, you earned it every day with your love back for everyone who crossed your path. You are the beating heart of our Community. That’s not too bad, not too bad at all.”

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