Merle Debuskey, a longtime theater press agent and one of the most significant players in providing free Shakespeare in the Park for generations of grateful New Yorkers, died Tuesday at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 95.
“Merle Debuskey was one of the first champions of the New York Shakespeare Festival and what would become The Public Theater,” the Public Theater said in a statement. “He championed Free Shakespeare in the Park, and we are proud he is part of our family. Our thoughts are with Merle’s family at this time. Rest in peace.”
His death was confirmed by Philip S. Birsh, Playbill president and publisher and Debuskey’s executor.
A tireless supporter of New York theater, perhaps most importantly the Off Broadway scene that was emerging in the early 1950s when Debuskey began his longtime association with producer Joe Papp. Despite pressure from the city’s powerful Robert Moses, Debuskey encouraged Papp to insist that the new Shakespeare in the Park be free to all New Yorkers.
According to Playbill, Debuskey told Papp, “I’ll do anything in the world for free Shakespeare, but I can’t work for cheap Shakespeare.”
Among the hundreds of shows represented by Debuskey from the late 1940s to the mid-1990s were now-legendary productions of Raisin in the Sun, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Dreamgirls, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, A Chorus Line and Amadeus. In addition to the Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park, Debuskey had a long association with New York’s Circle in the Square theater.
The native New Yorker was a past president of press agent union ATPAM, and was the subject of Robert Simonson’s 2010 biography The Gentleman Press Agent: 50 Years in the Theatrical Trenches.