Arthur T. Birsh, whose job titles during his 50-year career at Playbill, the nation’s most recognizable theater program, included publisher, president, chairman, and most recently chairman emeritus, died Wednesday, April 14, at his home in Key Largo, Florida. He was 88.
His death was announced yesterday by wife Joan Alleman Birsh, Playbill’s retired editor-in-chief, and his son, Playbill President and CEO Philip S. Birsh. They said Birsh’s death followed a short illness.
During the 50 years of Birsh’s tenure with the publishing company, an estimated half-billion Playbills were “handed out by Broadway’s ranks of ushers,” the family said. With its familiar black “Playbill” lettering stretched across a yellow banner at the top of each booklet, the program remains a ubiquitous and often taken-for-granted piece of theatergoing, informing Broadway and other theater audiences of cast and creative team credits, musical number titles, scene breaks and intermissions, character lists, ads for other theater offerings, feature articles and, of course, the brief actor biographies that often give performers the opportunity to shout out their thanks to family, gratitude to supporters and joke about a de rigueur Law & Order franchise appearance.
In a tribute posted yesterday on Playbill’s website, Jujamcyn Theaters Executive Vice President Emeritus Paul Libin, whose relationship with Birsh dates back to the late 1950s, said, in part, “From the day he bought Playbill, the company was transformed, absolutely, unquestionably, always making sure that the programs were there. Always innovative, extraordinarily accomplished, very aggressive about his fulfillment as the Playbill boss…He was just one of the great guys of our theatre, an extraordinary man, innovative, adventurous, and a great loss, obviously.”
Nederlander Organization President James Nederlander told Playbill, “Arthur Birsh was a visionary, who was a friend and a man of his word. Playbill plays a role in theatre all over the country.”
According to Playbill, Birsh started work for the company in 1961 (the publication’s history stretches back to the 1880s), first as manager of its Manhattan printing plant. He was soon promoted to overseeing all aspects of publishing. After a brief ownership of the company by Metromedia, Birsh remained with Playbill as its sole proprietor in 1973.
In the 1990s Birsh began passing along some of his responsibilities at the company to son Philip. The company now extends to another generation: Birsh’s grandson Alex Birsh is Playbill Vice President and COO.
In addition to wife Joan, sons Andrew and Philip, daughter Joanne, and former wife Judith, Birsh is survived by stepsons Tom and Andrew Rubin, six grandchildren and four step-grandchildren, sisters, Claire Kroll, an author and television writer, and the Broadway and film director-choreographer Patricia Birch, among other extended family.
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