His death was announced by daughter Jenny Gersten.
“Lincoln Center Theater mourns our cherished Bernard Gersten who died this morning peacefully in his sleep at the astounding age of 97,” the theater company said in a statement. “Bernie’s intelligence, innate sense of goodness, bravery, wisdom, generosity, elegance and wit, and most important, deep knowledge and love of the theater, made him a giant in our profession and a beloved friend to many…LCT would not be here today were it not for the talent and love of this extraordinary man.”
Gersten worked alongside Joseph Papp in establishing both the Public Theater in the East Village and the New York Shakespeare Festival, housed at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, into signature New York City cultural touchstones. He followed that work in 1985 with nearly 30 years as executive producer of Lincoln Center Theater, a tenure that saw the nonprofit company emerge as one of the nation’s premiere producers of theater.
At the Public, Gersten was the primary deputy to founder Papp: As Papp’s associate producer from 1960 to 1978, Gersten helped to bring to the stage such seminal theatrical works as Hair, A Chorus Line, Streamers, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf, and That Championship Season, among numerous others. Shakespeare in the Park, under the aegis of the Public Theater, would provide early career spotlights for generations of rising talent, including Raul Julia, Meryl Streep and James Earl Jones.
Gersten and Papp ended their partnership in 1978 in a very public disagreement over Papp’s decision not to produce Michael Bennett’s Ballroom, the follow-up to what is arguably the Public’s signature achievement: A Chorus Line. In a show of loyalty to Bennett, Gersten himself co-produced Ballroom on Broadway, though the musical was not well-received and failed within months.
Gersten’s tenure at Lincoln Center Theater restored the producer to his previous high-profile success, though, with nearly three decades of ground-breaking plays, musicals and revivals: John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, a 1995 revival of The Heiress starring Cherry Jones, the 1994 Carousel revival starring Audra McDonald, Christopher Durang’s 2012 Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, to name a very few.
In all, Gersten received 14 Tony Awards throughout his career, and was given the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013.
Between his roles at the Public and LCT, Gersten was an executive vice president at Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, and was a vice president at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Gersten is survived by wife Cora Cahan, the founding president of the nonprofit development agency the New 42nd Street and current president of New York’s Baryshnikov Arts Center; daughters Jenny Gersten and Jilian Cahan Gersten; and grandchildren.
Tributes began arriving upon news of Gersten’s death: