Philip J. Smith, who led Shubert Org., remembered
From Brooklyn to Broadway
Show business is mourning Philip J. Smith, who rose from usher at the old RKO Orpheum Theater in Fort Greene to chairman and co-CEO of the theatrical giant Shubert Organization. Smith, 89, died from complications from COVID-19, according to his daughters.
In a career that spanned 63 years, Smith worked in every department of the Shubert Organization and was named general manager of all Shubert Theatres in 1964. The Shubert Organization owns and operates 17 Broadway theatres and six off-Broadway venues.
Smith, the son of Irish immigrants and a graduate of Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin High School, “influenced every aspect of the professional theater and earned the respect and admiration of everyone from the stage doormen to the greatest performers and creative talents of our time,” Robert E. Wankel, chairman and CEO of The Shubert Organization, said.
Smith would assume the role of president, and in 2008, he was named chairman and co-CEO alongside Robert E. Wankel. Smith retired in June 2020 and also stepped down as chairman of The Shubert Foundation, the company’s nonprofit arm.
Hugh Jackman took to Twitter to say “Broadway lost a titan of the theater.” Betty Buckley added: “He was always so very kind & supportive. Such a loss & end of an era.”
In 2011, Smith was honored with a special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in recognition of his contributions to the theater industry. “We may live in smartphones and iPads, but nothing will ever replace the magic of Broadway,” he said at the time.
One of his most important innovations was the introduction of credit cards as a method of buying show tickets. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Times Square TKTS discount ticket booth. At one time, Downtown Brooklyn had its own TKTS ticket booth, at MetroTech, but that is now closed.
“It’s never boring [on Broadway],” he told Playbill in 2005. “I come in here in the morning, and I have no idea what’s going to happen in the course of the day. It can just change, turn around, spin off in any number of directions.”
In the same interview, he told of how he first got involved in show business, back in Brooklyn.
“One day, a friend and I went to the RKO Orpheum Theater after school to see a vaudeville show and a movie,” he told Playbill. “There was a fight in the balcony and an usher got beat up. I said to my friend, ‘I bet he won’t be in tomorrow.’ I went to the manager of the theater and asked if he had an ushering job available. He said, ‘Smitty, go downstairs and put on your uniform.’” Recently, the interview was quoted on Roxzfast, a show-business website.
When Smith was inducted in the Theatre Hall of Fame in 2015, Tony Award-winner Bernadette Peters was chosen to honor Smith. “It’s no secret you have always been head-over-heels in love with Broadway. You share the excitement we all feel about putting on a show. You have a magic touch that makes all of us feel nurtured and protected,” she wrote.
Not long after becoming an usher at the Orpheum, he became head usher, overseeing 28 staffers.
He became assistant manager of the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where he met Judy Garland. One Sunday night, she called him, upset that she didn’t have any whiskey to serve backstage visitors.
All liquor stores were closed, but a quick-thinking Smith went to a tavern across the street and convinced the bar tender to loan him several bottles.
At 26, he landed a job in the box office of the Imperial Theatre. He recalled in his Tony speech that it was 1957 and the show there was “The Most Happy Fella” by Frank Loesser.
He is survived by his daughters, Linda and Jennifer.
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