By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
To accomplish these feats, Mittelman could invoke a dark vision of impending financial doom. Several times in its history the Playhouse had flirted with bankruptcy, and in early 1985 it had seemed to be doing so once again. Mittelman's predecessor, the award-winning film and stage thespian Jose Ferrer (who died last month at the age of 80), had left the Playhouse nearly one million dollars in debt following two uninspiring seasons that featured a crippling feud with the local press. The smooth operation of the Playhouse had been shaken six months earlier when trustees fired G. David Black, who handled the theater's business affairs.
Not only was the 50-member Playhouse board of trustees ready for a white knight, they were willing to dip deep into Playhouse coffers to buy one. The board agreed to pay Mittelman more than $100,000 in annual salary, and also kicked in another $1250 per month toward mortgage payments on a spacious Coconut Grove home Mittelman purchased. The director was also given a hefty bonus package, an expense account that allowed for frequent travel, and a Cadillac to drive.
Board members also agreed to Mittelman's demand for control of both the business and artistic sides of the nonprofit corporation, and the somewhat grandiloquent title of producing artistic director. (Typically, nonprofit theaters split the business and artistic functions between two executives of equal power, partly to help assure fiscal accountability.) Mittelman also demanded plenty of leeway to hire and fire whom he wanted. With board approval, he proceeded to hire his business partner at $57,000 per year, an acquaintance from New Jersey for another $57,000, and his wife at $50,000, later casting her in several plays.
Ten years before Playhouse trustees wooed him from afar, flew him to Miami on several occasions, and finally hired him, Mittelman had been driving a Ford Fiesta and putting on plays in the basement of a Baptist church in Montclair, New Jersey. The now-defunct Whole Theater began as a countercultural collective of ten couples committed to community theater. As it grew to a $1.2-million-per-year success, former general manager Larry Feldman says a rift developed between producing director Mittelman and the troupe's artistic director, Olympia Dukakis. Dukakis, who would go on to win an Academy Award for her own acting, was something of a purist, bent on staging "signature works" - classics, ambitious new dramas, or daring reinterpretations of older plays. "Arnold's camp was founded more on a commercial ideology," Feldman recalls. "He was trying to survive, and his idea of survival was trying to change the theater to a more commercial operation."
By the early 1980s Mittelman had acquired the rights to a play called Alone Together. The work was a success at the Whole Theater and Mittelman was determined to reproduce it on Broadway. To this end he formed a for-profit company with Lynne Peyser, a fellow theater enthusiast and the wife of a New Jersey physician. Mittelman/Peyser Productions took Alone Together to Broadway in 1984 for a brief run. Frank Rich, theater critic of the New York
Times, described the sitcom-like play starring Janis Paige and Kevin McCarthy as "so antediluvian that [the playwright] might have titled it My Three Sons Revisited." Rich also said he thought Mittelman had allowed the technical staff to "get away with exceptionally slovenly work."
The formation of the for-profit production company created the impression among some of Mittelman's colleagues that he was using the nonprofit Whole Theater as a testing ground for works that could be parlayed into commercial successes - with he and Peyser as financial beneficiaries. The production of another play, the big, glitzy musical Nobody Starts Out to Be a Pirate, reinforced that impression. Though the production fizzled before reaching Broadway, its run at the Whole Theater made some members of the company wonder at the apparent conflict of interest in Mittelman's would-be dual role of for-profit and nonprofit producer.
According to Feldman, the Whole Theater's board of directors launched an investigation into a production deal Mittelman worked out with the Seagram's Company for funding of Pirate. The board concluded that in both the fiscal and legal senses, there was nothing improper, but let it be known that they considered Mittelman's commercial tendencies incompatible with the direction of the theater. Feldman says the board suggested Mittelman move on.
Mittelman himself offers a different account of his departure from the Whole Theater, featuring an amicable parting of ways sadly necessitated by his work on Broadway. "At the Whole Theater," says the 47-year-old artistic director, "I certainly was a force for the range and variety and spectrum of repertory theater - musicals, comedies, multiethnicity, new work. I think there was a certain group of people in the Whole Theater who didn't have that range of thinking. With my leaving, that's what remained, and it didn't survive. My vision was, I think, a much broader vision."
Mittelman also does not recall a predawn telephone conversation that Feldman says he remembers, in which Mittelman supposedly screamed recriminations at him, faulting Feldman for talking to the board of directors during its probe of theater finances.
In Miami trustees of the Coconut Grove Playhouse took a shine to their new producing artistic director, but the same can't be said of Arnold Mittelman's colleagues and underlings. Asked to ponder the robust supply of professional acquaintances who are willing to say unkind things about him, Mittelman points out that the theater world is filled with flighty gossips inclined to cast aspersions on anyone more successful than they. Mittelman's critics concede that many of their barbs are opinionated and subjective - they fault Mittelman for a dictatorial management style, an arrogant attitide toward local actors, and a generalized lack of artistic daring. But in some cases, they say, substantive aspects of Mittelman's stewardship of the Playhouse have troubled them.