Ashton Springer, Producer of Broadway Shows, Dies at 82
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: July 20, 2013
Ashton Springer, who parlayed a professional life as an owner of a laundry into a career as the first high-profile black producer on Broadway, drawing theatergoers black and white to shows like “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Eubie!” and Athol Fugard’s “A Lesson From Aloes,” died on Monday in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was 82.
The cause was pneumonia, his son Caz said.
A producer or co-producer of nearly a dozen Broadway shows in the 1970s and early ’80s, Mr. Springer was considered the first black producer to wield real power on the Great White Way. He is credited not only with helping to bring theater by and about African-Americans to wider public consciousness, but also with helping to bring late-20th-century African-American audiences to Broadway.
In 1979, The Washington Post called him “the hottest black producer out there.”
Mr. Springer’s first Broadway production, “No Place to Be Somebody,” centered on the lives of black denizens of a rough-and-tumble New York saloon, a milieu rarely explored by mainstream theater of the period. The play, by an unknown black writer named Charles Gordone, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1970.
Writing in The New York Times, Walter Kerr described Mr. Gordone, who would become the first African-American dramatist to win the Pulitzer, as “the most astonishing new American playwright to come along since Edward Albee.”
Mr. Springer went on to produce two hit musical revues, “Bubbling Brown Sugar” (1976) and “Eubie!” (1978).
“Bubbling Brown Sugar,” which ran for 766 performances, celebrated the songs of black titans like Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and W. C. Handy.
“Eubie!” focused on Blake’s work. Featuring the spectacular tap dancing of the brothers Gregory and Maurice Hines, it played 439 performances.
Mr. Springer was the executive producer of “A Lesson From Aloes,” Mr. Fugard’s critically acclaimed drama about racial tensions in South Africa. The play, which opened on Broadway in 1980 and ran for 96 performances, starred James Earl Jones, Maria Tucci and Harris Yulin.
Ashton Springer Jr. was born in Manhattan to parents who had come from the West Indies. As a student at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, where the family moved when he was a boy, he helped produce local concerts featuring the likes of Miles Davis.
Mr. Springer attended Ohio State University before becoming a social worker in the Bronx. In the 1950s, he and his wife, Myra, opened a coin-operated laundry in the Jackson Heights section of Queens.
Through a friend of a friend, Mr. Springer met to N. Richard Nash, a playwright known for the 1954 drama “The Rainmaker.” Seeking a nontheatrical side business, Mr. Nash became an investor in the laundry. He gave Mr. Springer a room in his office in Manhattan’s theater district.
Captivated, Mr. Springer became Mr. Nash’s assistant on the 1960 musical comedy “Wildcat,” starring Lucille Ball, for which Mr. Nash was a producer and the author of the book.
In the mid-’60s, Jeanne Warner, a college classmate of Mr. Springer’s who was married to Mr. Gordone, gave him a copy of “No Place to Be Somebody.” Mr. Springer spent years trying to raise the money to produce it but was told repeatedly that audiences would care nothing for a gritty drama about black people.
He eventually persuaded Joseph Papp to stage it at the Public Theater, where it opened to admiring notices in 1969. It went on to play briefly at the ANTA Playhouse as part of a festival of Off Broadway plays, winning the Pulitzer shortly afterward.
In 1971, Mr. Springer and Ms. Warner brought the play to the Morosco Theater on Broadway, where it ran for 39 performances.
Mr. Springer’s other Broadway credits include “Cold Storage” (1977), a play about cancer patients starring Martin Balsam and Len Cariou, and an all-black revival of “Guys and Dolls” (1976), starring Robert Guillaume and Norma Donaldson.
In 1982, after an investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office, a State Supreme Court judge ordered Mr. Springer to “make an offer of full restitution” of more than $120,000 to 33 investors in “Eubie!” whose money had not been returned.
“The bottom line is that the show never grossed enough money to pay back anyway,” Mr. Springer told The Times that year.
In an e-mail message on Friday, Julianne Boyd, who conceived and directed “Eubie!,” said that Mr. Springer was never able to repay investors in that show.
The episode marked the end of Mr. Springer’s Broadway career. He was later a producer of Off Broadway shows, including the musical “Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.,” about the black vaudeville circuit.
Mr. Springer’s marriage to Myra Burns ended in divorce; she died in 2005. Besides his son Caz, his survivors include another son, Mark, and a sister, Claudia Holston.
Today, although black directors, actors and playwrights are more visible on Broadway than in years past, they remain scarce among the ranks of its producers.
In an interview with The Associated Press in 1979, Mr. Springer voiced the hope that one day Broadway would be home to theater that transcended racial lines.
“Not black theater,” he explained. “Not white theater. Just theater.”