The Silver Lining

by Frank Rich, New York Times Op-Ed, Sunday January 9, 1994

On his Inaguration Day as the new Mayor's Best Showbiz Friend, Ron Silver failed to give Rudolph Giuliani the most essential advice a professional actor can bequeath to an amateur: Never share a stage with a child or a dog.

This was not the first time Mr. Silver was missing in action while the Mayor floundered in artistic affairs. Earlier, the new Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, John Dyson, had stepped into a front-page embarrassment by waving a budgetary hatchet at New York City's already starving smaller arts organizations.

Mr. Silver, in case you missed act one, had been a controversial player in the mayoral campaign. A liberal Democrat, he bolted to the opposition, endorsing Mr. Giuliani in commercials that cast the actor as a kinder, gentler incarnation of the character Jackie Mason played so disastrously during the '89 Dinkins-Giuliani race. The mission was to achieve a reversal of his candidate's fortunes with Jewish voters.

Now that his man has won and his Streisandesque showboating moment as inaugural master of revels is over, is Mr. Silver shedding his political role? Yes, he told me late last week while dexterously distancing himself from the Dyson flap. Having helped screen candidates for the soon-to-be-filled job of Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, he intends to return to his careers as actor, director and president of the union Actor's Equity. Mr. Silver subscribes to the pragmatic Giuliani brand of arts boosterism -- "Rudy sees the arts as a serious economic player in the city" -- but he plans to schmooze his friend on this and other subjects informally rather than take on any official duties.

If the new mayor really believed what he said about the arts in his inaugural address -- "they are important industries that will and must grow to create more jobs for us" -- he shouldn't let Mr. Silver slip away so fast. A collapse in one of those industries could happen on the new Mayor's watch, and Mr. Silver, who has credibility with both the new administration and the fractious constituencies within show business, may be the only New Yorker who can play Lee Iacocca.

The industry in trouble is, of course, the Broadway theater. Even as Mr. Giuliani was being sworn in over New Year's, Variety reported that Broadway ticket prices, which have already driven away countless theatergoers, would rise to a $75 top by fall. While holiday tourists may have thought that every marquee on the central theatrical block of 45th Street was aglow, a closer examination revealed that most of the marquees were dummies, installed temporarily for the filming of a television commercial.

Costs are sky high, scaring away investors as well as ticket buyers. New productions, except of musical revivals, are more rumor than reality. New pledges of state loans to renovate often-empty Broadway theaters are mere Band-Aids.

And yet when Mr. Giuliani talks about the arts as an economic engine for the city, the theater is essential to his vision. In the recent Port Authority report that credited the arts for a $9.2 billion contribution to the New York City economy, $900 million of that figure was attributed to the commercial theater.

The economic woes of the theater are not the fault of the majority of its artists, many of whom are sustained by the small institutional companies off Broadway frightened by Mr. Dyson. The commercial theater's troubles are of its own making, through its Stone Age business practices. There's plenty of blame for everyone, from the theater owners who have preserved the rusty status quo for decades to the often intransigent unions like Mr. Silver's, which even he concedes is a "19th-century mechanism trying to drag itself into the 20th century before the 21st century hits."

A crash civic effort at resuscitation is desperately needed. Mr. Silver would be perfectly cast as Broadway's savior: the canny head of a crisis task force that would knock theatrical management and labor heads together to rethink Broadway economics and insure the industry's survival. Mr. Giuliani could go down in history as the best friend the theater has found in City Hall since the last Republican Mayor, John Lindsay. And Andrew Giuliani, the town's newest performing hopeful, could rest assured there will still be a Broadway to welcome him when he is old enough to star in a revival of "The Most Happy Fella."

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