On the evening of June 17, 2014, the who’s who of the Off-Broadway theater community gathered around in celebration of the Off-Broadway productions that opened during the 2013-2014 season. Yes, the 2014 Off-Broadway Alliance Awards were in full swing, but it was noted performer and theater producer Edmund Gaynes who stole the night, having been honored with the Legend of Off- Broadway Award for his tireless contribution.
“It was great to receive the appreciation of the people in my industry. This is a small business in such that most of us know one another in the New York theater scene. And for them to have decided to extend this award to me is really a great honor.”
I had the pleasure of speaking with Ed the day after he won his award, where he admitted he went right back to his office and continued working after the ceremony. And this comes as no surprise. The 67-year old shows signs of unmatched energy, owning and operating a number of theatres, including the 178-seat St. Luke’s Theatre, the Actors Temple Theatre- both located in New York- and the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre, the Avery Schreiber Playhouse and the BrickHouse Theatre in North Hollywood, CA. Then there’s his ancillary organization Gaynes Theatrical Booking, which grants licenses for specific productions to theater companies throughout the country and beyond.
“We also book tours and engagements,” he said. “Cougar: The Musical, for example, is one of the productions that we’ve licensed out to theatre companies all over Europe, the Philippines and South Korea. So we don’t have to do anything with the actual producing of the show; they pay us for the rights to use the script and the music. So it’s really an opportunity for an additional stream of revenue.” Cougar: The Musical is just one of the titles held by Gaynes Theatrical Booking. They also hold heavy-weights My Big Gay Italian Wedding, It’s Just Sex and Black Angels Over Tuskegee to name a few.
And coming up in Ed’s near future are several projects for Broadway that might possibly rival his recent Legend of Off-Broadway Award. But with a background rich in both Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, Ed weighs both genres equally. “Broadway and Off-Broadway both have a relatively equal status as far as professionalism,” he admitted. “The difference is Broadway productions are larger and more spectacles, whereas the Off-Broadway productions are smaller and usually don’t have as much in the way of production value like helicopters or water falls and the like. But it’s a misconception that there are lesser actors and less talent surrounding Off-Broadway productions.”
It’s true, some of our most beloved playwrights like Tennessee Williams began in the Off-Broadway world. With a reduced emphasis placed on commercialism, artists were and still are allowed to take risks, creating the opportunity for novice writers and directors to showcase their work. The danger that has surfaced over the years, however, is the rising costs of real estate, making it difficult for smaller theatre companies to maintain their place in the industry. “And figuring out how to handle rising costs was one of the things I was endeavoring to do so that productions could be reasonably financed and continue to run and, hopefully, make a return on their investments.”
And with Ed on the job, it’s likely that a solution will arise soon enough. The man has been known for his unrelenting spirit since his early days as a child actor.
A History of Extraordinary Accomplishment
Edmund Gaynes made his Broadway debut in 1955 at the age of 8, in the Marc Blitzstein musical Reuben Reuben starring Eddie Albert. And his feet didn’t touch the ground in 1960 when he played Slightly, one of the six Lost Boys in the television production of Peter Pan. Then, in 1963, he took on the role of Monroe “Hunk” Hoyt, opposite Liza Minnelli and co-staring Christopher Walken, in the revival of Best Foot Forward. In 1969, he performed with Madeline Kahn in the experimental musical comedy Promenade at the Promenade Theatre in New York.
Surprisingly, he didn’t study theater in college, opting for a degree in political science from the City College of New York instead. “I started out as a Broadway actor at 8 years old, so I never stopped working as an actor until a number of years later when I went into producing. So I didn’t feel that there was any point in studying theater in college because I was already a professional,” he said. “And political science and history interested me. And, truthfully, theater’s all about talent. You can’t learn to act. You can learn and train to be a better actor, but you have to show up with some talent.”
In the mid 1970’s, Ed left New York, retreating to the palm trees and tan lines that only L.A. could offer, where he eventually turned his attention from acting to producing. And like most transplants, he figured Hollywood was the place to do it, producing a slew of shows throughout the mid 70’s and early 80’s until in 1984, at just 34 years old, Ed’s true character and strength would be tested beyond anything he had ever previously experienced.
Giving Up On Giving Up
Ed’s life changed in an instant after a very serious car accident almost took him out of the game. “And at that point in my life, what I wanted to be remembered for was not what I was going to be remembered for,” he recalled. “I had only been on the daytime soap opera As The World Turns for two years, and the news reports on television all said, ‘Former soap opera star in critical condition.’ So I guess that was more important to them than all of the Broadway shows I did.”
Ed had already been transitioning into producing, so the damage done to his body that would have normally affected an actor’s career, possibly destroying his spirit, did no such thing to Ed. “The biggest thing I took away from that experience was the strength in my resolve,” he commented. “When I was in the hospital, I couldn’t speak or read for months. And I had to figure out how I was going to operate and be a producer without being able to do any of those things. But my natural spirit was not to give up and say, ‘Well, I’m an invalid, so that’s it.’ I didn’t want my life to be over at 34, so I fought back. And as months went by, I could read and speak again.”
Once on his feet, Ed took on producing without a hitch. And in 1988, he traded Hollywood in for the Valley. “Hollywood is Hollywood; it can be a little grimy and hard to park, And I was really refreshed by the opportunities that presented themselves in the Valley. You could build new theaters at affordable prices.”
A New Home
It was there that he would become President of the Valley Theatre League before eventually turning a vacant, former piano shop in North Hollywood into his very own two-theater complex, which he named The Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center. “It was just an empty building, and the process really required starting over from scratch,” he said. “But finding a location that worked for all of our needs and a space that had parking was important.” Ed named the theater after James Whitmore, one of his personal champions, whom he’d met in 1969 after he was hired to play the dual role of Whitmore’s son and younger self in Evan Hunter’s The Conjuror. And Ed has been renting the space out for productions like My Big Gay Italian Wedding and Troilus & Cressida ever since.
Today, Ed is operating four theaters in North Hollywood and several in New York, mainly using them as rental houses. But when he is producing shows, he embraces all kinds of subject matter- having launched a production of Black Angels Over Tuskegee at the Actors Temple Theatre. Black Angels Over Tuskegee, which follows the journey of 6 black men embarking on the voyage to become pilots in the Jim Crow South, was the winner of the 2009 NAACP Award for Best Ensemble and the recipient of the 2009 Artistic Achievement Award for Best Play. And other productions like The Rise of Dorothy Hale and Zero Hour have also left huge impressions.
And yet, with so much on his plate and such a big future to live into, Ed continues to make it all look so easy, showing no signs of slowing down. But then again, when you truly master something, there’s no need to. “I’ve been in showbiz my entire life, and I’m having a great time and I’m going to go for as long as I can. People always say that if you control your work, it’s the best thing in the world. When people enjoy their work, they’re not looking forward to retiring. We live and breathe because we love the work.”