From an improbable start as a Dorchester boy playing bass fiddle in a cowboy band through years making a fortune in the travel, convention, and hotel industries, Ted Cutler knew that the arts nourish the soul.
With his late wife, Joan, he became one of Boston’s premier arts philanthropists, launching the restoration of a 100-year-old theater for Emerson College, his alma mater, and personally funding the multiday Outside the Box festivals in 2013, 2015, and 2016 that turned the city he loved into a sprawling series of stages to showcase music and dance.
Mr. Cutler, who was 86 when he died Thursday evening of complications from a lung disease, had a disarmingly simple explanation for why he donated millions to feed the hungry and provide lavish venues for musicians who might otherwise perform only on T platforms.
“God’s been real good to us, and we feel really fortunate that we’ve been able to share what we have,” Mr. Cutler said as he sat with his wife in the Bristol lounge at the Four Seasons in 2003, the year Emerson College’s Cutler Majestic Theatre was named in their honor.
In gestures large and small, the couple shared their good fortune widely, generating tens of millions of dollars for a variety of causes through personal donations and relentless fund-raising.
“Over the course of the past 25 years or so, he and his wife, Joan, were hugely philanthropic. It adds up to many tens of millions of dollars in philanthropy: human services, education, arts, and health care,” said Governor Charlie Baker, who added that “it’s a shame his very gentlemanly and old-fashioned manner and kindness won’t be with us anymore. My wife said one time that he was a ‘sweet man,’ and I thought that was exactly right.”
Mr. Cutler was a musician who became a patron of the arts, an entrepreneur whose success deepened his community activism. His philanthropy addressed hunger and health care, education issues and Jewish causes — and even the cost of holiday lights for trees along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. “People said, ‘Why did a Jewish couple put the lights on Commonwealth Avenue?’ The answer was because we care about the city,” he said in 2010, after his wife died.
“Boston has lost a true philanthropic leader, and the lights will be a bit dimmer on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall with his passing,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston said in a statement. “We will work to ensure his legacy continues to shine a light on the City of Boston.”
Mr. Cutler and his wife, who lived in the Back Bay, supported numerous causes, including the Greater Boston Food Bank, for which he cochaired the $35 million fund drive to construct a new building that opened in 2009. “If not for Teddy Cutler, there wouldn’t be a new food bank,” said Catherine D’Amato, the organization’s president and chief executive. She added that “thanks to his vision, we are able to feed over 140,000 people a month and provide nearly 48 million meals a year across Eastern Massachusetts. He believed everyone has a right to three meals a day.”
A donation from the Cutlers was the lead gift toward restoration of the Majestic Theatre at Emerson College, where Mr. Cutler formerly chaired the board of trustees. In addition, he helped launch the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of New England and served on the boards of institutions including Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the Boston Ballet, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Although his influence extended to Israel — he raised funds and awareness for a food bank there, too — his greatest affection outside of his family was for his home. In 2011, the Massachusetts Cultural Council presented its Cultural Philanthropy award to Mr. Cutler’s family charitable trust.
“We’re doing it here in the City of Boston because I happen to love the City of Boston,” he told WBUR-FM last year as he prepared for the Outside the Box festival. Mr. Cutler personally donated millions to cover most costs for the festivals, and until a couple of weeks ago was contemplating whether he could stage another one this summer.
Theodore Cutler grew up on Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester, the son of David Cutler and the former Mary Baron. Though he was one of only two children, Mr. Cutler grew up in a large extended family of Russian immigrants, among them his parents, who arrived in the United States in the early 1900s.
His father was in the fruit business, and Mr. Cutler “would get up with him at 4 in the morning and go down to the market and get his wares for the day and set up the store,” said his daughter, Ellen Cutler Calmas of Brookline.
Mr. Cutler soon turned to music, and though he insisted his talents were modest, he was called Smiling Ted when he sang and played bass for a cowboy band. Performing with his friend Jerry Benard in a group called the Benard Brothers, Mr. Cutler was known casually as Ted Benard, a name and reputation that stuck long past his playing days. For decades, he met people who insisted he had performed for their birthdays or bar mitzvahs.
For Mr. Cutler, music was a way to get him through Emerson College, from which he graduated in 1951 and to which he credited his future success. “When I told my dad I wanted to go to college he cried. I said, ‘Why are you crying?’ He said, ‘Because I can’t afford to send you to college.’ And I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll work my way through college,’ ” he recalled in a 2013 interview with Scott Mercer for the Boston Neighborhood Network that is posted on YouTube.
Mr. Cutler expanded his business from just performing to booking other bands, and then he and Irwin Chafetz, a friend from childhood, helped pioneer the charter tours industry with their travel companies, including American International Travel Service, which became a top New England travel agency.
A subsequent travel business, GWV International, eventually folded into Interface, a business in which Mr. Cutler was partners with Sheldon Adelson, another friend from their Dorchester days. That partnership also included the Comdex trade shows, expositions for computer dealers. Mr. Cutler, Adelson, and their other partners eventually purchased the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas at the end of the 1980s and sold Comdex a few years later for more than $800 million.
Mr. Cutler told the Globe in 2015 that his wife initially suggested that they turn their attention to philanthropy. “She said, ‘Why don’t we help other people who have not been so lucky,’ ” he recalled, “and from that day on I’ve not taken a paycheck.”
Mr. Cutler married Joan Harriet Berman in 1953, after meeting her at a bridal shower for a mutual friend, and he liked to tell the story of how afterward he brought her to New York City for another social engagement. “On the way back, I said, ‘You know, I’m probably going to marry you,’ and she said, ‘Shut up and keep driving.’ I chased her and chased her,” he recalled for her obituary, when she died in 2010.
Mr. Cutler “adored his family,” his daughter said. “He lived to make his family’s life better. He was interested in every aspect of what was going on in his grandchildren’s lives. They, and my brothers and I, and our spouses, were always the center of his life.”
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Cutler leaves his two sons, Robert and Joel, both of Boston; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.
A funeral service will be held at 12:45 p.m. Sunday in Temple Israel in Boston. Interment and shiva observances will follow.
Mr. Cutler and his wife were sought after in philanthropy circles as much for their geniality as their generosity, and many were happy to just be at his side when he walked into a room.
“When I was with Teddy, it was like being with God’s nephew — you were instantly credible and welcome,” D’Amato said. “If you were with him, you must be OK.”
His faith, and the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — the shared responsibility to repair the world — were “extremely important to him,” his daughter said. “It helped define who he was.”
Reflecting in 2003 on his success as a businessman, a philanthropist, and a family man, Mr. Cutler said: “If God could ask, ‘What do you want?’ I’d say, ‘Please take care of somebody else. I’m doing just fine.’ ”