Merle Debuskey, renowned theatrical press agent, dies at 95

Merle Debuskey was chief promoter of the Public Theater in New York City.
Merle Debuskey was chief promoter of the Public Theater in New York City.(Ozier Muhammad/New York Times/file 2009)

NEW YORK — Merle Debuskey, a press agent who was an influential force on and off Broadway for decades, especially as chief promoter of the Public Theater and counselor to the man who ran it, Joseph Papp, died on Tuesday at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, N.J. He was 95.

Philip S. Birsh, his executor and friend and the president and publisher of Playbill, confirmed the death.

Mr. Debuskey was no mere disseminator of news releases, though he disseminated plenty.

“He was much more than a press agent,” Birsh said. “He was something of an invisible hand in a lot of things.”


According to Robert Simonson’s biography “The Gentleman Press Agent: Fifty Years in the Theatrical Trenches With Merle Debuskey,” after the actor Zero Mostel was severely injured when a bus ran over his leg in early 1960, Mr. Debuskey recruited an old friend, Dr. Joseph R. Wilder, a leading surgeon, to weigh in on the case. Wilder is credited with saving Mostel’s leg, and Mostel, in turn, introduced the surgeon to painting. Wilder later became a well-regarded artist.

Another beyond-the-call-of-duty effort by Mr. Debuskey involved “Purlie,” a musical he represented, which became a Broadway hit in 1970. Watching preview performances, he sensed a lull.

“I had been monitoring the audience reaction,” he said in an account related in Simonson’s book, “and I thought that they were waiting for another song by Melba Moore, whom they rightly adored, and that they were disappointed when none came.”

His pestering eventually led to the addition of “I Got Love,” which became a signature song both for Moore, then in her mid-20s and relatively unknown, and for the show.

Perhaps no behind-the-scenes effort by Mr. Debuskey had a more lasting effect than his advice to Papp in the late 1950s when Robert Moses, the public-works baron of New York City, tried to force Papp to charge admission to his still-fledgling Shakespeare in the Park productions. Moses claimed the Central Park shows burdened the city with expenses.


“It was Debuskey who counseled Papp that free Shakespeare was worth fighting for,” Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, wrote in the foreword to “The Gentleman Press Agent.”

A court battle ensued. Moses won the first round, Papp the second, and Moses then backed down.

“All New Yorkers would not have free public theater were it not for Merle Debuskey, period,” Birsh said.

Basil Merle Debuskey was born in Baltimore. His father, Robert, was a wine salesman, and his mother, Freda (Blaustein) Debuskey, came from a family prominent in the oil business. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household.

Merle was a well-regarded athlete in high school, especially in lacrosse, and in 1941 he enrolled at the University of Virginia on an athletic scholarship. He didn’t stay long, though, enlisting in the Navy Reserve just before the United States entered World War II and serving in the South Pacific and elsewhere during that conflict. After the war he didn’t want to return to the University of Virginia, where, he said, he had encountered anti-Semitism, so he finished his undergraduate degree in English literature at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1947.

He was interested in journalism and, after being rejected for a job at The Baltimore Sun, went to New York to try his luck. He fell into public relations work somewhat by accident.


Mr. Debuskey’s first marriage, to Christine Karner, ended in divorce. His wife, Pearl Somner Debuskey, died in January.