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Lauren Smiley | Photo: Little Fang Photo | December 6, 2016
Her father’s money opened countless doors for Carole Shorenstein Hays. Now she’s bestowing the same favor—plus interest—on the city’s theater scene.
Editor's Note: This is one of many stories about local influencers, insiders, and rabble rousers that San Francisco is publishing over the next month, all part of the December 2016 Power Issue. To peruse the rest of the issue’s contents, and to read stories as they become available online, click here.
On a humid Manhattan night in September, the Broadway critic of the New York Post, Michael Riedel, nibbled hors d’oeuvres inside a soft-lit apartment overlooking Central Park and dished on the party’s host, Carole Shorenstein Hays: “If you had said to me, ‘Invest in a play about some lesbian comic book,’ I would have said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” But fortunately, he continued, “Carole’s out of her mind, so she invested in it, and it won a Tony Award.”
As her showbiz guests milled around the elegant, beige-on-beige pied-à-terre on Fifth Avenue, Shorenstein Hays—tiny, rambunctious, wearing tortoiseshell spectacles and polka-dot socks—stopped the action to make a toast. “I welcome you to our home in New York City, which—ahem—we consider a suburb of San Francisco!” A hired pianist cranked out show tunes on the grand. A Basquiat stretched across the wall. Shorenstein Hays’s nine Tony statuettes sparkled in the TV parlor (technically she’s only won eight, but she once wandered offstage with a decoy by accident). Servers glided out through the swinging kitchen door, placing plates on the buffet table, near which stood the original iPhone software developer, Scott Forstall, in a white dress shirt. Out for the weekend from Silicon Valley, he explained how Shorenstein Hays had made him Broadway’s first techie backer.
“You know who Lars Ulrich is?” he asked. It turns out that Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica, had invited Shorenstein Hays to his 50th birthday party, and she’d asked another attendee, her good friend Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, to introduce her to Forstall. “We immediately started talking theater. She said we should do something together,” he remembered. “She started sending me stuff and said, ‘You have to read this script’—the Fun Home script. I read it and said, ‘I 100 percent want to be part of it.’”
Fun Home would become the toast of Broadway—a “play about some lesbian comic book” that would go on to win five Tonys in 2015. It was based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel about her relationship with her closeted gay dad in small-town Pennsylvania. Bechdel was present at the party, too, and with Shorenstein Hays, she blew out the candles on the chocolate sheet cake celebrating Bechdel’s 56th birthday. The show’s Broadway cast members lounged on the living room sofas and floor eating dinner, chatting with the actors who would tour the show around the United States. They are due to arrive at Shorenstein Hays’s revamped Curran theater in January.
Which leads us to the tension underlying this razzle-dazzle soiree: While Shorenstein Hays—lauded Broadway producer, heiress of a San Francisco real estate dynasty, and bicoastal party host par excellence—was busy having her cake on Fifth Avenue, the Curran back in San Francisco didn’t have a seat in the house. Literally: Each of the 1,667 seats had been removed. Scaffolding was still stacked floor-to-ceiling throughout the five-story beaux arts house on Geary Street—“like the ICU,” as Shorenstein Hays put it—the unsightly cartilage of a top-to-bottom, two-year facelift. The clock was ticking down fast to the theater’s unofficial reopening on December 15, when Denzel Washington and Viola Davis will make guest appearances for a screening of Fences, Shorenstein Hays’s first Tony Award winner, now adapted as a film directed by and starring Washington.
This was all adding up to a heightened state of worry and exhilaration for the quirky, petite producer. “I’ve put everything on the line for this,” she tells me. At times like these, she likes to invoke her father, Walter Shorenstein. “He said you can over-question yourself. There’s so many more reasons in life not to do something,” she says. And among those, money is always foremost. But money’s not everything—at least not when you’re as wealthy as a Shorenstein. “He would say, well, you’re either right or wrong, but until you’re doing it, you wouldn’t know.”
Technically, Shorenstein Hays didn’t have to do any of this—she could have been a well-mannered heiress, a Junior League regular, a lady who lunched. She didn’t have to learn the ins and outs of the theater business, collecting Tonys the way her dad and brother collected skyscrapers. She didn’t have to pick the edgiest artworks with the most complicated scripts about the most disenfranchised characters. She certainly didn’t have to be revamping an entire theater while scheming to get young techies in seats, along with San Francisco natives and public-school kids and firefighters (all constituencies the Curran team is planning on marketing to). And she certainly didn’t need to strike out on her own from SHN, the commercial theater juggernaut that had defined her San Francisco career by bringing touring Broadway shows to the capacious Golden Gate and Orpheum theaters and, until two years ago, the smaller Curran.
Yet she did choose this route. Shorenstein Hays owns the Curran outright, and now that she has split from the SHN board over disagreements that have since spilled over into lawsuits, she can run it her way.
Shorenstein Hays plans to bring sophisticated shows to the city from New York—often, but not always, ones she’s helping produce. She plans for the reverse, too—testing out shows here that she’ll then move to Broadway, much as she and SHN did with Mamma Mia! and Wicked. The Curran will book local productions, too, starting this month with Techapella, a glee club face-off between tech-campus choirs. And while no plans for a repertory company are in the works, she may decide to develop some work at the Curran, too: “I love being in San Francisco, and every artist that comes here wants to be here and live here.” Shorenstein Hays repeats nonstop that she wants the Curran “to be a home”—one that raises the Bay Area theater scene up the global ranks, not unlike what SFMOMA has accomplished within the art world.
But while this year’s mammoth SFMOMA expansion depended on 1,500 donors, Shorenstein Hays is financing her multimillion-dollar overhaul alone. Of course, she is not the first Shorenstein to do such a thing. The family name can already be found on a host of civic institutions, from the court at the Legion of Honor to the Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford. To understand Shorenstein Hays, “you can’t separate her from the family,” says Benioff, a major city benefactor who’s modeled his own style of giving after Carole’s father—“one of the first billionaires in San Francisco. Warren Hellman, Cyril Magnin, Walter Shorenstein: These people were powerful and wealthy, but their wealth wasn’t used for their own benefit.”
Many old-timers in town know the creation story of Walter: showing up in San Francisco after World War II with his pregnant wife and $1,000 in army money and ending up the buyer (and seller) of the Bank of America building; the bulwark who kept the Giants from leaving town for Florida; and a Democratic Party fundraising titan. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, a longtime family friend, says that, within certain circles, Shorenstein was a verb with two meanings: “‘To Shorenstein’ was to be a person of your word, and if you weren’t, you were ‘Shorensteined,’ which meant that you might not be involved next time in whatever was going on,” she says over the phone with a chuckle. “Walter was larger than life, and so formidable, and so challenging.”
Shorenstein Hays tells a different story about her father. Every morning until the day he died in 2010, he would stack pennies, nickels, and dimes into three towers on a bedside table in the family’s Sea Cliff home, and before bed, he’d knock them over. “He felt each day you had to build your fortune,” she explains. To stop building, to do anything less than going big, wasn’t Walter’s way. So when Shorenstein Hays gained control of a Curran that had lost its sheen, she said to herself and to her husband and children, “Giddyap, let’s do it!” They were going to Shorenstein the place.
Nearly every workday for the last two years, Shorenstein Hays has donned a pink work helmet over her riot of gray curls and entered the Curran to check on its progress. In August, she ducked and swung about the theater’s towering scaffolding with surprising ease for a then-67-year-old, marveling over the 1922 details she’d never much noticed when she was mostly concerned about ticket sales. The walls were being repainted—from “institutional gas chamber” to a majestic Pacific Blue and gold. The chandelier was out getting cleaned of 94 years of gunk and cigarette smoke. The carpeting was all pulled up. The lobbies, basement, and stairways had been gutted. All of this revamping has meant two years with no ticket sales (save for the theater’s vibrant Under Construction series earlier this year, in which the audience sat on the stage and peered out over the empty house). Most owners would never swallow such a loss, which is the reason that many Broadway theaters “look like a dive bar at midday,” says her son, Wally.
But Shorenstein Hays has been willing to take the hit because her relationship with the Curran is so special—a theatrical (or “spiritual,” according to her husband Jeffrey Hays) backdrop to her life’s key moments. On Saturdays when Shorenstein Hays was 10 and a new resident of Sea Cliff, having been whisked to the swank enclave from her family’s modest old home in Park Merced, she’d hop on the 1 California and go downtown to wander alone. “I was raised with benign neglect,” she says. “This wave took me here,” to the Curran, which was then operated by the Los Angeles–based Civic Light Opera. No one questioned the young girl in a dress walking ticketless into shows at intermission.
The Curran reappeared in her life in the mid-’70s as part of Walter’s plan to save his daughter from wasting her potential. By the time Carole was in her late 20s, her scholarly elder sister, Joan, had blitzed into a journalism career; her younger brother, Doug, was following their father into real estate and would eventually become chairman of the San Francisco Federal Reserve. But Shorenstein Hays says she was a “terrible student”—due in part to self-diagnosed dyslexia—daydreaming through the San Francisco public schools before being admitted to NYU. In New York, she constantly skipped classes to attend Broadway shows and eventually dropped out.
So Walter stepped in, forming a company with the late theater tycoon James Nederlander to buy the Golden Gate Theatre. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, they leased the Curran and bought the Orpheum, too. In a region of nonprofit theaters, they held a near monopoly on presenting commercial Broadway productions. Shorenstein Hays dug in to learn show business from Nederlander. But differences between the young mentee and the veteran producer emerged. Nederlander wanted hits that would fill their enormous properties; Shorenstein Hays, working with money Walter had “set aside” for her artistic endeavors, had the financial latitude and the aesthete’s taste for riskier fare.
The Curran would become the site of Shorenstein Hays’s first real professional test when, a decade into her theater career, she set her sights on Fences, a play by the Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson. The story, which follows the travails of a black ex–baseball player turned garbageman, would win the 1987 Pulitzer for drama. When Nederlander refused it, Shorenstein Hays took it on solo, with the plan of workshopping it in San Francisco before moving it to Broadway. But the script ran painfully long, and Wilson refused to tweak it. The reviews were withering. Quivering at the prospect of her solo project flopping, Shorenstein Hays took to playing detective in the balcony each night, noting when the audience would rustle through the playbill or check the time.
“There was always one particular moment where August Wilson would go out and have a cigarette, and I’d grab him by the nape of his neck and say, ‘Everyone wants to do what you’re doing! Maybe we should just have everyone come outside and watch you have a cigarette!’” As she retells the story, a more commanding version of Shorenstein Hays snaps into focus—the lady Nancy Pelosi calls Peanut, “because she’s so petite and, shall we say, salty.”
Wielding the purse strings—and an alliance with the star, James Earl Jones—the duo finagled script cuts from Wilson and the director. The show went to Broadway, and in June 1987, Shorenstein Hays and Wilson collected the Tony for Best Play. (“You don’t win for Miss Congeniality,” she says.) In fact, she and Wilson didn’t speak again for years, though they patched up relations and Shorenstein Hays would produce his Gem of the Ocean on Broadway in 2004, shortly before his death. “In the end,” she recalls Wilson telling her, in a story we’re just going to have to trust her on, “you were my best producer.”
The Tony win—with the tiny, pregnant San Franciscan blurting out, as an acceptance speech, “I think I’m going to give birth right now!”—set Shorenstein Hays on her way. (Wally would be born two months later.) While continuing to bring touring shows to San Francisco, she set much of her producing ambition on New York, backing works that have nabbed four Pulitzers and eight Tonys, including another one for a 2010 Fences revival starring Washington. Shorenstein Hays took risks on work that likely wouldn’t find a huge audience, bringing to Broadway Caroline, or Change, Tony Kushner’s musical about a southern Jewish family’s relationship with their black servant in the ’60s, which closed after a tepid four-month run on Broadway. Recently, she backed Eclipsed, a play depicting enslaved Liberian women during their 2003 civil war, starring Lupita Nyong’o. “Sometimes I feel like a mother,” she says about her relationship with the audience. She motions spoon-feeding a baby: “Just try this, you’re going to love it!”
“There’s euphemisms in my business,” says Oskar Eustis over the phone from the Public Theater in Lower Manhattan, where he is artistic director and where several of Shorenstein Hays’s shows (not to mention Hamilton) have opened. “‘I think it’s got a broad reach.’ ‘I think it has legs.’ All of those are code words for ‘I think it could make a lot of money.’”
He continues: “Carole has never said that she’s not trying to make raging successes—and she’s made some raging successes—but in all our conversations, the only thing she’s asking about is, ‘Who is the most exciting artist you’re working with?’ ‘Who do you believe in?’ ‘Can I see their work?’ Not: ‘Do you have anything commercial?’ Carole is not putting pressure on you to conform to a commercial model. Carole is pushing for you to make it as good as it possibly can be, to be itself as much as possible.”
It speaks both to Shorenstein Hays’s vision and, no doubt, to her sizeable wealth that money is always of secondary concern. “They’ve been very financially successful,” she says of her productions, “but that’s not the reason to do anything, I think.”
But back in San Francisco, her relative disregard for commercial success caused a rickety relationship with her partners at SHN. In 2014 court filings, James Nederlander and his brother, Robert, an SHN board member, belittled Shorenstein Hays’s longtime involvement with the company as “an artistic hobby and a means to promote her social status”—fighting words when aimed at a multiple Tony Award winner. The filing claimed that Shorenstein Hays had once blocked a Lexus sponsorship for fear that it would detract from SHN’s artistic reputation. But the relationship soured once and for all over the Curran, which SHN had always leased. When the previous owner was looking to sell in 2010, Robert Nederlander claimed he’d gathered a group of investors to buy the Curran for $20 million, with hopes of leasing it back to SHN for a percentage of ticket revenues. Shorenstein Hays said she wanted to buy it herself.
Nederlander gave his blessing for Shorenstein Hays to buy the theater under the condition, he claimed in court filings, that she renew the lease to SHN for the life of the company. Shorenstein Hays subsequently bought the Curran for $16.6 million in 2010. But when the lease came up for renewal in 2014, her husband, Jeffrey (who, along with Carole, replaced Walter on the SHN board after his death), told the leadership that Shorenstein Hays would renew SHN’s lease only if she was given control of the company. Amid the dispute, Shorenstein Hays left the SHN board, though she retains a 50 percent stake in the company. “It just viscerally wasn’t satisfying anymore,” she says. “We were just stylistically different.” SHN’s CEO, Greg Holland, downplayed the divorce, calling it “just the loss of a board member,” and claimed he had no plans to use the Curran anyway. Others in the theater community, however, forecast a sea change: ACT’s artistic director, Carey Perloff, calls Shorenstein Hays’s takeover of the Curran “a huge shift in the landscape here.”
The battle over the lease agreement still lingers in Delaware court. Shorenstein Hays’s attorney David Tulchin says that “Carole never made a promise” to lease the Curran back to SHN, “and even if she made a promise—and she didn’t—it’s not an enforceable contract. We’re highly confident the court will see it our way.” Plus, Tulchin adds, “It’s kind of late now, because Carole has put a lot of her own money into the renovation, so what would the rent be?”
In the meantime, her split with SHN presents both freedom for Shorenstein Hays and a legitimate challenge for the Curran: losing access to SHN’s mighty subscriber base, which had filled a heaping portion of the seats. Though the business model is still being worked out, the Curran doesn’t plan to offer season tickets (the kind that SHN has been selling like hotcakes with Hamilton coming to town this spring). Instead, Shorenstein Hays anticipates needing to build an audience for each independent show (though she might offer a discount for returning audience members). All in all, her approach is not so different from her father’s daily towers of nickels and dimes.
To make the new Curran work, Shorenstein Hays was going to need an ace staff. She convinced three Broadway veterans to move to San Francisco and hired an Adobe vet to be head of marketing. One of Broadway’s king publicists, Rick Miramontez, now keeps a condo in SoMa’s Jasper building, and much of the theater’s copy is overseen by former Vanity Fair celebrity journalist Kevin Sessums. The whole crew often flies to New York for business out of the Curran’s office in Manhattan’s Garment District. In San Francisco, they head into a chic workspace across the street from the theater. Shorenstein Hays’s two kids have joined the team, too: 26-year-old Gracie runs the Curran’s social media and writes for the website, and 29-year-old Wally is the Curran’s deputy director and is handling its run of Eclipsed, breaking with his grandpa’s prediction that he would become the family’s politician.
The team is betting that Bay Area audiences have an appetite for envelope-pushing, high-production theater, an ambition first on display in Curran: Under Construction over the past year. Audience members entered through the stage door, down the side alley that once appeared in All About Eve, and sat directly on the theater stage. Looking out on the eerily deserted house, they witnessed daring new works like a musical homage to James Baldwin in songwriter Stew’s Notes of a Native Song and comedian Steve Cuiffo’s re-creation of Lenny Bruce’s 1961 Carnegie Hall routine. An excerpt from the performance artist Taylor Mac’s elaborately costumed 24-Decade History of Popular Music, co-commissioned by the Curran, acted as the finale. (That show’s costume designer, Machine Dazzle, also created the absurdist getups—made solely of construction materials found in the theater—modeled by Shorenstein Hays in photos above.)
If Under Construction is an indication of what’s to follow at the Curran, Bay Area audiences may be offered something they’ve never really enjoyed before: a world stage. “We have adventurous companies producing their own work,” says former Chronicle theater critic Robert Hurwitt, speaking about the entire Bay Area theater scene, “but what we lacked were adventurous presenters bringing us work from the rest of the world so our artists can see what’s being done elsewhere—that kind of national and international artistic communication. And if, on top of that, Carole turns her operation toward helping in the development of new work, that’s just gravy.”
Shorenstein Hays herself has been on a nonstop whirlwind sprint to get the theater ready to open: to the glassworker’s to check on the chandelier’s restoration; to the Sonoma vineyard that will supply the lobby bar’s wine; to the Fire Commission, where she stepped up to the podium to give a deer-in-headlights invite to firefighters to come check out Fun Home; to New York and the spartan East Village rehearsal space of British actor Simon McBurney, who the following week would open The Encounter, a one-man play transmitted to the audience via headphones that traces the journey of a National Geographic photographer in the Amazon. Shorenstein Hays would soon be announcing the show as part of the Curran’s 2017 lineup. (Before leaving, she stooped to tie the actor’s shoes.)
At Shorenstein Hays’s Sea Cliff home in September, even her birthday dinner turned into a networking event. Eclipsed director Liesl Tommy sat among the Curran staff and family, with the bay filling the dining room’s windows. Amid the baroque furniture and cascading chandelier is the dinner table where Shorenstein Hays intermingles the city’s old money and its new at her annual holiday party. Guests have included Pelosi, Jack Dorsey, Barry Bonds, Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Robin Williams, and Benioff, who says, “To Carole, life is just another play, and all of us are actors in her play, whether that’s in a theater or at a dinner at her house.”
After her brother Doug died last year, Shorenstein Hays became the final survivor of Walter Shorenstein’s nuclear family, which brought on a melancholy her husband likens to “survivor’s guilt.” Ironically, it took a theater to bring the “rebel” Shorenstein back to the family real estate trade. Looking out on the progress from a chilly balcony step this fall, she says of her father: “I think he’d be so delighted. He never cut corners.” After all, he bought the Bank of America building. “That was not cutting corners.”
With the preparations for the Curran’s grand debut in full blast, Shorenstein Hays has adopted a new show tune as her personal anthem: “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly! Another San Francisco native, Carol Channing, starred in the musical at the Curran at the beginning of SHN’s run in 1978, and these days, Shorenstein Hays has found the lyrics newly relevant. Last year, on her birthday, her staff called her over to a meeting at the Curran. A bouquet of balloons floated above the stage, and suddenly the tune piped through the sound system. Staffers held lyric sheets and joined Shorenstein Hays in belting out the lyrics:
FOR I’VE GOT A GOAL AGAIN
I’VE GOT A DRIVE AGAIN
I’VE GOTTA FEEL MY HEART COMING ALIVE AGAIN
BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY!
In front of the empty theater, the spunky, smiling producer spontaneously high-stepped about the stage, pumping an imaginary drum-major baton above her head.
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco