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Theater producer Jay H. Harris dies at 77

Jay H. Harris, a man who made his fortune in business and found his passion in theater, died Friday at Fort Lauderdale’s Holy Cross Hospital from complications during surgery to repair an earlier hip replacement. He was 77.

His impact on theater in his adopted home of South Florida was something audiences didn’t see; he was modest that way. But his generosity with advice, funding and friendship made a significant difference to many artists and companies in the region.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Miami playwright Nilo Cruz, whose Anna in the Tropics Harris produced in London, thought of the producer as “my Jewish uncle.” Actor and Promethean Theatre founder Deborah L. Sherman says her friend was “like a dad to me.” Mosaic Theatre founder Richard Jay Simon says of Harris, “He was like a third grandfather.” All were hit hard by Harris’ unexpected death.

Their friend took an indirect route into the world of theater. After serving in the U.S. Navy and studying at Hunter College and the City College of New York, Bronx native Harris graduated from the RCA Institute with a major in electronics.

Beginning his career with Kenyon Transformer, he ended it nearly four decades later when he retired as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Connecticut-based International Controls Corporation. To entertain clients, Harris would take them to see Broadway shows, something that changed the course of his later life.

In 2012, when he was given the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts at the annual Carbonell Awards ceremony, Harris reminisced about his start in showbiz.

“I began investing in theater in 1971, when I backed an Off-Broadway repertory run of Claire Bloom in Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House,” he told the audience. “Who wouldn’t continue after that?”

Continue he did.

Harris became a member of the League of American Theaters and Producers as well as a Tony Award voter. He produced shows on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in London and Canada. Once South Florida became his permanent home in 1980, Harris became an influential force in the region’s Carbonell Awards program, serving as a judge and two-time board president, working with the late Sun-Sentinel theater critic Jack Zink to develop a stronger voting structure and a higher national profile for the awards.

Public relations executive Savannah Whaley, a friend who worked with Harris on the Carbonells, says, “He was always rooting for South Florida theaters and producers.”

Harris also contributed financially to productions at a host of South Florida theaters, including GableStage, New Theatre, Palm Beach Dramaworks, Promethean and Mosaic. As much as his donations large and small helped theaters thrive, the artists who became Harris’ friends treasured his unfiltered advice and strong opinions.

“Even if you disagreed with his concept of art or theater, he still respected you if you said so...Certain things he produced to make money. But he also loved good storytelling and loved to see an actor disappear into a character,” Sherman says. “Jay’s greatest gift to me was making me more self-aware and making me a better judge of the things I see.”

Harris backed a trio of Cruz world premieres at New Theatre in Coral Gables: Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams in 2001, Anna in the Tropics in 2002 and Beauty of the Father in 2004. The producer and the playwright became friends, with Harris often inviting Cruz to the theater when he saw shows as a Tony voter.

“Jay believed in Anna in the Tropics, but he believed in me more than anything,” Cruz says. “He was very paternal and demanding. He was hard on me sometimes, in a good way. He’d say, ‘You should write more commercial plays.’ He didn’t want me to struggle.”

For Mosaic’s Simon, Harris’ biggest gift was “his knowledge and wisdom. He’d come to my openings and stay after to kibitz until people left, and we’d walk out to the parking lot together....He drove me to push myself more artistically.”

Harris’ credits as a producer form a long list: that London production of Anna in the Tropics, All About My Mother with Diana Rigg in London, Wonderland starring Miami’s Janet Dacal on Broadway, the Broward Center world premiere of Rupert Holmes’ Say Goodnight Gracie with Frank Gorshin (which moved to Broadway) and so many more.

Bill Franzblau, whose first long phone conversation with Harris about investing in Say Goodnight Gracie led to their producing partnership on a dozen shows, remembers Harris as “a very tough businessman with a heart of gold. He was generous with his time and his money. He really believed in the power of the arts to make people’s lives better.”

Fifteen years ago, when he had already given more than $1 million to South Florida groups, Harris explained why theater was the art form that spoke most strongly to him.

“Lots of the arts are needy, but I have a tunnel vision that relates to theater,” he said. “I just really enjoy it. It inspires your emotions. Theater gives you the opportunity to see something that’s not replicated night after night.”

Harris is survived by his brother Alan of Miami Beach and his assistant of 30 years, Candice Dobin. At the family’s request, the funeral service will be private. But Harris’ friends in the theater community are talking about one last production — a Jay Harris memorial. That gathering is likely to take place at GableStage, where Harris was so often in attendance, just after the company’s July 19 opening of Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale, though specifics are still being worked out.