The primary Stages Off-Broadway Oral history Project

Celebrating the visionaries who created New York's vibrant Off- and Off-Off-Broadway theater.

Merle Debuskey

Merle Debuskey

Press Agent
Born on Saturday, March 24, 1923

Interviewed on: Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Location: His Home
Interviewed by: Casey Childs
Interview #26
"Theatre is quite remarkable. Those of us who managed to survive it were quite fortunate."
Merle Debuskey Highlights
Video Length: 5 minutes, 5 seconds
Merle Debuskey Interview
Video Length: 2 Hours, 7 Minutes

Merle Debuskey is considered the dean of New York theatrical press agents. He worked from 1948 until his retirement in 1996, publicizing over 500 theatrical productions. He was the first press agent for Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival/The Public Theater (1950s-1985) and the Lincoln Center Theater. He also was in charge of press for Circle in the Square for 30 years. He is credited with developing the first Actors’ Equity agreement for Off-Broadway theatres in 1949.

While attending public relations classes at the New School for Social Research in New York City, Debuskey’s friends introduced him to the theatre world. In 1948, he co-created The Interplayers, a theatre group that performed at the Provincetown Playhouse. Some of the first productions he publicized were THE INFERNAL MACHINE (1948), TOO MANY THUMBS (1949), and EARTH SPIRIT (1950). He helped cultivate a workable document, with Actors’ Equity, that became the foundation of future Off-Broadway contracts. During his stint with The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, Debuskey publicized Shakespeare in the Park and fought to keep the productions free of charge. In 1953, he was the press agent for Off-Broadway’s THE WORLD OF SHOLOM ALEICHEM; this play was controversial because it included blacklisted actors. His passion for civil rights fueled his publicity work with this production. After The Public Theater, Debuskey went on to work with Circle in the Square, and then, with Bernard Gersten, he was pivotal in turning Lincoln Center Theater into a successful enterprise, which Gersten guided until his retirement.

Mentioned in Interview

Jose Quintero, Gertrude Stein, Arthur Gelb, Colleen Dewhurst, Jason Robards, Dustin Hoffman, Lamont Johnson, Sean O’Casey, Joseph Papp, George C. Scott, Alexander H. Cohen, Erwin Piscator, Jack Gilford, Kim Stanley, Gene Saks, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, Susan Glaspell, Bea Arthur, Elia Kazan, Robert Whitehead, Bernard Gersten, Yugoslav Hall, Provincetown Playhouse, Cherry Lane Theatre, NYSF/The Public, Astor Place Theater, Lincoln Center Theater, Amato Opera House, The Interplayers, Group Theatre, Circle in the Square, Studio 7, The League of Off-Broadway Theatres, Actors’ Equity, The York Theatre, Theatre for a New Audience, YES IS FOR A VERY YOUNG MAN, TOO MANY THUMBS, THE WORLD OF SHOLOM ALEICHEM, LA TRAGEDIE DE CARMEN, THE INFERNAL MACHINE, EARTH SPIRIT