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136 136 8 producer, benefactor, and playhouse maker: david geffen John R. Poole Mogul of the entertainment industry, self-made multibillionaire, adviser to artists and presidents, David Geffen has been referred to by many in the entertainment business as a “genius,” a “ruthless cutthroat,” “the ultimate seduction,” “an asshole,” “a shark,” a “pig,” and “hero.”1 Hollywood insiders and cultural critics must also add to the list Angelino by way of Brooklyn, leading West Coast philanthropist, supporter of the gay community, and patron of the arts. Enfant terrible of the 1970s and 1980s music industry, Geffen has shaped the music we have heard over the past forty years and thereby the popular culture of our time. Often referred to as “Hollywood’s richest man” Geffen built a personal empire estimated by Forbes in excess of $4.5 billion by discovering, managing, or producing pop music icons such as Jackson Brown; Janis Joplin; the Eagles; Joni Mitchell; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; John Lennon; Bob Dylan; Aerosmith; Cher; Guns N’ Roses; and Nirvana.2 As a “bad-boy” record producer, he leveraged his way into Hollywood filmmaking by banking on then unknown actor Tom Cruise and producing top-grossing 137 producer, benefactor, and playhouse maker hits such as Risky Business, Interview with a Vampire, and Beetlejuice. The G in DreamWorks SKG, Geffen’s more recent successes include American Beauty, Saving Private Ryan, and Gladiator, with partners Steven Spielberg and former Disney whiz kid Jeffrey Katzenberg. Unlike his mentors and peers who shunned professional theater, Geffen parlayed his celebrated instinct for what the public wants by developing a strong relationship with the Shubert Organization in New York City and by backing some of the biggest winners in Broadway and Off-Broadway history. Cats, Little Shop of Horrors, and numerous other Broadway hits have made Geffen “the only man in the history of cultural capitalism who has succeeded in three different industries—popular music, Broadway, and Hollywood.”3 In the early 1990s, the David Geffen Foundation set the pace for a new philanthropic ethos in the land of convertibles, suntans, and palm trees, in part “fueled by ego, prestige, [and] civic pride.”4 He has donated millions to the nonprofit community in Los Angeles: a staggering $200 million donation to the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine, “the largest gift of its kind,” and now renamed the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine; $1 million each to amfAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) and APLA (AIDS Project L. A.), including $2.5 million to the David Geffen Center for H.I.V. Prevention and Health Education; $5 million for the Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art; and two seismic endowments totaling $10 million to Los Angeles’s newly minted David Geffen Playhouse.5 The man and his foundation are indistinguishable; one informs the other and provides a window into his support of those enterprises that strike closest to his sense of alienation as “an individual whose identity is in part constructed from his isolation as a gay man.”6 Indeed, if this impresario’s unprecedented success in the music industry was fueled by unbridled insecurity—Geffen profiler John Seabrook wagged “the only long-term investment through the years had been himself”—his motive to produce Broadway shows appears to grow out of his deep affection for theater as the earliest refuge of his young life.7 Elusive and enigmatic, Geffen adheres to film producer Ray Stark’s dictum “high profile, broken nose” and, thus, frustrates chroniclers who fail to capture the sensibilities of the man behind the icon, preferring instead to focus on the juicy if polarizing elements of his character.8 Insights as to what motivates Geffen’s philanthropy in funding AIDS research as well as his support of the arts 138 john r. poole are to be found by looking at his early and recurring romance with the Broadway musical. “I’m just a Broadway baby” David Lawrence Geffen was born on February 21, 1943, the younger of two sons born to Abraham and Batya Geffen—both first-generation immigrants from Russia. As a middling student, there was little in his childhood that would suggest any potential for a successful career. He was “one of those kids you would shake down for a quarter on the playground, or you’d steal his slice of pizza in the schoolyard,” recalls a junior high schoolmate. Unlike other boys in the rough-and-tumble world of Brooklyn, Geffen found escape in reading...


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