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David and Art - By George

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Remembering a Broadway fixture from the 20th century whose name is becoming forgotten today.

Broadway, it seems, is back. The shows are selling tickets and houses are filling up. At the end of January, the 19 shows that were open were running at just under 74% capacity. Last week those 19 shows were at 92% capacity. Everything indicates that crowds will continue to grow.

Still, in terms of popular culture Broadway remains a shadow of what it used to be. From the 1920s through the mid-60s Broadway was as central to American culture as pop music is today.

One name from that golden age of theater I’ve come to really revere is that of George S. Kaufman, someone who’s today all but forgotten. He’s a great American playwright and a humorist about whom until recently I knew almost nothing.

Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh in 1889 and got his first writing job in 1912 as a humor columnist for the Washington Times. Three years later he was writing for the New York Tribune and in another two years was the drama editor for the New York Times. By then he had begun writing plays himself. His Broadway debut as a writer came in 1918 during the Spanish flu pandemic. He quipped that the best way to avoid a crowd in New York that year was to attend his play.

He had his first success in 1921 and went on to pen such perennial classics as “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Stage Door,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “Of Thee I Sing,” and “The Royal Family.” He won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama in the 1930s and a Tony Award in 1951. Listen to this: In every Broadway season from 1921 through 1958 there was a play written or directed by Kaufman.

Kaufman collaborated with Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Edna Ferber, Moss Hart and, perhaps most famously, the Marx Brothers. He wrote the screenplay for their film “A Night at the Opera,” plus the original plays on which their first two movies, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers,” were based. Groucho considered him a genius and said the greatest compliment he ever received was when Kaufman said that Groucho was the only actor he would ever allow to improvise in one of his scripts.

Like any other great writer, Kaufman understood that we all have quirks and eccentricities that when put onstage can be outrageously funny, but which also reveal our deeper human nature. Indeed, knowing that is one of the things that contributed to him being a great artist.

He died 61 years ago but, now, you know his name.