August 25-31, 2005
Photo By: Manuel Dominguez Jr
From the boards to the funding, Suzanne Roberts lives for the stage.
The biggest, boldest marquee on the Avenue of the Arts soon will advertise the name Suzanne Roberts. It is an unprecedented tribute to a woman who has devoted much of her life to theater but is better known for her cable TV endeavors. The new home of the Philadelphia Theatre Company on the northwest corner of Broad and Lombard streets, scheduled for completion in the fall of 2007, will splash Suzanne's name in neon because her husband of 63 years, Comcast founder Ralph Roberts, purchased the naming rights as a gift to her.
While the letters on the Wilma Theater, diagonally across the street, are equally large, there are only five in that title, while the 14 of Suzanne's name will burn a lot more neon. Furthermore, Wilma is not a person. As for the Prince Theater, poor Hal doesn't get to see his first name up in lights.
So the new building will provide a unique honor, a singular advertisement for one person's life.
Other entertainment facilities have offered their facades for a price, and what we've gotten are the glamorous titles of Citizens Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field and such. Even when the building is a theater, like Arts Bank, they make it sound like a place you enter to hand over your money. (Well, maybe that is the idea.) Sidney Kimmel invested $35 million to put his name on the concert center, and the Shubert Theater was renamed in 1991 in honor of its president, John W. Merriam. The American Music Theater Festival changed its company name to honor Harold Prince, but the honoree didn't pay for the naming. Only Philadelphia Theatre Company (PTC) and the Roberts family have broken the mold by making a personal statement.
Ralph Roberts was on the PTC board in its early days, and Suzanne has made gifts to the company, as well as donating to other theater and dance companies and to the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. She developed a friendly relationship with the company's producing artistic director, Sara Garonzik.
At a luncheon reception in April, Ralph said his gift is appropriate because Suzanne was an actress: "She couldn't get out of the habit even after we got married," he observed with a laugh, "so I've had many women over the years." Their son Brian L. Roberts, Comcast's chairman and CEO, added that his mother often told him and his siblings: "If it wasn't for having all five of you, I'd be on Broadway."
Indeed, the biography of Suzanne Roberts she of the half-hour chat show Seeking Solutions with Suzanne is a complex one that boasts more stage than television credits.
She was born Suzanne Fleisher in 1921. Her grandfather founded one of America's largest textile factories, and her father, Alfred, was a real estate developer in partnership with Jules Mastbaum, who built the Mastbaum Theatre and the Rodin Museum. Then Alfred became a leader in prison reform.
Suzanne grew up in a large home in Wyncote, adorned with Rodin statuary because of the family connection with the sculptor. Her introduction to theater was Gilbert & Sullivan, quickly followed by the nude show at the Follies Bergére on a family trip to Paris. Suzanne was educated at the exclusive Oak Lane Country Day School, then Harcum Junior College on the Main Line. There she was influenced by a teacher she fondly remembers as "Nuss." He was Richard Nussbaum, a 26-year-old instructor who later changed his name to N. Richard Nash and achieved fame when he wrote The Rainmaker. They remained friends until his death in 2000.
Suzanne followed his advice and moved to New York to become a pupil of Stanislavsky disciple Tamara Daykarhanova. Her classmates included Julie Harris, Maureen Stapleton and Sidney Lumet. Suzanne studied The Method, which asks actors to call upon their emotional memory, and her personal memories were not altogether happy. Her father died when she was only 7, and then her mother married her deceased sister's husband, Leon Sunstein, president of the Federation of Jewish Charities and a leader in the Philadelphia community. From her mother, Suzanne learned the good qualities of community service, education and culture. "And my mother taught me never to accept money because I didn't need it as much as others do. Throughout my career I've never taken pay."
She also saw her mother's unpleasant side. "My mother was a snob. I was so uncomfortable with this that I became the opposite. And my mother was critical of almost everything about me. When I won a championship as a swimmer my mother said to me, "Is that all you want to do with your life, be a swimmer?' And when I became interested in acting she told me I wouldn't succeed because I was too tall and wasn't pretty enough."
At five foot nine, Suzanne knew that she couldn't play ingenues. So she was excited when she saw an ad in a theatrical publication that said "tall, slender girls wanted." Auditioned by a man who revealed that he was casting for the Troc, the striptease joint at 10th and Arch streets, she said: "I can't do that, and he told me, "You only have to strip from the waist up.' So I said, "Wait. I have to ask my husband.'"
It was 1942 and Suzanne was newly married to Ralph Roberts. The two met at a dance when Suzanne was 16. When World War II began, Ralph joined the Navy and was assigned to the Navy Yard in Philadelphia. "I called Ralph and told him about the job offer at the Troc. He said, "Great, I'll bring my commanding officer. He'll love it.'"
Instead, Suzanne took acting jobs at the Bucks County Playhouse, Plays & Players and the Society Hill Playhouse. Suzanne found the most fulfillment in performing for the USO and the Treasury Department. "We'd get on the top of trucks in Center City, begging people to buy war bonds. And we'd do a 20-minute show in factories, encouraging workers to donate blood."
She first played character roles, graduating to lead roles such as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Mrs. Alving in Ibsen's Ghosts, Martha in The Children's Hour and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Suzanne also appeared in new plays by Noel Coward, Edward Albee (The Women) and David Mamet (The American Dream).
"Ralph came every night to see me in every show. Tears would roll down from his eyes during emotional scenes, even though he'd seen the play 10 times or more. Near the end of each run, he'd buy out the house and throw a party for everyone afterwards," says Suzanne. "He supported me in my acting career, and in every new project that I found."
She gravitated from stage into radio drama because she hated to memorize lines. Through the program director at WFIL, she was introduced to Richardson Dilworth and Joseph Sill Clark when they were leading Philadelphia's reform movement in the late 1940s. She did media work for them, and was particularly fond of Dilworth. "He was a hero, a great civic leader." For a Dilworth campaign appearance at the Academy of Music in 1949, Suzanne directed Orson Welles in a one-act play she wrote about cleaning corruption from government, called A Clean Sweep. She reports that Welles was charming and "compliant" an adjective not normally used to describe the mercurial actor-director.
Wilma Theater artistic director Blanka Zizka remembers an unusual role Suzanne played in 1982 at the old Wilma on Sansom Street. "She played a poor bag lady, can you believe it, in Camus' The Stranger." Suzanne comments: "That took acting talent."
Suzanne's last stage appearances were in AR Gurney's Love Letters in September 2001 at Hedgerow, directed by the company's artistic director, Penelope Reed, and then in a private performance at Plays & Players, after which Ralph Roberts took everyone in the audience to dinner. Reed says: "Suzanne is so savvy, so bright, the most curious person I've ever met."
"My mother came to see me after I'd been on stage for 35 years and finally said to me, "You know, you really are talented.'"
When Suzanne became interested in psychotherapy, in her 60s, she went to Antioch University for a master's degree in human services and therapeutic counseling, which she practiced in Philadelphia schools and neighborhood centers.
In her mid-70s Suzanne developed Seeking Solutions with Suzanne, which airs on CN8 and CNN Headline News. On it, Suzanne has ridden a motorcycle and learned to tap dance. "I want people to get off their duffs and try things," she says.
She awards grants to 37 Philadelphia arts companies. In some cases, her donation is their chief source of income. She also funds the Barrymore Award for the Best Overall Production each year. Recipients of her donations need not worry about any reduction because of the new Suzanne Roberts Theater. "I'm not in competition with them," she says.
Sara Garonzik says that her company needed a new home desperately. "We can't reach our future here at Plays & Players. As charming as it is, we're looking for more amenities, like comfortable seats and bathrooms for our patrons, with everything more accessible."
The new building will have a 365-seat proscenium theater plus a small studio. "I love prosceniums," Garonzik says. "They're more beautiful, although I like breaking the proscenium sometimes. I like the tension between frame and its design. Another advantage of a proscenium stage is that you have more fly space. Also, I like the intimate feel of a balcony. We will seat 45 more people than now, without pushing them further from the stage."
Garonzik says she's come to love Suzanne. "She's a lovely person, smart and savvy about what's good art, with a refined sense of style and design. She comes to our plays and gives us her opinions. She also sees every other theater and dance production in town."
After Sidney Kimmel paid millions to the concert hall that bears his name, he insisted on booking Elton John for an opening-weekend concert. Don't expect the self-effacing Roberts family to do anything like that.
Suzanne says that whatever Garonzik chooses for the opening will be fine with her. She's tired of seeing a plethora of revivals on Broadway and admires the PTC because it specializes in new plays.