Webmaster’s Note: This article appeared in the Wall Street Journal on 23 May 2013, naming Myrna and Freddie Gershon as the paper’s “Donors of the Day.” See end of article for links on this blog to related stories.
By MELANIE GRAYCE WEST
As executives in the entertainment industry, Myrna and Freddie Gershon had seen it all. But a theatrical performance put on by students of P 94 middle school in Manhattan, a special education school, changed their perspective on theater and has inspired a philanthropic legacy.
The couple—both in their 70s—made their careers, and a lot of their wealth, in the entertainment industry during the 1970s. Mrs. Gershon was a motion-picture executive who created merchandise and licensing deals. Her greatest hits include Flintstones vitamins, the Pebbles breakfast cereals and a deal with J.C. Penney to exclusively sell a white polyester suit inspired by “Saturday Night Fever.” That film also spawned a cologne that “smelled like Bay Ridge, Brooklyn,” quips Mr. Gershon.
By trade, Mr. Gershon is a lawyer who worked for Robert Stigwood Group, with clients that included the Bee Gees, Eric Clapton and film soundtracks for “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever.” Later in life, he became chairman and chief executive of Music Theatre International (MTI), a licensing company. Nearly 20 years ago, Mr. Gershon came up with the idea to create shortened versions of major musicals that could be performed in schools. His “Broadway Junior Collection” shows have been performed some 300,000 times, he says.
A few years ago and with the Shubert Foundation, MTI began a program with the New York City Department of Education to bring musical theater education to underserved middle schools. A middle school of P 94, which primarily serves children on the autism spectrum, was one of the included schools.
The Gershons attended a performance at the school and “saw what music and theater and dance could do to a nonverbal child,” recalls Mrs. Gershon. “It was mind-boggling.” Parents and members of the audience cried. “We cried,” she says.
P 94 only had a three-year commitment from the Department of Education to put on the musical theater program. On the fourth year, Mr. Gershon says he was approached by the school’s principal, Ronnie Shuster, to continue the program.
“I said, ‘How much?’” recalls Mr. Gershon. The estimated cost was $75,000 and Mrs. Gershon said, “Just give it to them.” They funneled the gift through ArtsConnection, a New York nonprofit.
After another successful year, the Gershons asked Ms. Shuster her wish. She wanted to bring musical theater education to all five locations of her primary and middle schools. Mr. Gershon said he wanted to see such a program evaluated by an expert and documented with research.
The new program began this spring with a $250,000 gift from the Gershons. All P 94 schools now have a musical theater program and performances were held this month.
Anecdotally, the musical-theater program has encouraged collaboration between students. The shows have helped children to develop language, as some children are able to sing, but not speak. Reading has improved. The performances inspire courage in the children and helped them with their attention span.
“It’s like a magic wand was placed over them,” says Mr. Gershon.
The performances have allowed parents and families the universal pleasure of seeing their child perform on stage. It’s also given the Gershons a focus in their giving; they want to learn from this program, make it better and see it grow.
“We are in the homestretch of our life,” says Mr. Gershon. “Why not just have fun and do good things?”
Click here to see a previous post about this program.
Click here to see a previous post that links to a Huffington Post blog Freddie wrote about the program.
Click here to see ArtsConnection contribution page. This provides the following info on how to make special inquires: If you have any questions or would like to make a gift of stock, please contact our Development Department at 212-302-7433 ext. 470, or email us at Email HendershotK