03 November 2007
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON Last week Tom O’Horgan did something he never thought he’d do. He left New York. This is the city, after all, where Mr. O’Horgan, the director, became, as one critic called him, the Busby Berkeley of the acid set, a La MaMa veteran of the 1960s who publicly bemoaned the “blue-haired audience” of Broadway, but who in 1971 had four Broadway shows running simultaneously: “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Lenny” and “Inner City.” For a brief moment Mr. O’Horgan stood astride this city’s theater scene, suede boots planted uptown and downtown.
But last Sunday he left his apartment at 840 Broadway, on 13th Street — a 2,600-square-foot loft crammed with musical instruments of every conceivable kind, the site of parties, salons and visits by Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Beverly Sills and Gore Vidal — and took a plane to Sarasota, Fla. There a condo was waiting, a few blocks from the beach.
And this Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the loft on 13th Street will be opened to the public and everything in it put up for sale.
Mr. O’Horgan, 83, was hard pressed to explain.
“I’m thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’” he said, sitting on a park bench in Union Square the day before he left town. “It’s not good.”
Money is why, said Marc Cohen, who has known Mr. O’Horgan for years, found the apartment in the early 1970s and lived there on and off, as a lover, then as a friend and recently as a nearly full-time caretaker.
Mr. O’Horgan’s income, primarily from author royalties his agent negotiated on “Superstar” (he received a “conceived by” credit), has not been substantial for years. But five years ago he was found to have Alzheimer’s, and he now needs round-the-clock care.All of this has drained the bank dry.
“Even after the sale there won’t be much left, because there are a lot of debts,” Mr. Cohen said, referring mostly to a mortgage taken out a few years ago to keep Mr. O’Horgan afloat.
There are some in Mr. O’Horgan’s circle, and it is a large one, who are not at all happy about this. They questioned the need to sell the apartment. And now, given that the loft has already gone for $3.2 million (to the actor Zach Braff), they question the need to sell off Mr. O’Horgan’s collection on top of it.
“He doesn’t want to leave New York, and he certainly doesn’t want to leave his musical instruments he’s collected for years,” said Serge Gubelmann, a musician and inventor of musical instruments who has known Mr. O’Horgan for years.
Mr. Cohen said Sarasota was temporary. It is, he said, a warm place where Mr. O’Horgan can stay while Mr. Cohen finishes renovating a place in New Mexico where he and his wife can take care of Mr. O’Horgan, who was adamant about not ending up in a nursing home. Money from the sale, Mr. Cohen said, will go to that building, as well as to the debts and to Mr. O’Horgan’s health care.
What’s more, he said, Mr. O’Horgan established a trust, naming Mr. Cohen as his co-trustee and giving him power of attorney. “Tom chose me to make these decisions,” Mr. Cohen said. “He didn’t choose these other people. He chose me because he trusts me.”
Ellen Stewart, the founder of La MaMa, said a lot of this wrangling went back to the fact that Mr. O’Horgan, a father figure for many in the downtown theater scene, had been pretty liberal with his financial support. “Tom O’Horgan’s teats have dried up, and a lot of people will have to get used to that,” she said.
The collection, acquired over more than 70 years of obsessive stockpiling, is huge: horns, harps, dulcimers, oboes, serpents, bagpipes, shakuhachis, gongs, drums, thumb pianos, xylophones, organs, wind chimes, didgeridoos, tribal masks, fossils, dinosaur bones and show posters. (Mr. O’Horgan is keeping some of his favorite ones.)
Appraisers from the major auction houses have looked at it, Mr. Cohen said, but the value, somewhere in the hundreds of thousands, was too low for their purposes. So, using the Internet, he has been pricing the items himself. The sale will have a $25 admission fee, which will go to the New York City chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, as will a fifth of the proceeds, he said. Though Mr. O’Horgan is still lucid enough to correct a reporter’s chronology here and there and display a dry wit, he is in no state to theorize about the brevity of his theatrical heyday. In past interviews he has blamed a Broadway establishment of critics, who generally panned his shows, and power players who rejected the exuberant style that came to be called O’Horganism.
His former agent, Ron Yatter, said Broadway producers were wary of Mr. O’Horgan’s directorial method, an unstructured approach in which rehearsals often began with spiritual communion and trust exercises.
But Mr. O’Horgan never stopped working, mostly directing workshops and readings in tiny theaters around town, often on a stage built in his loft. There were concerts at the loft, readings and parties that attracted artists from all corners of the city and often ended with impromptu late-night orchestras made up of whatever instruments were within reach.
Before the disease took over, Mr. O’Horgan would sit on his Union Square bench talking passionately about New York, said Perry Kroeger, who was an actor in Mr. O’Horgan’s short-lived 1977 revival of “Hair.” The artistic direction of the city discouraged him, Mr. Kroeger said, but, like a man in exile, he “was waiting patiently for it to return to its normal state.” (Mr. O’Horgan attended the Public Theater’s recent production of “Hair” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, but said he doesn’t remember it.)
Ben Vereen, who worked with Mr. O’Horgan in “Hair” and “Superstar,” said, “I see a show like ‘Spring Awakening,’ and I say, ‘Oh, that’s Tom O’Horgan,’ but no one stands up and says ‘Thank you.’” He changed so much about Broadway, Mr. Vereen said, “and they never bought him dinner.”