In 1958, three years after he graduated from the University of Denver, David Rothenberg arrived in New York City, hoping to find a job in the world of theater.
By 1966, Rothenberg was working with the biggest playwrights on Broadway, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Harold Pinter.
In his new book, “Fortune in My Eyes: A Memoir of Broadway Glamour, Social Justice, and Political Passion” (Applause Books, 2012), Rothenberg (BA ’55) shares stories from his theatrical career and tells how his work in the theater led to a life of activism, advocating for gay rights and the rights of prisoners.
As a new arrival in the Big Apple, Rothenberg talked his way into a job as an assistant to a theatrical press agent. He soon found himself rubbing elbows with stars such as Charles Nelson Reilly, Bette Davis and a young Alvin Ailey.
Rothenberg’s life changed in 1966, when he decided to produce “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” a play about a young first offender dumped into the hellish prison system. To help prepare, Rothenberg took the cast on a field trip to New York’s notorious Riker’s Island.
“It was a shocker,” he writes in the book. “All we were witness to was young men being
herded about or sitting morosely in dayrooms or dormitories. … It was clear to me, immediately and instinctively, that no matter what in these men’s lives had brought them to jail, nothing would improve as a result of this experience. Later I told a reporter that I found it to be ‘an exercise in institutional futility,’ a viewpoint that only cemented in my mind as the years passed.”
Moved by what he saw and inspired by the post-show audience conversations that became a tradition at “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” Rothenberg founded the Fortune Society, a nonprofit social service and advocacy organization whose mission is to support successful re-entry from prison and promote alternatives to incarceration. In the book, he recalls being one of three-dozen men called to Attica during the famous 1971 prison riot.
In the following years, Rothenberg would come out as gay, run for public office and get involved in the fight against AIDS. He recounts it all in his chatty, confessional memoir, sprinkled throughout with anecdotes from his life in show business. It’s an illuminating read for anyone interested in the worlds of show business or social justice.