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Theater Critics as State Bar Association Presidents

By Bennett Liebman
Government Lawyer in Residence
Government Law Center, Albany Law School

In the Broadway musical "Curtains", composers Fred Ebb and John Kander say of theater critics, in the song "What Kind of Man?": "Who could be mean enough, Base and obscene enough, To take a job like that? ... Who could be jerk enough, Hard up for work enough, To want a job like that?" The short answer, as far the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) is concerned, is former State Bar Association presidents.

Two NYSBA presidents worked doing entertainment criticism and writing up news of the entertainment field. Take Sidney B. Pfeiffer of Buffalo, who served as NYSBA president in 1965, for example. Besides serving as an attorney active in the entertainment field, Pfeiffer worked as a correspondent for Variety, the entertainment magazine mainstay, for over 40 years. He started working for Variety in 1919, and even before the conclusion of his work there in the 1960's, he was recognized as the magazine's "longest consecutive out-of-town correspondent." Pfeiffer's devotion to the theater and arts fields is memorialized in Buffalo at his namesake Pfeiffer Theater, a 350-seat theater in downtown Buffalo run by the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts.

Even odder than a NYSBA president stringing for decades for Variety is the case of Elihu Root. Root, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, epitomized the lawyer as a public servant. He served as a United State Senator, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. Not only was he the president of the State Bar from 1910 -1911, he also served terms as the president of both the New York City Bar Association and the American Bar Association. He helped establish the firm that became the basis for the current firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

Yet, as a young lawyer he also worked as the assistant drama editor for the New York Sun from 1870-1874.The toned-down conservative Root would seem to make an unlikely theater critic, and in reviewing a book that cataloged American theater critics, Variety regarded his entry as a critic as a "surprise". In addition to Root's theater criticism, his junior law partner at the time, the future Court of Appeals Chief Judge Willard Bartlett, was the actual theater critic for the New York Sun. Root was his junior partner's assistant at the Sun. Moreover, while Bartlett handled the deeper and more challenging plays, Root generally reviewed the lighter, more burlesque types. One wonders whether they had an assignment editor calling on a future Court of Appeals Chief Judge to review "King Lear" while telling a future Nobel Peace Prize winner to review a "Beetlejuice"-type of musical.

So, if anyone is looking to head the NYSBA or to become a future Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals, the toughness and orneriness celebrated by Kander and Ebb might suggest that theater criticism could serve as the proper career vehicle path to achieving these goals.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on August 12, 2019 4:36 PM.

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