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Former Broadway stage manager Paul Phillips, the man behind the curtain

By Randall Kenneth Jones
Originally published in the Naples Daily News

Paul Phillips - Photo by Kevin Randall Jones (2)Lots of folks have great stories about their time in the trenches. For Paul Phillips, whose career path led him to the fabled bright lights of Broadway, the anecdotes come with a bit more drama, a lot more laughs—and vastly elevated star power.

Born October 1, 1925, Phillips was raised in a series of foster homes in New York. At age 17, he joined the Coast Guard during World War II. Two years later, he landed on the Great White Way, his heart set on a career as an actor.

In relatively short order, the affable Phillips would develop an unexpected friendship with renowned actress Gertrude Lawrence, a relationship that would dramatically change his young life.

It was Lawrence who first suggested he make the career move from “on stage” to “backstage.” Phillips also looked at the practicality behind his famous mentor’s suggestion: “Stage managers worked more often,” he recalls.

According to Phillips’ former colleague, Broadway veteran Michael Rupert: “A stage manager is responsible for protecting the integrity of the show once it has opened and the director has left. A good stage manager is worth his or her weight in gold.”

As a man with an appreciable heart of gold, Paul Phillips explains it a bit more simply: “I took care of the details.”

In traditional business terms, a stage manager is one-part Chief Operating Officer and one-part Human Resources Administrator—responsible for product development, human capital and brand management on a grand scale.

There are also those who say S.M. stands for “stress management,” not “stage manager.”

Like any effective leader, Phillips also researched his “stars” in advance of each new project—this included their reported quirks, goals and work styles.

The Best Little Whorehouse in TexasHis remarkable credits include the original Broadway productions of “Fiorello!,” “Sweet Charity,” “Mame,” “Pippin,” “Chicago,” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

Essentially, Paul Phillips spent his career protecting the integrity of some of the greatest American “products” of all time. It is also clear he did so, in part, through a series of selfless acts: by celebrating the considerable gifts of his illustrious colleagues.

To this day, when Paul Phillips discusses his celebrated leading ladies, he elevates the concept of “waxing poetic” to a reverential art form. “I never lived with my mother. My favorite memories are the times I spent with the great ladies of the stage,” he said.

In addition to Lawrence, Philips worked alongside Tallulah Bankhead, Angela Lansbury, Beatrice Lillie, Ann Miller, Chita Rivera and, his dear friend, confidant and “soulmate,” Gwen Verdon.

Gwen Verdon and Paul Phillips, original photo by Nick Malekos, new photo by Kevin Randall JonesIn a business whose lifeblood is the exploration of human emotion, Verdon and Phillips unapologetically crashed through the invisible door traditionally separating “business” and “personal.”

“Gwen and I saw each other—or talked to each other—every day for almost 40 years.” A blessing by anyone’s standards, Verdon’s photos and memorabilia define the spirit of Phillips’ quaint Naples condo.

It was also Verdon who encouraged Phillips to accept the job as stage manager for 1967’s legendary “Judy Garland: At Home at the Palace.”

“Gwen said, ‘Paul, don’t believe everything you read. Do it and help her,’” Phillips recalls.

In a salute to the importance of perception versus reality, Phillips lovingly describes Garland in three passionate yet equally emphasized words: “She / was / wonderful.”

When Michael Rupert assumed the title role in “Pippin” in late 1974, he quickly began personally taking on his character’s negative energy and almost left the show.

In Rupert’s words, “I remember telling Paul how lonely I was in my

[private] dressing room. He suggested I just move downstairs to the Boy’s Dressing Room—and I did. I finally became friends with all the guys. Paul’s advice helped me get back on my feet.”

Paul Phillips Interview 24 Photo by Kevin Randall JonesBroadway luminary Chita Rivera, Phillips’ “Chicago” colleague, adopts a warm, affectionate tone as she speaks of her longtime friend. Though she is quick to celebrate their mutual love of laughter, she has no problem getting serious: “Paul is a warm, sweet, gentle guy. He was put on this earth to help, to heal—to make other people feel their worth. By doing so, Paul’s worth stood out. He’s a quiet man, but that’s what makes him a powerful man.”

As for his enduring friendship with Verdon—Rivera adds: “I defy anyone to say Paul was not the best keeper and friend anyone could have. I believe Paul would have taken a bullet for Gwen.”

Perhaps Phillip’s irrefutable legacy is also best stated by Rivera: “Paul provides proof that there are people in this world who are truly good people—that gentlemen still exist.”

Rupert adds: “Paul not only respected those he worked with, he treated us as if we had real value.”

Yes, workplace boys and girls, that is why they call it the “Good Old Days”—emphasis on “Good,” not on “Old.”

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Marketer, publicist, business humoristprofessional-courtesy advocate, branded-content writer, creative-development consultant, and entertaining motivational speaker Randall Kenneth Jones is the creator of RediscoverCourtesy.org and the president of MindZoo, a marketing communications firm in Naples, Florida. 

Photos: TOP — Paul Phillips photo by Kevin Randall Jones, Photos 2 & 4, Paul Phillips photo by Kevin Randall Jones, Photo 3 — Paul Phillips and Gwen Verdon – original photo by Nick Malekos, updated photo by Kevin Randall Jones, Paul Phillips Collection, BOTTOM — Randall Kenneth Jones.