In the two seconds it takes to name all the black producers in American theater, Ashton Springer laughs a dynamite blast of chortles, shifts his corpulent form in an easy chair, and challenges, "Now let's name the working white producers."
Challenge accepted, and within two minutes, the picture is strongly reinforced that Springer, 48, belongs to an elite of the American theater that's infiltrated by a few, the powerful world of David Merrick, Harold Prince, Mike Nichols and Alex Cohen. "But it's only in the last two years that I have entered the circle of Roger Stevens and can go to the Shubert organization and get $50,000 to back a project," says Springer, not pride, but a crisp matter-of-factness underscoring his words.
For most of his adult life Springer was a social worker in the Bronx and an entrepreneur of laundromats, carwash equipment and used cars before he casually slipped into the theater nine years ago. Now he's the hottest black producer out there.
Currently, the Springer scorecard includes "Whoopee," the Eddie Cantor revival in a pre-Broadway run at the Kennedy Center until Jan. 28, "Eubie," the splashy revue of everlasting pianist Eubie Blake on Broadway, casts of "Bubbling Brown Sugar," in London and Paris and a company of "For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf," in Los Angeles.
Since Springer's first success, producing the now-classic drama "No Place to Be Somebody," in 1970, he has moved from the off-Broadway world of high praise and modest profits to Broadway with its successes and stings, including an Andy Warhol flop, to star status as coproducer of "Bubbling Brown Sugar," to a niche as a crossover producer for box-office draws like Martin Balsalm, Anne Jackson and Eli Wallach.
He survived the apparently flash-in-the-pan era of the Great Blackway in the mid-1970s, to have an office of six people next door to Sardi's with a near-view of Shubert Alley. Success and status, or as he says, in a charming, comfortable way, "I've been driving a Cadillac for years. Now I don't worry about the payments."
Besides Springer, the black squadron within this producers' elite includes Ken Harper, who has had one hit, "The Wiz," and Woodie King Jr. of the New Federal Theater, Douglas Turner Ward of the Negro Ensemble Company and Vinnette Carroll of the Urban Arts Ensemble. The latter three occasionally penetrate Broadway, and enjoy steady success off-Broadway, but the number of black producers remains small. Lack of access to backstage jobs has been the overriding reason but, also racism, the lack of opportunity to develop skills of fundraising and to spot a bankable project, are continuing roadblocks.
In town recently to check out progress on "Whoopee," the musical that has some people melting with warmth and others rushing for the door at intermission though it grossed $150,000 last week, Springer eased into a chair at the Watergate Hotel. Now easing is quite a striking deed for Springer, who would win over Falstaff for his worldly tons. In the neighborhood of 300 pounds, he recently lost 38 pounds on a doctor's supervised diet, and wants to achieve his high-school football player's girth of 215. His gray and maroon Oleg Cassini tie waves like a flag ovr his bulbous middle and the sharp features of his warm face all but disappear when he opens a canyon of a mouth.
A laugh, bemused but nervous, engulfs the story of his rise as a producer. "It has been on-the-job training," says Springer, whose interest in the theater dates from high school when his wife bought preview tickets for their dates. But the late 1940s and early 1950s were shutouts for blacks on Broadway. At high school in the Bronx, Springer found winning elections effortless and decided to be a politician but changed to the thensolvent profession of social work at Ohio State University.
"I always wanted to be the first black to do something," says Springer. "I went to elementary schools in Harlem and a second-grade teacher said I could never be president. She said as black youngsters our chances were remote. What she was saying was that we should be ambitious but practical."His parents, immigrants from the West Indies, worked in menial jobs.
His first first was bringing a 24-hour self-service laundromat to New York. Through his coin laundry business, he met N. Richard Nash, author of "The Rainmaker," and producer of "Wildcat," a Lucille Ball vehicle. Springer became a partner in the production company, carrying the title, assistant to the producer. The year was 1960 and only a few blacks were working on the stage -- Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands.About the same time a classmate from Ohio State gave him a black family drama to read. Springer couldn't raise the money, constantly hearing a black play wasn't bankable and that he was inexperienced. Only the latter was true. Nine years later, Joseph Papp picked up the work, "No Place," produced it in a workshop and Springer took it off-Broadway.
"No Place," which won a Pulitzer Prize for author Charles Gordone, begat three companies. "When the last company closed in 1972," recalls Springer, "I realized I had nothing to do. I had learned about good and bad contracts, moving companies, stagehand unions, press-agent unions. But I also learned you never stay with one production."
Next he ran Detroit's Vest Pocket Theater for 22 months, produced Melvin Van Peebles' "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death" and operated the black-oriented theater until the funds ran dry.
When he returned to New York, he slowly began to feel acceptance. Neither of his next two productions. "My Sister, My Sister," or "Man on the Moon," won him any honors, but they put his name up front. "With the Warhol production naturally there were a lot of celebrities around and if anybody thought it was strange that a black man had the job, they didn't say it out loud," says Springer.
"In dealing with the unions, I would say, 'Are you trying to get at me because I'm black?' And they would say, "Get up off it, Ash" Their concerns were money."
However, his security as a black in this rarified world didn't emerge until "Bubbling Brown Sugar's" success on Broadway in 1976. He was involved right from the workshop production, through the nine-month pre-Broadway tryouts and the 22 months on Broadway. It received three Tony nominations and found itself a showpiece in the middle of the Black Broadway boom.
"I don't think the whole thing was a fluke. The 'Wiz,' then 'Bubbling,' then 'Guys and Dolls.' Blacks were there because finally something of interest was being given," says Springer.
"I do think some of the shows are exploitation in ways," he says, but, not in the same way as the black films of the early 1970s. At the same time I think these musicals were needed. Sure we knew we could sing and dance and I want to bring quality black drama to Broadway. But the reality is that the most successful shows on Broadway are musicals." "Sugar" was the fourth profit-maker of the '76 '77 Broadway season.
"Eubie," his current Broadway show, was his first theatrical solo flight and his first controversial role. In a backstage drama, reflecting the producers' world and also special problems of a black at that level, Springer brought in choreographer Billy Wilson to help out the last few weeks before the Broadway opening. "He saved the show," said Springer. Wilson then wanted billing as co-director and choreographer and Springer advised that the request had to be solved by the union. He ended up firing Wilson and his assistant, who circulated a petition among the cast saying Wilson had been wronged.
"Wilson had done a marvelous job. But it got to the point where he said I could only speak to him through his agent," says Springer. The internal mess made its way to The Village Voice, which Springer sees as unfortunate but part of the knocks of the job."I have a very bad temper and because of that I do get physical sometimes so when I blow it's bad. I have to be careful."
In his groundbreaking role, Springer says, he is trying to make room for more blacks. "I try to bring a balance of behind-the-scenes people in each production. Now the picture is more encouraging because young blacks are working their way through the crafts," says Springer.
In his own career, he's looking cautiously down the road, taking a straight path of more theater, developing more crossover properties, avoiding detours into movies. "The joy of this job is going into the theater every night, checking the box office for receipts. I can't sing, direct or act but I respect creative people. I love participating in what the people are enjoying and being able to make money at something I like."
But a black producer isn't safe from racial incidents. On the opening night of "Whcopee," Springer was standing at the rail of the orchestra seating. A Park Policeman tapped him on the shoulder, asked him to step outside, and told him he had been identified as the person who had robbed a woman.
Springer screamed, "Do you know who I am," but was escorted to a room downstairs anyway. "I guess there were only three or four blacks in the audience that night. But here I am in my best suit and tie, looking at my show. The lady said, 'That's not the man,' and she wrote me a letter, not apologizing for the mistake but saying she was glad it hadn't been the producer."