Ashton Springer, first major Black producer on B’Way, dies at 82
Herb Boyd | 7/29/2013, 11:26 a.m. | Updated on 7/29/2013, 11:27 a.m.
Ashton Springer’s determination as a producer was evident at the very start of his career when he was given a copy of Charles Gordone’s play “No Place to Be Somebody.” It took him years to mount a production, and when it finally appeared in 1969, it made Springer a “somebody” to be reckoned with. Springer, 82, died Monday in Mamaroneck, N.Y. The cause was pneumonia, according to his son Caz.
While Springer is perhaps best noted as the producer of “Eubie!” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” there were countless other musicals and dramas where his guidance was instrumental in finding the funds and drawing audiences, particularly mixed ones.
When Springer emerged as a formidable player on the Great White Way, his appeal and personality were a winning combination, but a Black producer, no matter the play or performers, faced a series of increasingly high hurdles to land a success.
It was the life and music of Eubie Blake that was the wellspring of Springer’s major breakthrough in musicals. Blake, along with Noble Sissle, was a pioneer in early Broadway with “Shuffle Along,” which many consider a seminal moment in the advent of the Harlem Renaissance. “Bubbling Brown Sugar” (1976), a song composed by Emme Kemp, in many ways reprised the revue format of Blake’s earlier work and added the music of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and the great bluesman W.C. Handy.
The musical ran for more than 760 performances and earned Billy Wilson and Vivian Reed Tony nominations. “Eubie!” (1978) had a similar approach and once more drew on Blake’s compositions but to less success. It featured the dancing Hines brothers, Maurice and Gregory, and ran for 439 performances. Eventually, Springer, through a court order, was forced to repay many of the show’s investors, though the musical was a financial failure.
Born Nov. 1, 1930, in New York City and of West Indian heritage, Springer attended high school in the Bronx and was later a student at Ohio University. An aspiring musician, he sang for a while as a member of the Four Aces.
Springer was in his 20s when he married his wife, Myra, and when he wasn’t carrying out his duties as a social worker, he was operating a laundry owned by playwright L. Richard Nash, famous for his play “The Rainmaker.”
From his association with Nash, Springer was introduced to the world of theater and was soon working as Nash’s assistant on “Wildcat,” starring Lucille Ball in 1960.
Another fortuitous connection for Springer was with Jeanne Warner, a former classmate whose husband was the playwright Charles Gordone. It took him years and the support of Joseph Papp for Gordone’s play to be staged. Subsequently, it brought the writer a Pulitzer Prize in 1970.
For South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “A Lesson From Aloes” (1980), starring James Earl Jones, Springer was executive producer. Two years later, Springer was hit with the order to repay his investors for “Eubie!” and this brought down the curtain on his Broadway trek, forcing him off-Broadway, where he produced a number of shows but none with the impact of his previous efforts. Nonetheless, his stint on Broadway was remarkable, and if nothing else, he was the wedge that opened the door for other African-American producers.
His marriage to Myra Burns ended in divorce; she died in 2005. Besides his son Caz, his survivors include another son, Mark, and a sister, Claudia Holston.