Towards a More-Fortunate Society

David Rothenberg Bends the Arc

By D. Silverman

DAVID ROTHENBERG HOSTS ON WBAI 99.5 FM, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m. Photo: D. Silverman.

It was the shimmering eve of 1972 and David Rothenberg faced a dilemma. As an up-and-coming theatrical publicist and nascent producer with a small office in Times Square, he was much in demand for his marketing acumen—at the time handling publicity for the hit musical Hair, and recently completing the initial Broadway runs of Cabaret, The Birthday Party and Everything in the Garden along with 1,001 pockmarked-Jew-fairy nights of The Boys in the Band, among others. New work was banging on his door. But, there was other banging too… his office in the then-seedy theater district was often full of formerly-incarcerated men (sometimes called “ex-cons”) who wanted something from him.

A few years back, David helped found a small, but growing, advocacy group for people getting out of prison. For lack of another space, it was being housed in his cramped theatrical office. But shortly after the 1971 uprising at Attica Prison—where David and his comrades were enlisted as observers—things changed rapidly. It had become apparent that the demands were too great for him to continue both as a full-time publicist on The Great White Way while also managing the needs of a start-up nonprofit serving society’s cast-aways. For most people the decision would be obvious—for David, it was too…

Today, the Fortune Society serves over 11,000 New Yorkers each year, including supportive housing for around 850 residents. With more than 500 employees, it’s one of the nation’s largest providers of re-entry services to the formerly incarcerated and related programs such as alternatives to incarceration. David Rothenberg, who turned 90 on August 19th, no longer holds an official position with the organization—where he was Executive Director for 18 years—but, unofficially, he’s its biggest booster and can regularly be found at Fortune’s offices, or their massive crenelated West Harlem residential facility (aka “The Castle”).


In 1966 fate slapped hard when David Rothenberg, in the midst of his first time producing a show (Viet Rock), was mailed the script for a challenging and not-as-yet staged prison-drama, Fortune and Men’s Eyes, by John Herbert. Deeply moved by what he read and deciding to produce it, he set about soliciting investments from friends and family… not an easy story to finance, he eventually took out a sizable bank loan.

As a result, a year later the brutal play, set in a four bunk cell, would run for 382 performances at the Actors’ Playhouse on 7th Avenue South—and continued on in other productions for decades. Committed to authenticity, during rehearsal the actors made an eye-opening excursion to visit a local jail—where they each experienced, briefly, being locked in a cell—on the notorious Rikers Island (notorious then, and still so).

One night early in the run, audience members were encouraged to stay for a post-show talk-back discussion about the work; during which, an attendee identified himself as having had been imprisoned. Pat McGarry was then invited to join the panel onstage for what turned out to be a riveting supplement to the play. It was decided to host another talk-back the next week and include other formerly-incarcerated participants. Week followed week, and soon there was a community of people forming around this production.


If you came for the Names: escorting Liz Taylor, assisting Bette Davis, close friendship with Alvin Ailey—to dangle a few—you can find all that, and much more, in the 300 pages of David’s memoir, Fortune in My Eyes. Or watch his one-man show, Namedropping, on YouTube.

Most weekday mornings, just after opening, you’ll find the aquatic nonagenarian swimming laps at McBurney YMCA.

And many evenings, before the place gets overrun, he’s sitting at Gene’s Restaurant (73 W 11th St), having the baked chicken while engaged in a conversation about…


Nearly every Thursday night, for nigh on 20 years, David Rothenberg has attended the weekly community-meeting at the Fortune Academy residence in Harlem. For residents, showing up is a condition of participation in the housing program. There are also staff, former residents and guests included. And David. As he put it to me recently, “In that room, you’re with a group of people who have collectively spent over 1,000 years imprisoned.”

1,000 years. A millennium of doing time. While it is understood all that was not-done during that communal epoch—the focus is on the future, and specifically that it not replicate the past.

“Why?,” I asked, “Why, at what was a successful time for you as a theater producer and press agent—when you had a handful of Broadway hits under your belt and all the opportunity you could want—why did you veer off to lead a non-profit in a field you had no prior connection to?”

David paused for a moment, then explained to me, “I had been the press representative for Richard Burton’s Hamlet on Broadway, it was the pinnacle of star-studded theater—every night was mobbed, you can’t imagine the scene. I’ve worked with many celebrities—but when you’re a press agent, your role is to be invisible; to disappear into the background.” He continued, “You may not believe this, but I was timid then, I couldn’t speak up in a meeting.” (I don’t quite believe it.) “But when we started doing the talk-backs after Fortune [and Men’s Eyes], I found my voice—the discussion was too important to worry about what people might think of me.”

He’d always been politically conscious, and engaged in theater that was relevant and could foment social change. His insight was that he could bring his experience in promotion to prison-reform advocacy and support for those getting out. Consequently, in a society that wanted the formerly-incarcerated to disappear, to become invisible, David could attract attention and funds to grow a movement.

Over many years, Fortune Society grew indeed, and he recognized that different skills and leadership were needed for a mature organization of its scope—so he passed the baton and continues finding his voice at the Thursday night residents’ meetings—which harken back to that first post-show talk-back at the Actors’ Playhouse, sometime near the Ides of March, 1967.


Ever the pitch-man, David has hosted a radio variety program on WBAI for over half a century—with music, opinionated rants, reviews and live interviews—you can hear him every Saturday morning from 8-10 a.m. on 99.5 FM, or in online archives and live streaming at:

(And he still promotes live theater, and non-profit radio—by offering tickets for upcoming shows to supporters of WBAI.)


A few months ago David mentioned in passing (literally—while walking by on the sidewalk) that the Off Broadway Alliance was inducting him into their Hall of Fame. “There’s a ceremony at Sardi’s, do you want to come?” I couldn’t make it, but when looking up the event I noticed a slight discrepancy—so I informed him the OBA was actually bestowing their Legend Award. Afterwards, David emailed to clarify that he learned he’d been honored as a ‘Legend’ because the Hall of Fame is reserved for those already deceased—then, deadpan, he quipped: “Maybe next year…”

David Rothenberg will be honored at the Fortune Society’s annual gala—Monday, October 30, 2023. Tickets and info:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate…

— Wm. Shakespeare, Sonnet 29 (excerpt)