Theater Legend David Rothenberg Does Some of His Best Work Offstage

80-Year-Old Producer Remains a Committed Activist

Fortunate Son: David Rothenberg (pictured here in an archival photo) is the founder of a society that helps ex-cons and also runs a discussion group for at-risk teenagers. He comes from a long line of Jewish artists and activists
Grace Harrington
Fortunate Son: David Rothenberg (pictured here in an archival photo) is the founder of a society that helps ex-cons and also runs a discussion group for at-risk teenagers. He comes from a long line of Jewish artists and activists

By Simi Horwitz

Published June 19, 2013, issue of June 21, 2013.
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David Rothenberg has little doubt that old people are invisible. But invisibility is not all bad, he explained cheerfully in the lobby of his building, in New York City’s Greenwich Village: “See how I’m dressed? It’s great. No one notices,” he said.

Yes, his baggy knee-length shorts and loose-fitting, nondescript shirt are not high fashion, and it’s probably true that nobody cares. Still, at age 80 he needn’t worry about invisibility. And just for the record, there’s nothing geriatric about him.

Best known as the host of a weekly radio program on WBAI for almost 40 years — and also as the founder of The Fortune Society, a not-for-profit organization that helps ex-cons gain re-entry into society — Rothenberg had just returned from his morning swim. He was busy handing out fliers to his neighbors, announcing a food drive he has been helping to organize.

“On weekends I see people lined up for food at the church,” he noted. “They’re working and have food stamps, but the food stamps don’t cover it. They have to make a choice between medication and food, between rent and food.”

The food drive is a footnote to Rothenberg’s activities. Three days a week, he runs a discussion group for high-risk youngsters in a program called Alternative to Incarceration, at Fortune Society’s headquarters in the Queens neighborhood Long Island City. And on Thursday nights he co-moderates a conversation with residents at The Castle, a Fortune Society halfway house for ex-offenders.

Rothenberg tours prisons, schools and community centers with a play he helped forge, “The Castle” — focusing on the lives of four former prisoners who portray themselves. A documentary, “Released,” based on the play, recently premiered at the Quad Cinema, in New York.

Rothenberg has worked as a theatrical press agent (representing more than 200 Broadway and off-Broadway productions), theater producer and city council candidate. He also wrote a memoir, “Fortune in My Eyes.”

Back upstairs in his sleek but very comfortable 16th-floor apartment, filled with theater books and memorabilia, Rothenberg proudly pointed to a leather club chair that belonged to his second cousin, baseball union leader Marvin Miller, who died last November at age 95.

“When Hank Aaron got into the Hall of Fame, he thanked his mother, father, God and Marvin Miller,” Rothenberg remarked.


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