A Personal View of Michael Butler
The Unorthodox Producer of the Highly Successful Play..."Hair"
by Robert Clarke
Mainline Magazine (United Airlines in-flight magazine)
October 1970


To see the photos that originally accompanied this article click here.

Michael Butler?  Oh yes - he's the "hippie", "millionaire", the "tall, dark, and handsome" "industrialist", the "sportsman", (or "playboy," depending on your point of view);  the producer of the most successful piece of musical theater of all time: "Hair".

According to show business trade papers, "Hair" is now doing about half a million dollars per week at the box office in the United States alone.  And of the 26 companies of "Hair" now playing around the world (including one in Communist Yugoslavia), only seven are in the U.S.

In spite of his money, his good looks and his fame, Michael Butler suffers voluntarily from poor visibility.  Like a Howard Hughes of the somewhat lower tax brackets, his public exposure exists mainly in the second hand...in the printed word or the "well founded" rumor.

So what makes Michael run?  Can the man be separated from the image?  Does he tick or does he tock?  Is he for real?

Having had the good fortune of a close personal and working relationship with him for a dozen years or more, it was inevitable that someone should ask for a personal view.  In fact, many have.  But Michael Butler is not a simple subject.

He's human.  He has ample faults, flaws, and failings.  Most of them involve himself and other people, rather than inanimate things.  Some feel he has a few more faults than most of us - others say it just seems so because he tries more, does more than the rest of us.  Whatever, it only makes him more intriguing and it obviously hasn't retarded his progress.

In business, his single worst quality is his refusal to relinquish control or authority of any project, large or small.  He says he will, but he doesn't.  His worst personal trait is that he expects everyone close to him to subordinate their lives to his.  He wants his own way, and he usually gets it.  when he doesn't, he has what he calls a "bad temper."

His single strongest quality is his sense of humor.  He has more fun with his money, his successes and failures than anyone I know or ever heard of.  He can find a laugh in a defeat that would send another capitalist to an open window on the top floor.

He has an extraordinary creativity and an equally developed sense of taste.  But he'll spend anything on their satisfaction.

He has a great curiosity and is only interested in doing things he's never done before.  However, people doubt they can be done and he invariable has to do them himself.

He judges people strictly on first impression.  Hence, he makes sizable blunders.  And if he disappoints some, he is equally disappointed by others.

His favorite topic is history - only because it permits roaming interest in miscellaneous information.  He'd like to teach history.  And the way he presents it - through the personal lives of those who made it - someone should take him up on it.

His favorite preoccupations are with horses, health and beauty, his and others.

He hates being called "Mike" almost as much as he disdains the label "millionaire".  The truth is, he isn't either.  He's too impeccable to be a "Mike" and the way he handles money, it's easy to believe he's not a millionaire, either.  Handling millions of dollars doesn't a millionaire make.  I'm sure he's made much more money for others than he's made for himself.

Michael Butler is sensitive to the often repeated criticism that he's aloof.  He certainly gives that impression to those who meet him for the first time.  But those of us who've been victimized by his midnight, lights out, high speed rides through uncharted fields and forests near his home in Oak Brook, Illinois, disagree.  Even with the Rolls Royce top down, throttle open and radio blaring, his laugh can be heard above all.

He's an incurable "put-on" - a practical joker who delights in the alarming telegram, the preposterous memo, the unannounced arrival.  He's never had a better vehicle for these questionable pleasures than "Hair".  Most of his jokes are very funny - if they aren't happening to you.

Playing pool in the upstairs club room of his Los Angeles home office one wee morning, he made an incredible bank shot.  The drop of the ball in the pocket was accompanied by a stroke on a 20-foot Mongolian gong, a fifteen foot giant, stuffed purple rabbit descending from above and a collapsing suit of antique armor.  Try making the next shot after that experience.

The same house in California has a huge iron gate protecting the driveway at the top of one of Los Angeles' highest hills.  It's a dark road and on a very early morning after 14 hours of meetings, he walked us to the gate in one of his gravel-dragging white robes to await our cab.  The first thing the taxi headlight beams picked up was a figure swathed in glowing white, strapped to the top of the gate.  The driver was speechless all the way to the airport.

If Michael Butler isn't a millionaire, he is rich.  He comes by his affinity for making money from the public quite logically.  His ancestors turned a tidy if risky profit in their position as tax collectors in Ireland for the Stuart Kings.  "The Stuarts sent their best bandits to increase collection," is the way Michael measures it.

Michael traces his American ancestors back to 1654, a heritage of which the family is purposely and privately proud.  Through five generations, the family business grew to include paper, aviation, ranching, real estate, electronics, banking and other interests.

Michael was born with a silver stallion in his stable and as a young man, showed the family propensity for equestrian skills.  But when his stallion stumbled and fell while he was still a youngster, he was left with a crippled right arm.  But he still plays some very sharp polo - and polo is a right handed game.

His education in book learning is another thing.  About the only thing Michael and his teachers agreed upon was that there seemed to be no point in his being there.  After a series of public and  private schools, he finally got out of Culver Military Academy and went on for a sojourn at the University of Colorado.  He never said school was not relevant.  He lived it.

In his early 20s, he was perfunctorily given a salesman's portfolio with the sprawling, dignified Butler Paper Company.  All he had to do was make his calls.  It was all cut out for him.  But Michael had difficulty following the dotted line.  Instead, he made "strange" calls, according to his stiff-collared supervisors.

One day he strode into the quiet, staid Butler offices in his shocking white suit and hat with an order for millions of beer labels.

"Beer labels?!" The gasp was heard all the way to Bookkeeping.  "We handle fine quality engraving and printing paper... some newsprint, perhaps.  But beer labels - never!"  There was only one thing lower than labels in the eyes of the bonded, water-marked paper executives: corrugated shipping containers.  Anyone trafficking in that refuse was a disgrace to the quality paper business.

Soon, however, the annual sales of the company reflected millions of dollars in revenue from corrugated shipping containers, beer labels and other "questionable" markets opened up by the son.  And if it shocked the conservative craws in the main office, "...the Old Man understood profit very well," Michael recalls.

But even with these successes - and they stood as high marks in the company for years - routine kept getting in the way of his lifestyle.  "It was just plain dull."  So, to the sorrow of the polo club and the girls in the office, Michael began touring the world as "Butler Overseas Corporation," investigating such diverse, both profitable and unprofitable ventures as coal washing plants in India, or rebuilding the Hedjaz Religious railroad through the Moslem countries, the same one lawrence of Arabia destroyed in World War I.

By the 1950's, he'd hunted and hosted with royalty and rascals alike, conceiving and pursuing a mixed bag of ideas along the way.  His comings and goings were local landmarks.  At home, his escapades were sometimes thought scandalous.  His cables and communiqués arrived with trepidation.  "What's he got us into this time?"  As often as not, the fears were justified.  Michael Butler just seemed to do things differently.  "Even then, I think I understood how young people feel today," he said.

Not that Michael Butler was discouraged or defeated by the lack of enthusiasm for his ideas.  HE managed to keep his upper lip stiff through it all.  He bought himself one of the largest sailing boats on the high seas, a gaff rig schooner with squares'l - the Coradina.  With a full crew and plenty of attractive passengers recruited and replenished from the golden beaches of the Mediterranean, he suppressed his disappointments by sailing into exotic ports of call where his spectacular arrivals, visits and departures became lesser local legends.

Though his motives in the period were admittedly more personal than professional, Butler's perspective of the economies and cultures of the lands he visited and their peoples impressed the then Sen. John F. Kennedy.  The two men met when the future President was recuperating in Europe from back surgery.  Their friendship began through a mutual interest in sailing and sport.  But if Michael impressed Kennedy, the latter really had a lasting influence on the globe-girdling playboy.  "He was incredible.  I never knew anyone with such natural instinct for public mood and aspiration," Michael says.

Sometime later, about the time Kennedy announced for the Presidency, Butler sailed the Coradina to the Bahama Islands in a 30-day run from Europe.  He headed for New York in time to arrange campaign assistance for Kennedy through friends of the company's aviation and paper interests.

The two men's paths crossed only infrequently during the campaign year, 1960, and hardly ever thereafter as the pressures of office closed in on John F. Kennedy.  But during the campaign, Michael likes to recall one instance.  "One evening i was leaving our Fifth Avenue offices and couldn't get out of the door.  A motorcade was coming down Fifth and it was slowed by hordes of young people jumping up and down in the street to get a look at someone in one of the cars."

Butler managed to squeeze through the door just as candidate Kennedy came by in an open car.  "I don't know who i expected, but there was Jack kennedy, looking over all of those kids and my mouth must have dropped open in surprise."  The two men saw each other at the same time.  Kennedy brightened with recognition, smiled and mouthed, "Hello Michael," and waved.  "I just broke up.  He was so cool.  Beautiful!"

Kennedy's assassination in November 1963 had a profound impact on Michael Butler, international playboy.  watching television through the long nights of November 22 and 23, he told a small group of us he'd made a decision to become active in politics.

He went to work with total enthusiasm in the reelection of Illinois Governor Otto Kerner.  Later he ran for state senator on the Democratic ticket in the Republican stronghold of DuPage County, Illinois.  A Democrat hadn't been elected there since the Civil War.  Only Michael would have run such a campaign.

His posters and advertisements showed him dressed to the impeccable teeth, accompanied by his dog, Dog Dog, amid all the tasteful splendor of his home, over-looking its carefully manicured grounds.  The copy read: :Michael Butler Likes Polo, Parties & Pop Art.  Does That Make Him a Bad Guy?"  At the bottom of the ads and posters, and on the lapels of his supporters, was a button: "We All Have The Same Problems."  It was a wild campaign, undertaken in the midst of a divorce.  Like the candidate, the only norm was the unorthodox.

He pulled more votes than any other Democrat in the area in a hundred years...and lost.  And by running, he lost also the personal privacy he prized so much.  With it, he lost his taste for public office.

And that's when Hair started to grow on michael Butler.  A small group of us sat around the table relaxing in his silver-foiled dining room one evening after the campaign.  Michael was very open, warm and reaching, far from the image of aloofness.  He wasn't defeated, just searching for what it all meant.  Kennedy was dead.  The world seemed to be losing its style...its taste.  The divorce was depressing.  What was going to happen now?  The future looked dull after the excitement of the campaign.

He wasn't sure what he'd do - maybe just visit friends and haunts in new york and air out his head.  "I'll let you know what happens," he said.

What happened is well known.  He went to see a play in the Village he thought was about American indians.  He picked up the option to produce Hair the following day, moved it to the discotheque, Cheetah, where he suffered losses.  Against the advice of everyone except the authors, who were delighted with their "far-out angel," he searched and found a theater on Broadway.

Hair has been soaring ever since.  Nine more production companies will open in 1970.  Under the producer's guidance, Hair has brought more new talent into the theater and more people through the box office than any other play in history.  It singlehandedly reversed some trends threatening the American legitimate theater, a dying institution.

Michael Butler, like Hair, is an antiinstitutionalist, and Hair is a play that shows how human behavior responds to a dehumanized environment.  While many people don't see it that way, the play has nonetheless communicated the need for reform in a way that two presidential administrations, a corporate coalition and the leftist activitists (sic) have been unable to match.

"This whole thing about the Establishment," Butler reflects..."Hell, the Establishment wants to change.  Maybe it didn't a few years ago, but it does now.  It's not so much an establishment problem as it is an institutional problem.  Institutions just don't move quickly enough.  There are too many laws on the books that make them too slow to respond."

Will the success of Hair spoil Michael Butler?  "I was spoiled a long time ago.  The real goal is not to make money.  It's to be allowed to make money - that's really the issue today.

"I don't have a million dollars from Hair.  I don't even have a large part of it.  We spread it around to some good ends - the Youth Assembly of the United Nations and the Tribal Peace Fund.  We also spent a lot of money in the courts.

"We didn't make a road show out of Hair.  We put a quarter of a million dollars into a new show in a new city using local people in every instance.  We've been fighting to get a student discount in cities where they don't allow it.  We've gone to the National LAbor Relations Board to protect our right to hire the best people to do a job when archaic guild rules say we have to use their man.  We've also been trying to introduce profit-sharing into the theater, but that's been a fight, too.  The theater is a lot like the paper business used to be.  It suffers from old age and senility.  Like most institutions, the theater needs shaking up once in a while."

As for today's anxious age, "The single thing we can all do to help," Michael believes, "is not get uptight.  We're not going to gain anything that way.  Things are going to change anyway."

Well, they are and they aren't.  Sometimes nothing really seems new, only ironic.  Butler's Hair is trying to reform and environment scarred by pollution, war, crime, violence, drug abuse and social separation.  "We All Have The Same Problems" is still a good slogan.  But Michael Butler seems to be having fun with his...and ours.

Copyright United Airlines, Inc. 1970.

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