MINNEAPOLIS — More than a dozen years after retiring as chairman of defense giant Honeywell, James Binger has become something of a force on Broadway.
As the owner of five Broadway theaters, Binger has made headlines in New York for hiring a brash, young producer who has vowed to develop profitable new works on a limited budget.
The producer, Rocco Landesman, was named president of Binger's Jujamcyn Theaters in September, and a show called "Into the Woods" is offering them an early success. The $4-million Stephen Sondheim musical starring Bernadette Peters is playing at Binger's Martin Beck Theater.
Landesman, 39, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate who studied dramatic literature at Yale University before forming a $5-million investment fund company, was one of Broadway's so-called Young Turk producers when Binger hired him to replace Richard G. Wolff.
Binger, 71, who lives in the Twin Cities and works out of an office on the 45th floor of the IDS tower in Minneapolis, said he picked Landesman to head his theater company because he agrees with the Young Turk philosophy: Find new talent, stage new works, keep production and advertising costs in line and maintain high artistic standards.
Binger and his wife, Virginia, the daughter of Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing founder W. L. McKnight, have been large contributors to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Binger is a former Guthrie board member who in 1977 chaired the theater's first endowment committee, which raised $4.5 million.
Invested $6 Million
"Jim Binger is one of a handful of individuals who make gifts that make you sit up and take notice," said Henry Young, director of development for the Guthrie.
Binger and his wife have invested about $6 million in current theatrical projects, including $1 million for "Into the Woods."
If he wanted to, he could dominate Broadway with his McKnight-enhanced personal wealth, Landesman said. But the trim, 6-foot-1 Binger isn't about to go that far.
"He's very businesslike, very bottom-line oriented," Landesman said. "His feeling is that the company has to live within its own means."
Jujamcyn was a gift to Binger when it consisted of two New York theaters and the Colonial Theater in Boston. McKnight was having trouble selling the company so Binger volunteered to take it and pay the gift tax in 1976, he said.
"My initial purpose really was to take a headache off his shoulders, and see if I could get the theaters to a point where they could be sold for a reasonable sum," Binger said, "but in the meantime I found it was a fascinating business and money could be made at it."
McKnight had named the company--pronounced JEW-jam-sin--after Binger's three children, Judy, James and Cynthia. Binger sold the Colonial and bought three more New York houses to give him the St. James, Martin Beck, Virginia, O'Neil and Ritz.
His company is now the third largest on Broadway behind the Shubert Organization and the Nederlander Organization.
Quick Decisions Made
One of the big differences between running Honeywell and running Jujamcyn is the speed at which decisions are made, Binger said. One of Binger's biggest moves at Honeywell was to acquire the computer business of General Electric--a deal undoubtedly preceded by lengthy committee meetings and analysis.
In theater, decisions to open or close a play are made on the fly and in Binger's case there is no one but Landesman to consult with.
"We talk over all the major questions," Landesman said. "He draws a salary from Jujamcyn and he justifies it."
Binger said he spends up to 30% of his time with Jujamcyn dealings, flying to New York at least twice a month in his private jet--a $3.54-million 1979 Hawker Siddeley.
And while he is pulling back from his other major enterprise, Tartan Farms in Ocala, Fla., his attention to Jujamcyn hasn't wavered. The massive Tartan operation, which gave rise to the legendary thoroughbred Dr. Fager, was another legacy of McKnight. Binger still holds the real estate but in mid-November he sold almost all of the farm's horses in an auction at Lexington, Ky.
Wheelock Whitney, a longtime friend of Binger's who is one of the richest men in Minnesota, said Binger conceivably could head Jujamcyn for another 10 years.
"He's exceptionally fit," Whitney said. "The way he gets up and down on a horse puts me to shame.
Both Enjoy Racing
"He cares a great deal about (Jujamcyn) and it takes up a lot of his time," Whitney added. "This is more than just a business for him."
An accomplished polo player who has competed against the likes of England's Prince Charles, Binger said his relationship with Landesman has been strengthened because of their mutual respect for horse racing.
"We spend time at the track together," Landesman said. "It's the one area where I'm a much bigger player than he is. A $10 bet for him is a plunge. If I have less than a few hundred on a horse, I don't even have an interest in watching the race."