The Markovitz stage
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The Markovitz stage

Short Hills family’s donation will help upgrade Millburn theater

Marilyn and Monroe Markowitz hold hands; they flanked by artistic director Mark S. Hoebee, left, and managing director Mike Stotts. (Paper Mill Theater)
Marilyn and Monroe Markowitz hold hands; they flanked by artistic director Mark S. Hoebee, left, and managing director Mike Stotts. (Paper Mill Theater)

For Monroe Markovitz it was tzedakah.

For Michael Stotts it was a godsend.

The “it” in this case is a $1.5 million donation that Monroe and his wife, Marilyn — or more accurately their children, acting in their name — gave the venerable Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

Mr. Stotts is the theater’s managing director, who notes that because the theater had been closed for a year by covid, the gift couldn’t have come at a better time.

But first, the Markovitzes.

Marilyn, 87, grew up in a largely secular household in Newark. Some of her fondest memories of that time involve the Paper Mill. Her aunt, Sophie Shivra Cooper, often took her to see the operettas that were a staple at the theater back then.

“It was some time ago, but I remember it was a long trip from Newark to the Paper Mill,” Ms. Markovitz said. “My aunt was a driver, which was unusual back then. She’d take me on Saturday afternoons. The only two operettas I remember are ‘The Merry Widow’ and ‘The Student Prince.’”

When she and Monroe married, “I pulled him along with me” into the arts, she said.

“She’s absolutely right,” Monroe, 89 concurs. (He’ll turn 90 next month, he added.) “She pulled me along to enjoy the arts and the Paper Mill.”

The pair met when Marilyn was in high school and Monroe was at Rutgers. “My best friend was going out with his best friend and they hooked us up,” she remembers.

Love at first sight? “No, but almost,” Marilyn says. “It took two weeks.”

For Monroe, though, it was a sure thing from the beginning. In the phone interview, he is so effusive about Marilyn and their 67-year marriage that a reporter asks if he is being held hostage or under any duress.

He laughs — but the proof is not in the pudding, but in the photo.

Marilyn and Monroe agree to come to the theater — they live in Short Hills, just a few blocks from the Paper Mill — to take the picture that accompanies this story, and unbidden, automatically pose holding hands.

Monroe grew up in a house that was far more religious than his bride’s. His family kept kosher and observed the Jewish holidays. That observance has slackened a bit since, but the importance and power of tzedakah remained.

Monroe became a successful attorney and started a real estate investment and management company. He sold the company last year and “our children” — they have four sons — “were going to be the recipients of the proceeds.

“We all decided it was right to share with the rest of the world. We wanted to give. Our children wanted to give, and we wanted something that would benefit a lot of other people.”

The not-to-be-named sons, who asked that their names go unprinted, selected the Paper Mill as a tribute to their parents, particularly their mother, to honor their long association with the theater.

As Mr. Stotts recalls, “We received a call from one of the sons, who said they’d like to make a sizable contribution. So we set up a meeting first with the son to get a sense of what he wanted to do and give him a sense of the needs of the theater.”

After the meeting, Mr. Stotts went back to the Paper Mill development team and came up with a proposal to suggest to the Markovitzes — upgrade the automation and lighting on the stage.

“We invited Mr. and Mrs. Markovitz and their sons to the theater,” Mr. Stotts said. “We sat on the stage and told them what we wanted to do.”

This upgrade had been in the planning stages for a long time. But because of its prohibitive cost, it was going to done in — no pun intended — stages, a little at a time. It would, Mr. Stott said, have taken years.

But that wasn’t necessary. The Markovitzes “got back to us later in the day and said they wanted to do the whole thing, even though it was more than they’d originally been thinking,” he said.

“This is a game changer for us. That we can upgrade all this at once means we move out of the analog age into the digital. That we could put the money to use immediately was important to them.”

What surprised Mr. Stotts is that “We didn’t really know them. Even though they’d been subscribers for a really long time, we didn’t know them until one of the sons called us.”

Ironically, this season — 2021-2022 — is the first time in about 40 years that the Markovitzes weren’t subscribers. Covid precautions kept them home.

But when they return, they’ll be sitting in front of the newly named Marilyn and Monroe Markovitz Stage.

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