Michael butler (1926-2022)
Michael Butler - scion of the wealthy Butler family who founded Chicago suburb Oak Brook and the free-spirited producer who brought the counterculture musical sensation “Hair” to Broadway - has died in LA at the age of 96.
Born in Chicago, Butler and his two siblings were raised in a family of great wealth. Butler’s father and grandfather founded the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook and the tony Oak Brook Polo Club, which Butler and a sister later managed. He also became a champion-caliber polo player and traveled the world to attend matches. With his bountiful connections, he walked into politics, serving as an advisor to President Kennedy on the Middle East; he also managed Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner’s reelection campaign and was a commissioner for the Port of Chicago.
Butler clearly had an early interest in the arts, serving on the Honorary Committee for the Columbia College Chicago Center for New Music when it was founded in 1965, but the turning point in his life came when he was contemplating a run against IL Senator Everett Dirksen and happened to catch an off-Broadway production of “Hair.” “I was blown away,” Butler later said. “It was the strongest anti-war statement I had ever seen.” Butler immediately gave up his political aspirations, reworked the show’s book, added the famous nude scene, made the ending more upbeat and nearly doubled the number of songs in the production. Beginning in 1968, the rock musical ran on Broadway for 1,742 performances, spawned more than two dozen other productions, was nominated for a Tony and won a Grammy for best score.
As the musical opened across the nation, Butler was generally involved with every production, occasionally joining the cast onstage. “I did the nude scene in San Francisco. I was living with two of the cast members,” he told the Chicago Tribune. In most every way, “Hair” was a full hippie baptism with its psychedelics, tie-dye costumes, tribal gatherings and Age of Aquarius ethos. Theatergoers were invited onstage for a be-in finale with the racially integrated cast. Songs such as “Let the Sunshine In,” “Aquarius” and “Good Morning Starshine” became anthems for the counterculture movement and the soundtrack became commonplace in dorm rooms across America. Prior to the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, Butler brokered a meeting between Yippie co-founder Abbie Hoffman and Chicago’s mayor, Richard J. Daley, hoping to form a left-leaning political bloc. “I told him that the city should smother the Yippies with tender loving kindness,” Butler said he told Daley. “He decided to go a different way.”
Butler estimated he made $10 million from the musical and then careened through the ’70s, a regular on the party scene, arriving in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and flying on a private jet. He invested in a roller rink, a soccer club and a reggae band and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to liberal causes. Hard to miss at 6’ 4” with shoulder-length hair and a bushy mustache, Butler glided easily in a world of Hollywood celebrities, aristocrats and rock stars. With the enormous success of “Hair,” Butler felt free to back other productions. Some, like the Lenny Bruce-inspired “Lenny,” worked. Others, such as the Caribbean-hued “Reggae,” did not. He also helped produce the flower-power film “You Are What You Eat.”
At the time of his death at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging, Butler was working with producers on a production of the musical, set to open at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.
Married three times, Butler is survived by his son, Adam, grandson, Liam and a sister, Jorie Butler Kent.