His Theater Career Soared Like a Balloon, Filled With Hot Air

If theatrical matchmakers had been asked to recommend someone to remake the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene, a small nonprofit with a niche audience, into the buzzy producer of an Off Broadway hit, Christopher Massimine might not have been first on a yenta’s list.

In 2012, when Massimine became an executive with the century-old theater that produces shows for a largely older audience, he was a 26-year-old Italian American Catholic with limited experience as a theatrical administrator and even less with Yiddish.

But when he left seven years later, the Folksbiene’s “Fiddler on the Roof,” directed by Joel Grey, was moving from its own theater, within the Museum of Jewish Heritage, to Stage 42, one of Off Broadway’s largest venues. The show had already enjoyed a sold-out run at the museum, and the theater’s revenue had more than doubled in a year to nearly $5 million.

“He was smart, dedicated, motivated, professional and always a pleasure to deal with,” said Ron Lasko, a publicist who worked with Massimine at the Folksbiene.

To the surprise of many, though, Massimine did not stick around to celebrate the successful transfer of “Fiddler” to a new theater. He instead left the Folksbiene in early 2019 and soon accepted a job as the managing director of the Pioneer Theater Company in Salt Lake City, the city’s largest professional theater.

“Chris has a proven track record of success,” Dan Reed, a vice president with the University of Utah, which oversees the professional theater on its campus, said at the time of Massimine’s appointment.

But two years into his tenure there, Massimine has been accused of embellishing his life story with wildly inaccurate depictions of his theatrical pursuits and side gigs.

Working from public records and tips, Salt Lake City’s Fox affiliate KSTU-TV reported earlier this year that Massimine did not have a master’s degree from New York University, as asserted on his résumé. The station said his claims to have helped develop popular video games and some major advertising campaigns did not check out.

And, though he said he had received a national arts advocacy award — and released a picture of himself wearing the medal — the bestowing organization does not appear to exist.

Adam Herbets, a reporter for the television station, said his sources included people who had seen Massimine’s résumé and found it “unbelievable.”

“And, you know,” he continued, “unbelievable sometimes has a positive connotation and sometimes has a negative connotation. In this case it’s literally not believable.”

As it turns out, Massimine’s embellishments extend beyond what the TV station reported, to include claims that he was born in Italy and was once a full-time employee of the Dramatists Guild.

“It’s crazy baffling,” said Jerry Rapier, the artistic director of Plan B Theater Company in Salt Lake City and a leading voice of the theater community there.

Chris Nelson, the Utah university’s director of communications, acknowledged that some “misinformation” had been found on Massimine’s résumé and that his position at the theater is now “under review.”

His wife, Maggie Massimine, said that her husband is now on a period of family medical leave from the university, one that had been approved before the TV news report, and that he was “not available” for interviews. A spokesman for Massimine, Michael Deaver, said there may have been some misunderstandings on matters like his client’s work on ad campaigns because he had been employed by a subcontractor.

Maggie Massimine denied that her husband had exaggerated or misled people, but said that, because of ongoing legal discussions, she could not address some of the questions raised about her husband’s background.

“Our side of the story has not been told,” she said. “I really wish I could say more.”

The annals of résumé padding stretch deep, and often the padders are people who have already achieved a good measure of success. A former chief executive of Bausch & Lomb. A Notre Dame head football coach. A celebrity chef.

The chef Robert Irvine said in 2008 that he should have stood on his accomplishments alone, “without embellishment,” after he was found to have pumped up his résumé to include a bachelor of science degree, knighthood and stints as a chef to U.S. presidents.

Evidence of Massimine’s willingness to tell a tall tale dates back to his youth in New Jersey, according to a local theater director. Gerry Appel, then director of a theater now known as the Somerset County Cultural Arts Center, recalled that in 2003 a teacher at a local high school forwarded him a request from Massimine. According to Appel, the teacher said Massimine had told her he was a nephew of the actor John Stamos, best known for his role as Uncle Jesse on “Full House,” and Massimine wanted to stage “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the theater.

“I said yes,” Appel recalled. At the time, he said, he was leading a post-flood renovation of the former vaudeville venue and thought he could use a celebrity donation. Also, he thought correctly: “This kid might lead a theater someday.’”

Massimine would later tell a Forbes magazine contributor in a 2020 interview that he had “sold out the entire run of a professional theatrical production” as a high school senior.

Appel says “Rocky Horror” was performed twice for audiences of about 50 people. Tickets were $15, according to newspaper records. Massimine and Stamos are not related, a spokesman for the actor said.

At N.Y.U., Massimine earned a bachelor’s degree in dramatic literature in 2007, a university spokesman said, after three years of study. Maggie Massimine said her husband thought he had earned both a master’s and a bachelor’s degree, until KTSU reported he had not. “He was as surprised as everyone else,” she said.

Massimine’s profile on LinkedIn, the professional networking site, reports that during his college years he also served for more than 18 months as “publications manager and creative affairs coordinator” for the Dramatists Guild, a service organization for playwrights.

However, Tari Stratton, director of education for the guild, said it seems Massimine spent only four months there as an unpaid intern. “We do not have any records indicating Mr. Massimine held any paid positions with the guild or had any title other than intern,” she wrote in an email.

Massimine did serve in a number of roles with theatrical organizations before joining the staff of the Flea, a small, scrappy New York theater, in 2011. The following year he was hired by the Folksbiene and was promoted to chief executive in 2016.

At the Yiddish theater, framed letters from Hal Prince, the legendary Broadway producer and director, hung in Massimine’s office. He counted Manny Azenberg, a producer and eight-time Tony Award winner, among his mentors, and appeared poised to continue advancing through the ranks of Manhattan’s theater ecosystem.

Bruce Cohen, a retired publicist who worked with the Folksbiene to promote its Drama Desk-nominated operetta “The Golden Bride,” said Massimine was “a very sweet man” capable of deftly navigating tempestuous artist egos.

Beck Lee, who served as a publicist for the Folksbiene during much of Massimine’s tenure, described him as an ambitious hard worker.

“He did a great deal to raise the profile of the company,” Lee said, “and was sometimes prone to exaggeration, which I have learned is typically a tool of impresarios and showmen. If anything I thought he was a 21st-century version of a David Merrick, happily pushing his shows to the public and the press with bluster.”

Certainly there were issues with a 2018 profile of Massimine that ran in The Daily Beast under the headline, “Meet Christopher Massimine, the ‘Nice Goy’ Running the National Yiddish Theatre.”

The piece, based on an interview with Massimine, reported he had come to the United States as an infant from Italy and had appeared on Broadway as a child in shows like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Les Misérables.” But he was born in New Jersey and there are no records of him performing in either show, according to the Broadway League’s database, which is widely viewed as authoritative.

Maggie Massimine said her husband had performed on Broadway as a child, citing memorabilia she had seen in his parents’ home. But she said her husband had not been born in Italy and had requested a correction from The Daily Beast, a contention that the website recently took issue with.

“Our editorial staff has no record of any request from Mr. Massimine for a correction to his profile,” a Daily Beast spokesman said.

Despite his success in leading the Folksbiene, the circumstances under which Massimine left the theater are not clear, and its executive director declined to comment. Beck Lee, the former publicist for the theater, said that he was told by theater officials that Massimine was asked to leave after having invested theater funds in an unrelated production without authorization.

“He was given the opportunity to admit his behavior, and leave without further incident,” Lee said.

A second person with knowledge of the dispute agreed that Massimine had left after an issue over an investment.

But Maggie Massimine denied there had been any problem like that, and noted that her husband had been invited back to attend the opening of “Fiddler” at Stage 42 in February 2019.

In Utah, Massimine was hired at a salary of $152,000 to run a theater with nearly a $5 million operating budget. The school had paid a search firm, Management Consultants for the Arts, nearly $36,000 to recommend candidates.

“That résumé was so extraordinary that it probably intoxicated people,” said Brant Pope, chair of the drama department at the University of Texas at Austin and past president of the University Resident Theater Association. “It probably blurred their vision.”

Maggie Massimine said her husband had heard of the Utah job through his relationship with Azenberg, the producer who has been an influential backer of the Yiddish theater. Azenberg’s daughter, Karen, a former Broadway stage manager, has served as the artistic director of the Pioneer Theater since 2012.

“The search committee was looking for a managing director who would help this theater grow and would support my desire to develop new musicals,” Karen Azenberg wrote in an email.

Charles Morey, who served as Pioneer’s artistic director from 1984 to 2012, said in an interview that he was saddened by the embarrassment the hiring had brought to the university and the theater, calling the search “badly mishandled.”

In Utah, Massimine continued to promote his own accomplishments. Two years ago, using information he provided, his new theater put out a news release stating he had been named “Humanitarian of the Year” by the National Performing Arts Action Association and would be honored at a reception in Washington.

Jenny Thomas, a spokesman for the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, a Washington-based advocacy group, said that neither she nor several other colleagues who work for similar nonprofits have heard of the National Performing Arts Action Association.

No organization by that name has a website or is mentioned by news outlets aside from those that picked up the news release from the theater.

But Massimine traveled to Washington in January 2020, purportedly to pick up the award, and later billed the university nearly $800 for his expenses. An image of him on the trip, supposedly taken at the White House and wearing a medal, was credited to the fictitious National Performing Arts Action Association and appeared two months later on a website with an article about Massimine’s relationship with his mother.

The writer of the piece said the photograph, caption and credit information were provided by Massimine.

Joseph Berger contributed reporting.

Source: Read Full Article