Alvin Deutsch, the attorney who represented singer Peggy Lee in her historic victory over Walt Disney Productions and more recently tangled with Broadway producer Scott Rudin and the estate of author Harper Lee over the rights to a stage production by Kill a mockingbird, died on October 6 at his home in New York. He was 89 years old.
The Deutsch family announced his death yesterday, shortly after winning an arbitration against the Lee estate. The Deutsch family says they chose to await Lee’s verdict before making his death public.
An internationally renowned copyright expert, Deutsch has also represented a long list of entertainment and cultural figures throughout his career, including author Tom Wolfe (a client for 50 years), the Broadway songwriting team consisting of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams (Goodbye Birdie, applause), librettist Michael Stewart (Goodbye Birdie, 42nd Street, hello, Dolly!), songwriter Irving Burgee (“Day O – The Banana Boat Song”); theater producers Stuart Ostrow, Larry Kasha and James Nederlander), playwrights Charles Gordone and Jon Marans, Sweet Valley High author Francine Pascal, Broadway lighting designer Ken Billington, opera singer Sherrill Milnes, singer Margaret Whiting, and actors Marian Seldes and Tony Randall, among others.
Deutsch also served as legal counsel and board member for the Johnny Mercer Foundation, and in the same capacity for nearly 50 years for the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, for which he drafted a crucial contract for theaters that create new musicals. The contract would allow Goodspeed to create an endowment from the substantial residuals it earned after producing the musical’s first staging. Anneincluding NBC’s recent TV event Anne Live!
In its most recent win, Deutsch represented Dramatic Publishing, a theatrical publishing house that for decades licensed playwright Christopher Sergel’s theatrical adaptation of Lee’s Kill a mockingbird. Published in 1990, the version of the play was, for many years, the only stage adaptation sanctioned by Lee’s estate, and was frequently performed by student and community theaters.
But a year before his death in 2016, Lee gave Rudin the go-ahead to produce the new adaptation (Dramatic’s deal had never included Broadway stagings), and in 2018 – the year the Sorkin’s version, starring Jeff Daniels, arrived on Broadway to critical acclaim and huge box office – the estate sent cease-and-desist letters to eight smaller theaters planning to stage Sergel’s version. Dramatic Publishing and its president Christopher Sergel III (grandson of the previous version’s playwright) claimed that Rudin and the Lee estate had successfully threatened anonymous and amateur companies to cancel planned productions, despite Dramatic’s right to allow representations of all “non-first class”. ” staging.
The case, with Dramatic represented by Deutsch and its legal partner David Blasband, went to arbitration, and just yesterday the American Arbitration Association’s January decision in favor of Dramatic Publishing was released. The arbitrator ordered Lee’s estate to pay Dramatic $2.5 million in damages and fees, the bulk of the amount intended to reimburse Dramatic’s legal fees and expenses. Lee’s estate filed a motion to have the award set aside.
(In perhaps the strangest turn of events throughout the setback, Rudin in 2019 publicly apologized to community theaters that had received cease and desist letters, offering them the opportunity to to stage Sorkin’s version. None of the smaller venues took him up on the offer, with Greg Mancusi-Ungaro, a spokesperson for Mugford Street Players in Marblehead, Massachusetts, telling Deadline at the time, “My cast already knows their lines” from the Sergel script. “It’s not business ventures. It’s a labor of love. We’re just trying to break even,” he said. mocking bird the production budget was around $10,000 – “real money for us”.)
Among Deutsch’s other high-profile cases was one on behalf of playwright and Deutsch-Blasband client Alice Childress, who sued her longtime friend, the Cosby Show actress Clarice Taylor on a mid-1980s theater production of a solo play about revolutionary comedian “Moms” Mabley. Childress and Taylor, who had known each other since the 1940s when both were associated with the American Negro Theater in Harlem, had worked on the development of Mabley’s bio-play before Childress retired from the project. After Taylor, adding what a court would later rule to be minor changes at work, later took sole credit for the play, Childress (whose unrelated 1955 play mind problem was staged on Broadway this season) won his bid for a co-writing credit on Mabley’s play and a share of the royalties. The case is seen as an important development in copyright law to detail precisely the contributions needed to make a work a common work.
But perhaps Deutsch and Blasband’s most high-profile case involved their client Peggy Lee, the singer and actress who voiced various characters in the 1955 Disney classic. The Lady and the Tramp. As a sultry Pekingese named Peg and the evil twin cats Si and Am, Lee contributed two of the most popular and well-known songs from the animated film: Peg’s “He’s a Tramp” and the “Siamese Cat Song” from the anime. felines.
When Disney released the Lady and the Tramp on VHS in 1987, Lee, reportedly paid a modest $4,500 by the studio in the 1950s, hired Deutsch and Blasband claiming that his 1952 contract prohibited Disney from making “phonograph records and/or transcriptions for sale to the public” without their consent. After lengthy and extensive legal wrangling, the Los Angeles County Superior Court ordered Disney to pay what would ultimately amount to more than $3 million to the singer.
Born in New York on February 9, 1932, Deutsch graduated from Johns Hopkins University and received his law degree from Yale Law School. He was founding partner of Linden and Deutsch (later Deutsch, Klagsbrun & Blasband) then partner of McLaughlin & Stern (2001 to 2021). He was also an adjunct professor of copyright law at Cardozo Law School and served on numerous boards, including Johns Hopkins Sheridan Libraries.
Deutsch is survived by his wife Davida Tenenbaum Deutsch. A memorial service is scheduled for April 28 at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City.