One of London theatre’s most passionate investors ever

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Theatre often provides a home and a family for those of us who, for whatever reason, haven’t been well-served by our biological ones, and/or have somehow been traumatised by our upbringings.

That’s certainly been the case for me — I’ve spent much of the last 18 months or so engaged in a deep process of unravelling my family of origin trauma, and I am feeling now more peaceful and settled than I’ve ever done in my life as a result, knowing that my father — though always (and still) physically present, was never there for me emotionally, and indeed a few months ago finally rejected me so brutally that there will never be a way back.

But with that has come a kind of comfort and peace, too: at last I finally know where I stand. And why I’ve never felt any kind of bond, only embarrassment and shame.

And yet, in the theatre, I’ve found not just a kind of magic, but also a sense of belonging, understanding and family. Because it is a communal activity — albeit that most of the audience will be strangers to you — the time we share in the dark together bonds us, on both sides of the footlights. The actors need us to be there, or they’re performing to a void; and though we may be sitting in the dark alone, we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, and become part of a community of fellow theatregoers.

No wonder that the theatre often attracts misfits and outcasts, which I freely include myself amongst.

And yesterday, I was reading an obituary in The Times for larger-than-life theatrical investor and philanthropist Eddie Kulukundis (pictured above, on his wedding day to Susan Hamphire in 1981), who has died, aged 88, who was clearly a kindred obsessive spirit. The Times reported his enthusiasm for sports, and wrote: “Kulukundis was equally passionate about theatre, sometimes seeing eight shows a week.”

And he put his inheritance where his passion was: as the obituary states,

“Eddie Kulukundis inherited a large shipping fortune and spent a long and happy lifetime turning it into a small one, which he also managed to give away. A bearded and shambling figure with shirt tails out and heart on sleeve, he had a personality as big as his frame. ‘My luck,’ he said, ‘is that my parents were very wealthy’.”

The theatre world’s luck was to have found him as a champion. He’d been part of a group of City executives who helped the RSC secure its home at the Barbican, and subsequently joined the boards of the Mermaid Theatre and then Hampstead Theatre. As The Times reports,

“At that time I was in love with a girl who left me and there was a great hole in my life, so I decided to get more involved in theatre. If she’d married me, I’d never have started as a producer.”

That was a good outcome for the theatre; but happily for him it was in the theatre that he met — and married — another woman, the actress Susan Hampshire. He saw her in a play at Hampstead in 1981 and invited her for dinner. They were married within three months. She was loyal to the end, surrendering her acting career to care for him when he developed dementia.

Although he lost a lot of money in the Lloyd’s shareholders scandal in the early 1990s, more theatrical luck came his way. In 1992 he was founder chairman of the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), which took over the Duke of York’s Theatre on St Martin’s Lane, and the Daily Telegraph obituary says he “was a key figure in ATG’s early rise. It is now the world’s leading live theatre company, with almost 50 venues across Britain, the US and Germany. He remained ATG’s life president and a major shareholder.”

The Telegraph also quotes him saying, “I wouldn’t say I’ve made a lot of money in my life. I’ve lost rather a lot.” In another 1999 interview, he contrasts his philanthropic efforts in theatre to those in sport:

“I probably lost about £2 million in the theatre, but … people didn’t consider it charity, they considered it bad business. When I came into athletics I lost horribly, but everyone considered me a great benefactor.”

As The Times also puts it,

“None of the few extravagances he allowed himself cost anything like the amount he contributed to athletics or the theatre…. When questioned about his motives, Kulukundis would typically muse: ‘What have I got out of it? Well, I have met a tremendous amount of really nice human beings through the sport — and I have got a knighthood. Who would ever have thought I would get that, just for helping people?'”

Who indeed? The selflessness paid back.

And as I’ve travelled my theatrical path, I’ve had the good fortune to meet people like him, who have similarly come from big business backgrounds, often as CEOs and founders of their own businesses, who’ve been likewise generous with their support of theatrical organisations like the National, Donmar and Almeida Theatres. It started for me with a National Theatre fundraiser many years ago, where some whizz in the development department asked if I might consider putting myself forward for a silent auction, in which people would bid to attend a first night at the National Theatre with me and have dinner afterwards in the theatre’s restaurant with them.

I readily (but nervously) agreed. The nerves were because I worried that no one might actually bid to spend an evening with me. But when I turned up at the Roundhouse in Camden that night — where the fundraiser dinner was held — I found that I’d been “bought” for £2,000. The couple who had done so were regular and prominent supporters of the theatre’s work; and they’ve remained friends ever since. (So my gesture of support for the NT’s fundraiser paid back, too). And through them, I’ve met several other theatrical benefactors in turn.

Like Kulukundis, they have each been massive theatre fans — and have now become friends, too. I wish I’d known Kulukundis. With a theatregoing habit similar to mine, I suspect we’d have got on.